Although the region west of the Blue Ridge Mountains had been occupied by American Indians for millennia prior to European contact and was fully incorporated into indigenous concepts of territorial organization, it did not harbor a large Indian population when colonial interests in the area first developed in the 1720s. In a series of conflicts over trade and natural resources that consumed much of the latter half of the seventeenth century, the Five Nations of the Iroquois League had driven most native peoples out of the upper Ohio and Potomac River valleys by 1700. In 1701, as the result of treaties with British and French colonial authorities (the so-called Grand Agreement), the Iroquois established their neutrality in the future imperial wars of European powers and resumed endemic conflicts with southern Indians, namely Cherokees, Creeks, and Catawbas. This situation polarized the political geography of the North American interior, setting northern Indians against southern Indians and leaving Virginia west of the Blue Ridge as a sensitive, highly strategic region in the geopolitical struggles of American Indians. The instability of this situation, aggravated by Indian war parties, diplomatic missions, hunting expeditions, and trading ventures, helps explain the European occupation of the region as a means of securing it within the British empire.
The origins of backcountry distinctiveness are themselves traceable to deep and conflicting historic currents set powerfully in motion not only by the evident tensions between American Indians and Virginians over territorial claims, but also by the stress of imperial conflicts and anxieties over colonial security in a rapidly expanding slave society. Simply put, the character and significance of the Virginia backcountry was the product of political and imperial conflicts embroiling the entire Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. In the historiography of American frontiers, their establishment and development has been attributed to the land hunger of European settlers yearning for the economic independence of property ownership. The immense appetite of Europeans for land, with all its attendant wealth and status, certainly accounts for the westward push of Virginia planters onto the Piedmont in the eighteenth century, as new markets opened for tobacco throughout Europe and new marketing initiatives in the tobacco trade developed in Scotland, where the 1707 Act of Union with England opened trade throughout the British empire for the first time. In the western backcountry, however, the craving for land converged with the security concerns of imperial authorities in London and the colonial capitals. In this sense, the Blue Ridge was to the British colonies what the north of Ireland had earlier been to England—and, in a larger sense, what Gibraltar meant for British access to the Mediterranean.
The major push toward the British occupation of the backcountry began with a series of land orders totaling close to 400,000 acres west of the Blue Ridge, issued by Lieutenant Governor William Gooch between 1730 and 1732. Because most of the recipients—some of whom obtained orders for more than 100,000 acres—were Germanic and Scots-Irish immigrants from Pennsylvania, and because the lieutenant governor had mandated that they recruit one settler family for every 1,000 acres within two years as a condition of receiving their land patents, Gooch's policy let loose a substantial migration of Pennsylvanians to the Virginia backcountry. By 1735 there were as many as 160 families in the region, and within ten years nearly 10,000 Europeans lived in the Shenandoah Valley.
Stark differences in ethnic and racial composition, religious disposition, agricultural economy, and labor organization set the society of frontier settlers dramatically apart from the culture of eastern Virginia. In the eye of colonial authorities in both Williamsburg and London, however, their Protestantism, self-sustaining small-farm communities, and lack of dependence on African American slavery rendered them ideal protagonists in a global struggle with Catholic nations such as France and Spain. In addition, they constituted a potential militia barrier in defense of eastern Virginia and a non–plantation settlement buffer against the threat black maroonage posed to a slave society. Thus, the distinguishing features of Virginia's farthest frontier were owing not only to the appeal of land to diverse European peoples, but also to the coincident uses colonial and imperial authorities were willing to put these peoples for strategic purposes in varied conflicts.
Settlement and Commercial Development
But the nature of backcountry life changed dramatically between 1750 and 1760. In a long-term trend that started in the mid-1740s but accelerated sharply in the 1750s, prices for wheat and flour in the Atlantic economy began to rise. Flour exports from Philadelphia increased sixfold as this prominent port city captured control of the provisions trade with the West Indies and southern Europe. Connected to western Virginia by the Great Wagon Road, one of the longest single roads in early America, Philadelphia transformed the economy and landscape of the backcountry frontier. By late in the 1760s, wheat had become the Shenandoah Valley's primary staple crop: a farmer in the lower valley could grow wheat, grind it into flour at a local mill, sell it on the Philadelphia or Alexandria market, and realize a profit against considerable transportation costs.
The proceeds of flour production then enabled frontier households to participate in a consumer revolution that transformed the British empire into an empire of goods by the end of the eighteenth century. Fine imported wares began to appear on the tables and in the sitting rooms of backcountry houses, often newly enlarged or rebuilt according to the international design principles of Georgian symmetry, balance, and order. What modern architectural historians call an I-house—a two-story dwelling with an exterior end-chimney—became an archetype of architectural improvement in the rebuilt landscape of the old backcountry, by now a settled society.
Defining the transformation of Virginia's backcountry landscape during the last third of the eighteenth century was the development of towns. Although most agricultural commodities—livestock as well as flour— left for market from dispersed farm gates and mills, it was the credit recorded in the accounts of town merchants and the imported goods offered in their markets and shops that concentrated the robust commerce of the backcountry in its towns. A second significant development that stimulated town founding and growth was the global struggle of the Seven Years' War, which embroiled the backcountry in armed conflict from 1754 to 1763. Pontiac's War (1763–1765), waged by Indians against the British in the Illinois and Ohio countries, also engrossed the backcountry in fear and fighting. Fleeing outlying farms and unfortified open-country neighborhoods, farm families sought the security of garrisoned towns such as Winchester. There, and in at least five new towns founded during the conflict, the economic demand created by refugees and the labor they could provide intermingled with the needs of soldiers and camp followers to stir a dynamic economic mix out of which true market-town economies emerged.
1607 - By the time of the European settlement at Jamestown, Siouan-speaking Indians populate the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains while Iroquoian-speaking Indians reside in the Great Valley to the west.
1669 - John Lederer, a German explorer, may be the first white man to visit the Blue Ridge Mountains.
1701 - After the Iroquois sign treaties with British and French colonial authorities (the so-called Grand Agreement), they resume endemic conflicts with southern Indians, namely Cherokees, Creeks, and Catawbas.
1707 - British Parliament passes the Act of Union, opening trade throughout the British empire for the first time.
1710s - Indian territory west of the Blue Ridge in Virginia is not greatly populated, making it susceptible to European occupation.
1716 - Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood promotes expansion into the Blue Ridge Mountains when his "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe" expedition crosses into the Shenandoah Valley. He and a party of about 50 gentleman embark on the expedition; German and Scots-Irish families from Pennsylvania soon follow.
1720s–1730s - British and colonial authorities encourage the settlement of the backcountry of Virginia. Authorities urge non-English Protestant immigrants whose non-slavery-based small-farm communities might create a buffer against Indian attacks and French expansion, and deter runaway slaves seeking to establish independent colonies in the Appalachians.
1730–1732 - The major push toward British occupation of the Virginia backcountry begins when Lieutenant Governor William Gooch issues nine land grants totaling close to 400,000 acres west of the Blue Ridge.
1735 - As many as 160 families are residing in the area of Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
1745 - Nearly 10,000 Europeans live in the Shenandoah Valley.
Mid-1740s–1750s - Prices for wheat and flour in the Atlantic economy begin to rise, in part because of the growing needs of the British military.
1754–1763 - The French and Indian War embroils the backcountry of Virginia in armed conflict, stimulating town founding and growth.
1763–1765 - Pontiac’s War, waged by Indians against the British in the Illinois and Ohio countries, engrosses the backcountry of Virginia in fear and fighting.
February 10, 1763 - Britain, France, and Spain sign the Peace of Paris, ending the Seven Years' War, a global conflict known in North America as the French and Indian War.
Late 1760s - Wheat becomes the primary staple crop in the Shenandoah Valley.
Late 1700s - Settlers push the frontier west to Virginia’s Kentucky counties and the Ohio Valley, marking the end of the frontier period in western Virginia.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Hofstra, W. Backcountry Frontier of Colonial Virginia. (2012, January 31). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Backcountry_Frontier_of_Colonial_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Hofstra, Warren. "Backcountry Frontier of Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 31 Jan. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 25, 2011 | Last modified: January 31, 2012
Contributed by Warren Hofstra, the Stewart Bell Professor of History at Shenandoah University, where he also directs the Community History Project of the university. He has written or edited several books on various aspects of American regional history, most recently Ulster to America: The Scots-Irish Migration Experience, 1680–1830 (University of Tennessee Press, 2011).