This summer, four Emory & Henry students and their faculty advisor will read, catalogue, index, and digitize hundreds of documents dating back to the early settlement of Southwest Virginia, as part of the Appalachian Center for Community Service’s efforts to tell the story of this place.
Funded through grants from the Appalachian College Association and the Bonner Enrichment Fund of Emory & Henry College, Caitlin Hollaway, a junior from Bristol, Va., Stephanie Taylor, a sophomore from Rye Cove, Va., Joanna Golde, a senior from Asheville, N.C., and Jason Hill, a senior from Hickory, N.C., will assist Tal Stanley, director of the Appalachian Center, with the project. The students will work in partnership with the Wilderness Road Regional Museum in Newbern, Va.
The team of Hollaway, Taylor, Golde, Hill, and Stanley will view the collection, reading the documents, writing a short summary of each document, developing a comprehensive index of names of individuals and families, institutions, farms, businesses, and other entities, and digitizing many of the documents for easier public access.
“This project gives me an opportunity to experience what I want to do for my career,” said Taylor. “I want to be a history professor so I will be doing these sorts of things for the rest of my life. I am very excited about the project because there are so many interesting things you learn from these pages. The documents have a story and that story needs to be told. None of these people were famous; they were just ordinary people, so their story has been forgotten until now.”
Hollaway said she is connected to this work because of her Appalachian heritage. “I was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains, and I care very much about the history and communities of this place. I want to help keep our heritage alive, and this work will allow me to do that.”
At the conclusion of the summer’s work, students will make a presentation to the New River Historical Society about their findings. Stanley said the project, which is too large to be accomplished fully in one summer, is a long-term commitment to the people of Newbern and the New River Valley, and part of his effort to write the deep story of Southwest Virginia. Throughout the years, Stanley has worked extensively with the Wilderness Road Regional Museum and the community of Newbern. His recent book, The Poco Field: An American Story of Place (University of Illinois Press, 2012), focuses in part on Newbern and its connection to American and Appalachian history and culture.
“The story of this place has in it all of the contradictions, conflicts, struggles, and questions of the American story,” said Stanley. “With local inflections and idioms, Newbern’s story is the American story, and by hearing the story of that place, we can understand better who we are and our work as citizens of any place.”
Stanley explained the events that shaped the history of Newbern. Before there was a road or taverns or churches or houses or a town, there was the long ridge. To the north and west of the long ridge, the land was a broad upland plane, the hills lifting and rising to Cloyd and Walker mountains. Here, the limestone soil provided abundant bluegrass for the grazing of cattle and sheep. Two miles to the south and east of the ridge lay the New River. The land between the ridge and river was broken and rough, with limestone outcroppings and numerous springs. At the river, a series of high limestone cliffs bent the river into sweeping horseshoe-shaped bows, before righting itself in its northward trek to the Kanawha and the Ohio. Along the river, in the broad bottomlands, the land was productive in wheat. Halfway between Christiansburg and Wytheville, seven miles west of the river crossing at Ingles Ferry, travelers on the Great Wagon Road ascended this ridge, resting at the crest before moving on. The earliest settlers in this place described the ridge top as “Newbern,” because the view the ridge afforded of the valley and surrounding mountains called to mind the Swiss city of Bern.
Newbern was developed in the last years of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth century as a primary stop on the Great Wagon Road over which settlers travelled to Kentucky and Tennessee and farther on to the old Southwest and Northwest Territories. In addition to the scores of hundreds of settlers that used this primary route through the western valley, chattels of slaves, numbering in the thousands, were transported, sold from the financially bankrupt plantations of Piedmont and Tidewater Virginia to the burgeoning industrial cotton plantations of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and points west. As the commercial center for the surrounding agricultural region and a stop for travelers west, Newbern quickly evolved into a thriving community.
In 1839, Newbern became the first county seat of Pulaski County. In the years following the Civil War, the largest Freedman’s Bureau in Virginia west of the New River was located in Newbern. By the end of the nineteenth century, industrialization built on the iron ore deposits and the production of iron foundries was transforming the countryside and other, newer, places had become more fashionable. Under suspicious circumstances, the Newbern courthouse burned in November 1893, and the county seat was moved to Pulaski. And yet, throughout the next 120 years, Newbern endured, its citizens working together for their place and its people.
One of the repositories of the stories of Newbern and its people is the Wilderness Road Regional Museum. Operated by the New River Historical Society, the museum offers opportunities to hear the story of this place, but also this larger community in the valley through which so many scores of thousands have passed. Moreover, the Wilderness Road Museum helps to tell the larger story of Southwest Virginia and its role in the American story.
The Museum’s holdings include thousands of court records, records from stores and merchants that have operated in Newbern, ferries that serviced travelers across the New River, and individual family records. Many pre-Civil War county records are included in this collection. Moreover, the records of the sheriff office, magistrates, and voting precincts are also available. Together this collection can help trace the story of this place, its intersections with national issues, questions, and struggles, and the ways of its people. This collection also holds promise to expand understandings of how questions of race and class have shaped the history of Appalachia. Like many community-based groups and organizations, the Wilderness Road Museum’s resources are limited, its volunteers overworked, its potential sometimes unrealized. None of this material has yet been catalogued, documented, or indexed.
The digitized documents will be uploaded to the Radford University Library website. Once processed, the original documents will be categorized and placed in archival boxes for storage at the Wilderness Road Regional Museum. In working through the documents, the team will utilize space made available at Kelly Library on the Emory & Henry campus. Gene Hyde, archivist at Radford University, Lorraine Abraham, Emory & Henry chief librarian and an archivist and specialist in digitizing documents, and Robert Vejnar, Emory & Henry College and Holston Conference Archivist, will offer professional support for this project.