Ashe County (1799)

Written By Jonathan Martin

The Creek, Cherokee, and Shawnee were the first Native Americans to inhabit present-day Ashe County.  In 1752, Bishop Augustus Spangenberg, leader of the Moravian church in the colonies, traversed the land and kept a record of his visit.  Awarded a substantial tract of land by the Earl of Granville, Bishop Spangenberg was commissioned by Count Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf to explore and establish a Moravian colony where the church would be free to worship and live. Bishop Spangenberg and his surveying party entered the western of mountains in early December, and he described the winter storms that they encountered: “I think I have never felt a winter wind so strong and so cold. The ground was covered with snow; water froze by the fire.” Even though the group met hardship, the Bishop concluded that the land was suitable for agriculture and raising cattle. Spangenberg’s trip set the stage for future settlement of the Ashe region. 

Both eastern North Carolinians and German, English, and Scottish immigrants moved to the northwestern mountains of North Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century.  The northern migrants followed the Great Wagon Road and the Upper Pennsylvania Road through the Shenandoah Valley.  Hunters and trappers were the ones to make the most of the new land, and David Helton, William McLain, and William Walling, all Virginia hunters, built a house near Helton Creek in 1770.  However, the land remained sparsely populated throughout the rest of the century.  Daniel Boone, a Kentucky trailblazer and epic hunter, has been suspected by some historians to have hunted and traveled all throughout present-day Ashe County in the late 1700s.

Perhaps one of the most tumultuous events of Ashe’s early history is that the region was part of the seven county (Alleghany, Ashe, and Watauga in North Carolina; Greene, Hawkins, Sullivan, and Washington in Tennessee) independent state of Franklin from 1784 until its collapse in 1788. John Sevier, along with several mountain settlers in Ashe, established Franklin because they were angry that the N.C. General Assembly had ceded the undeveloped western land to the federal government through the Resolution of Cession in 1783.  Despite the fervent attitude of Franklin citizens and the relative isolation from state and federal intervention, Franklin disbanded due to the frequent attacks by hostile Cherokee and Creek.  When John Sevier took an oath to North Carolina, Franklin’s fate was sealed.  Historians differ as to why Franklin formed: some contend it was a land speculator controversy, others make a case that it was a democratic movement by western settlers, and more than a few contend that it was a separatist movement by western citizens who refused to succumb to eastern North Carolina landholders.

After Franklin dissolved, the county of Ashe formed quickly because settlers wanted protection from the violent Cherokee.  Therefore, the General Assembly decided to establish Ashe from Wilkes County in 1799.  The county was named in honor of Samuel Ashe, North Carolina’s governor from 1795 to 1798, and in the first years of the county’s history, the citizens soon constructed a courthouse, jail, and town center.  The county’s seat of government, Jefferson, was established in 1803, and it was named after President Thomas Jefferson.  The first communities to develop were those of small family farms around the banks of the New River, but throughout the nineteenth century the area remained sparsely populated.  Other communities that make up present-day Ashe County include Todd, West Jefferson, Lansing, and Glendale Springs.

As more settlers migrated to Ashe, more woodlands were cut down to provide for farm and cattle land.  However, for a short time in the late 1800s, Ashe led the nation in copper mining.  The Ore Knob Mine, a major copper mine during the 1870s and 1880s, was located between West Jefferson and Laurel Springs.  The mine grew so large that the General Assembly decided to incorporate the area in 1875. At the height of its production in 1878, the Ore Knob Mine employed well over 700 miners.  In 1962, the mine shut down indefinitely, and ten years later several businessmen in the area bought the property for $250,000 to establish a historic site.  Today, the economy of Ashe thrives around Christmas time.  Nearly 600 Christmas tree farms are situated within the county, and many families travel to Ashe annually to garner a tree to color their home during Christmas.

Along with the Ore Knob Mine site, several other historic sites and cultural centers rest within Ashe County.  Numerous kayakers travel to the New River State Park whereas other tourists trek the Blue Ridge Parkway. In addition, the Mount Jefferson State National Park is an important place for outdoor recreation.  The natural beauty and mountainous terrain have attracted artists and craftspeople throughout the years, and several Episcopal churches of Ashe County hold frescoes by the famous artist Ben Long. Mountain music is an important cultural trait of the region, and the Ashe County Old Time Fiddler’s Convention brings many musicians to the area annually.  In Glendale Springs, the Mountain Music Jamboree, a weekly gathering place for local musicians and bands, is an important place within Ashe County.  Other impromptu jams and gatherings spring up around the community every weekend.