Having in the previous post delineated at least some major features of Asheville’s geophysical situation (elevation, rings of mountains, rivers, gaps), the eradication and removal of the Cherokees, and early land speculation, we move to consider the streams themselves (demographic and otherwise) that came over the mountains, along the rivers, and through the gaps into the mixing bowl.
Who came? When, in what sequences, and by which of these routes did they come? What did they bring with them (belongings, perspectives, cultural practices and preferences, aims and ambitions)? And what happened at the many junctions that, over the decades, created (and kept on recreating) Asheville?
We cannot answer all of these questions in any definitive way, of course; some documentary evidence is scarce. But at least we can raise them provocatively, collect and assemble bits of the available evidence, and link some of them out to longer discussions available elsewhere. Along the way, we will note the selective and formative effects of particular channels upon the streams that passed through them.
Long before whites arrived in western North Carolina, the state was crisscrossed by eighteen Indian trading paths. Passing near the Asheville site were the Catawba Trail that dropped down from Cumberland Gap and ran partly down the French Broad before reaching the South Carolina border, and the Old Cherokee Path that also ran roughly south from Tennessee to northwestern South Carolina.
More local but also related to the larger network was a Buncombe County path that led from near the present entrance to the Biltmore Estate west to Hominy Creek near the American Enka Corporation (1928).
As Foster Sondley reported in 1922, “parties of Cherokees constantly roamed” in the French Broad / Swannanoa River area and had encampments there (in Chunn’s Cove, on a corner of Riverside Cemetery, and along the Swannanoa). But the Cherokee eradication and removal process of the late eighteenth century left virtually no permanent population near Asheville. Segments of their trails influenced the location of some later roads and highways, however.
For our purpose here, it seems reasonable to observe that the ancient Cherokee (and pre-Cherokee) Native American presence in the Asheville area did not persist beyond 1800 in forms contributory in major ways to what the city became following its incorporation in 1797. (If any reader has or knows of persuasive documentary evidence to the contrary, I would welcome being informed of that.)
A similar statement can be made concerning the passage of Spanish expeditions–the
disastrous one of Hernando De Soto (1539-1543) and the two of Juan Pardo (1566-1568)–all chronicled by historian Charles Hudson and others. There has long been fragmentary evidence that all three expeditions may have traversed the western piedmont of North Carolina, pushed into the foothills, and probably some distance beyond.
Recently discovered evidence near Morganton removes any doubt that Juan Pardo’s troops reached the area and built Fort San Juan at the Native American town of Joara. Exerting pressure on the Indians to continue supplying them food, and having committed “indiscretions” with native women, the Spanish were summarily wiped out. The gold they sought actually lay in abundance close by, but its discovery lay two hundred years in the future.
Opening the Mountains to White Settlers
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 prohibited settlement in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but twenty years later the Revolutionary War ended, the king’s proclamation had no further force, and whites poured in.
Whites had been passing through western North Carolina to trade with the Indians throughout the eighteenth century, but the earliest permanent settlers (Alexanders, Davidsons, Gudgers, and Pattons) gravitated toward the Swannanoa River area from 1784 onward. Samuel Davidson, his wife and baby and a female slave arrived from Old Fort through Hickory Nut Gap and settled at Bee Tree near the site of a former Cherokee town–not, as it turned out, a wise choice. Davidson was soon slain by the Cherokees, and his wife, baby, and slave fled back down the mountain. [See longer account here.]
Putting Asheville Into the Bowl, 1790-1800
Many a city has turned out to be badly located (there is a reason why our celebrated national capital is also called Foggy Bottom). The locations of some have made short-term sense, but less and less as the years passed. Some (e.g., coal, iron ore, oil or gas
drilling, or gold mining towns) were never meant to last beyond the depletion of the sought-after resource. Others (notoriously, lumbering “boom towns”) were shipped in on rail cars and then shipped out again, leaving swaths of devastated landscape, ruptured splash dams and disrupted lives in their wake.
Even some lavish and thriving 19th-century Shenandoah Valley resort towns did not survive the transition from rail to automobile transportation. Clogged cement watercourses, mud-filled warm springs spa pools and collapsed bath houses lie as mute testimony to the evanescence of “development.”
But Asheville has been fortunate. Its geophysically-grounded and environmentally appropriate location has continued to make sense–indeed, a series of types of sense–for more than two centuries.
So many historians (see especially Nan Chase and Foster Sondley in References below) have sketched the founding history of Asheville that there is no need to rehearse those details again here. For those who have not read the story before: Asheville (originally Morristown) was incorporated in 1797 as the county seat of Buncombe County (carved out of Burke and Rutherford in 1791). Settlers from lower elevations such as Old Fort and elsewhere had been filtering into the area (especially along the Swannanoa River) since at least 1780. In 1794, John Burton received two 200-acre land grants from the state at the Morristown site and laid out 42 one-half acre lots (see image above).
If the Asheville that developed at this site was to become the sort of mixing bowl I have suggested, however, that tendency was not much in evidence at the founding and naming. Sondley noted that the list of those who bought Burton’s lots consisted mostly English and (many fewer) Scottish names (Chambers, Foster, Hall, Hamilton, Wilson, Hawkins, Hutchison, Wilson, McFarling). They were chiefly Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, and what they came and saw, they wanted for themselves and their brethren. Forget the mixing pot.
The homogeneity was short-lived, however. Even near-term developments predicted that mixing would occur.
The Coming of the Roads
As with any aspect of social history, it is risky to generalize about new dynamics–such as the coming of commercial roadways and the conveyances designed to take advantage of them. In the case of Asheville for this early period, these would be drovers’ roads, turnpikes, plank roads, and stage coaches.
Nevertheless, two cautious generalizations may be possible: (1) These roadways were designed (the term is increasingly apt as the decades pass) to move large numbers of people and goods over fairly long distances in comparatively short periods of time; and (2) Their origins, placement, orientations and configurations, and destinations had a selective effect upon what moved along them. Where rivers were involved, for example, the location of ferries and bridges (determined substantially by geophysical factors) also had selective and formative effects.
Drovers’ Roads: The drovers’ road that tracked the French Broad and passed through Asheville has been written about repeatedly. There is no need to repeat the usual narrative here, but I want to extend its range a bit if possible, and highlight aspects of the western North Carolina road’s history that will be helpful to my purpose. The stream that moved down the French Broad along the drovers’ road, for example, was substantially unlike the one that came through Saluda Gap.
A one-paragraph summary for those to whom this story may be unfamiliar: Drovers’ roads were not unique to western North Carolina, to Asheville, or even to the period under discussion. Since ancient times they have been used to transport large numbers of animals to market. As the many times reproduced map above shows, the main such road that affected Asheville ran from across the Tennessee line roughly south southeast along the French Broad, past Asheville, through Hendersonville and the Saluda Gap, thence to the South Carolina lowlands.
And who (and what) passed along the Drovers’ Road? There were wagons of deer skins and farm products, but mostly it was livestock on foot and their caretakers. Many years, some 175,000 hogs might pass along the road, as well as cattle, mules, turkeys, geese and ducks until the road was a mess of ruts and mud. “The rain continues to fall,” said Buncombe County native Gov. Zebulon B. Vance, “and our streets are almost impassible with the mud and thousands upon thousands of hogs moving through the town adds to the general filthyness [sic] of everything around.”
The droves of livestock (ranging between 300 and 1,000 head) that passed along the road were headed by drover owners and herded by hog-calling and whip-cracking drivers–a socially, culturally, and (it appears) racially diverse group. And at wherever “stand” (as they were called) particular droves found themselves at nightfall, there was a lively scene: big meals at a common table, joking and bantering, talk about crops, markets, and politics. The most vivid account I have found is in Wilma Dykeman’s The French Broad (1955), from which the following brief description is drawn:
The stands (Garrett’s, Candler’s, Vance’s, Barnett’s, Alexander’s, Allan’s, widow Frisbee’s, widow Patton’s, and others), spaced eight or nine miles apart, offered feed for the livestock and rudimentary food and lodging (a shared narrow bedroom if you were lucky, a space on the floor if you weren’t) for the land- and livestock-owning drovers and their usually paid-by-the-job drivers. Some drivers might be either drovers’ family members or neighbors, but in either case, class and status differences inhered within the system.
The drovers’ road constituted, among other things, a long, narrow, and seasonal (late fall) market economy. Stand owners hoped for heavy traffic, as did farmers along the route, who hoped to sell a lot of corn to them. Owner-drovers marked their animals with registered marks, and paid stand owners for corn and lodging in cash, a note due on their return trip, or maybe even butcherable hogs or cattle grown lame on the journey, hoping that prices at destination markets in Traveler’s Rest, Greenville, Columbia, or Charleston would hold until the drive was over. And keeping up the pace was essential: every extra day on the road meant marketable pounds lost; the head of the line was the most coveted spot when the droves started out in the morning.
For a few, drovers’ road-associated activity led to great wealth that underpinned the class boundaries that emerged early in Asheville. James M. Smith (1787-1856) had the foresight to buy a key French Broad River ferry that served the drovers’ road, invest in the recently-chartered Buncombe Turnpike company in the 1820s.
In 1825 Smith built the Buck Hotel, where he lodged many a drover. In 1834 he replaced his ferry with a wooden bridge, and everything that moved along the road paid him a toll: every wheeled conveyance of any description (25 to 50 cents), every man on foot or horseback (2 to 6.25 cents), every hog, cow, or turkey (1/2 to 2 cents).
Smith quickly became a very wealthy man, began to acquire slaves and built Asheville’s earliest surviving mansion. Significantly also, he married Polly Patton, the daughter of James Patton, who was sole or part owner of nineteen of James Burton’s forty-two lots in the original Morristown plat, built and operated the Eagle Hotel (1814), and became Buncombe County’s second largest slaveholder.
The Smith-McDowell house museum‘s web page offers a brief précis of James Smith’s own social, economic, and political rise:
[Smith] became one of North Carolina’s most influential and leading businessmen, becoming a judge and a mayor and owning a store, tavern, two plantations, a tannery, gold mine and the Buck Hotel. At one time, Smith owned more than 30,000 acres across Buncombe County.
Few became as rich as Smith did, but for many the road functioned as a long line of communication and cultural exchange, in which stands were informational and cultural hubs, other drovers and buyers at the market had and shared news of related markets in tobacco and cotton, and political issues and events were reported and debated.
Some racial diversity also arrived with the system. A stand on the Laurel River was run by a black man, Wash Farnsworth, and Darin Waters’s recent history of the black community in Asheville notes that “many blacks” worked in drovers’ road-related businesses.
Turnpikes and Plank Roads: Interest in developing turnpikes (long-distance toll-roads) in North Carolina arose after the War of 1812, as part of a larger (and ever controversial) push for internal improvements (roads, canals, river and harbor improvements). The General Assembly authorized the first one in 1818, and the much written about Buncombe Turnpike opened fully by 1828. Basically following the earlier drovers’ road, it ran from Greenville, SC up through Saluda Gap, Flat Rock and Hendersonville, passed
through Asheville, and continued to Paint Rock and Warm Springs before reaching Greeneville, TN.
In time, other turnpikes originated elsewhere and passed through through other gaps. The Hickory Nut Gap Turnpike (ca. 1815) was a slightly improved version of an older dirt road.
Plank Roads: Plank roads were usually built of three-inch cross-planks laid on heavy wooden sills on top of a carefully constructed roadbed. Such roads appeared first in eastern and piedmont North Carolina, and later in the mountains. Twenty years after the Buncombe Turnpike opened through Asheville, another one arrived, this time in the form of a plank road.
The Western Turnpike: Legislation to create the Western Turnpike, from Salisbury to the Georgia line, emerged in 1848; surveys were completed by the end of 1849, and construction of the hybrid turnpike/plank road commenced in Asheville the following year. Within a short time the new turnpike had connected with the Buncombe Turnpike. But political wrangling resulted in canceling the Salisbury to Asheville segment. The part that was actually built ran west toward Murphy.
Still, not everyone was pleased even by the reduced scale of the new turnpike. In an 1854 letter to the editor of the Asheville News, one Ashevillian argued that local opposition to it was misguided. “For seventy days,” the writer lamented during a long siege of rain,
all other roads have been almost in a state of blockade, and the mails have been more irregular than for years previous. The ruinous undertaking to travel over our hills and mountains on the old, ante-diluvian mud pike has turned . . . nearly all the travel and trade from us. It is melancholy to see our fine and spacious Hotels . . . deserted, desolate and forlorn . . . . [We] have had ample demonstration in the streets of Asheville, and for seven miles south of town, during this inclement weather, of the value of our Plank Road.
Lodging, Moving (and Sorting) the Stream: Inns and Stage Coaches
Inns: Some of the drovers’ stands discussed above served in the off-season (all but the rather short fall droving period) as inns. As such, they attracted a different clientele–mostly if not entirely wealthy and prominent elites, thus straddling (and inadvertently reinforcing) economic and class lines.
A prominent example was what came to be called Sherrill’s Inn–my brief account of which is taken from an undated article in The Fairview Crier. About 1834 (though the National Register of Historic Places says it was later) Bedford Sherrill bought John Ashworth’s three-room cabin, expanded it a bit, and began to take in paying guests–drovers during the season (to whom he sold corn at a fifty percent profit) and those who could and would pay more during the balance of the year. Surviving inn registers reveal the demographic: preachers and writers; attorneys, judges, and senators; some Confederate officials; several governors and two U.S. presidents; even Christopher Bechtler, who established Bechtler Mint in the early 1830s; and whoever else had the money to pay stage coach fares.
Stage Coaches: With the arrival of the turnpikes (late 1820s) and plank roads (1850s), running scheduled intercity stage coaches proved both possible and profitable. And since the railroad was late in getting to Asheville (1880), the need for such conveyances lasted longer than it did elsewhere. There were many companies, stages approached Asheville regularly from several directions and along several routes (one could choose one’s gap: Swannanoa, Hickory Nut, Saluda, or Jones), and passengers were promised an easy and comfortable trip.
But the details could be daunting: trips were slow at best, generally expensive, and could be risky. An 1831 advertisement (only three years after the Buncombe Turnpike opened) presents an appealing image of a stage coach, but the sixty-mile trip took fourteen to sixteen hours:
Besides the time required, stage coaches were also expensive (and thus sorted the haves from the have-nots). In the advertisement above, the Tates gave the fare as 6 1/4 cents per mile. For a 120-mile Morganton-Asheville round-trip, the total would have been $7.50, at a time when the average farm worker in the U.S. earned about six cents an hour. At such a rate, a single fare would have required about 125 hours of work (or according to another study, more than a month’s wages at $6.00/month in North Carolina, ).
As John Ager notes in his précis of Buncombe County history, a coach from the east through Swannanoa Gap took thirty-six hours and cost eight to ten dollars plus lodging and meals ($2.50). Another coach from Charlotte through Rutherfordton and Hickory Nut Gorge cost comparably. Clearly, stage travel was so expensive that only the wealthy could afford it. Nearly thirty years later, W. P. Blair’s line from Asheville through Warm Springs and to Greeneville TN was still more expensive that most ordinary people could afford:
Turnpikes and plank roads, though far better than what had preceded them, could also be risky for wheeled vehicles pulled by horses, as the following admittedly caricaturish but seriously cautionary image suggests:
Two Markers of the Past
As a public marker of this turbulent period of drovers’ roads, turnpikes, plank roads,
stands and inns, a mini-drove of bronze hogs and turkeys now graces Pack Square. The hogs (and the air) are clean, the formerly unruly turkeys amble docilely instead of flying off into the trees, and the hard-surfaced path muddies no one’s shoes (ole Zeb Vance would have been mighty pleased).
But in some ways a more appropriate marker is the new, insistently private Drover’s Road Preserve (“connecting the present to the past”) south of the city on U.S. 74A, near historic Sherrill’s Inn and the ancient passageway through Hickory Nut Gap.
In a way, the development is the latest arrival in an old stream through an old channel. In the 23-lot Preserve (1.5- to 10-acre lots for around $100,000 per acre, but that includes “a mountain behind every homesite”), prospective buyers are admonished that there are “only a few precious places left.” And it is not just a lot and its mountain backdrop that one is buying:
Our forefathers valued stream and meadow, forest and wildlife; they lived in harmony with their world and preserved the land for future generations. Drovers Road Preserve maintains their legacy . . .
Taking a brief second look, one ponders: “what all” (as we used to say in the mountains) is being preserved in the Preserve? Well, yes, 110 easement-protected acres of the dwindling stock of undeveloped mountain land. One is glad for whatever one can get these days in that regard.
But beyond that: status and privilege (a prominent feature of Asheville’s “heritage,” if one wants to call it that), and the assurance that on one’s own bit of land, “the values you cherish can be at one with a lifestyle you’ve come to expect.” What a deal.
But forefathers were actually a mixed lot, as events continually remind us these days. Among them, commitment to living in harmony with one’s world (whether natural or social) was unequally distributed. And what values we should cherish is currently the focus of intense public debate. Perhaps this brief glimpse into some of Asheville’s most important historic streams and channels may shed a small beam of light upon that debate.
Ora Blackmun, Western North Carolina: Its Mountains and Its People to 1880 (1977); Alex S. Caton and Rebecca Lamb, “Buncombe Turnpike” in LEARN NC; Nan K. Chase, Asheville: A History (2007); Wilma Dykeman, The French Broad (1955); Mark Essig, “The Great Appalachian Hog Drives” in Atlas Obscura; Charles Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms (1998) and The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568 (2005); Barbara Ilie, “Forging West; The Western Turnpike and the Western North Carolina Railroad Company” (2014); John Inscoe, Mountain Masters, Slavery, and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina (1989) and The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (2000); MeasuringWorth.com; Placekeeper.com; web site for Smith-McDowell House Museum; Foster A. Sondley, Asheville and Buncombe County (1922); David Swaim et al., Cabins & Castles: The History and Architecture of Buncombe County (1981); Gaillard S. Tennent, The Indian Path in Buncombe County (1950?); Darin J. Walters, Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900 (2011).