The Lay of the Land

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Southwest Virginia Project
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From Source:Campbell, 1921

The broad expanse of level country that stretches westward from the South-Atlantic seaboard reaches in the Carolinas a width of one hundred to one hundred and fifty miles. As one moves up the leisurely watercourses the land becomes more rolling, a hill country begins to appear, and the rivers issuing from it descend in steep cascades and rapids to the plain below. One has, according to the geographers, crossed the Coastal Plain, which first appears south of New York harbor as a narrow strip bordering the sea, and extends southward in an ever-widening zone. The cascades mark that famous "fall line" where rivers fall from the Piedmont Plateau to the low-lying lands of the coast. Here in early days were established the first trading posts, and here later grew flourishing cities.

Further separating the Coastal Plain from the Carolina Piedmont extends a broad strip of piney barrens. Beyond these barrens, as one continues westward, the Plateau becomes more rugged, the rivers divide and fork into innumerable branches and rivulets which cut their way through a stiff red soil. The forests change in character, the air grows cooler, until at length against the horizon there lifts a misty blue line. Nearer, it resolves itself into a lofty range of peaks, still hung with blue haze, and fronting the southeast with precipitous rocky cliffs.

Here at last is the Blue Ridge. At its foot the early hunter, eager to add to his string of pelts, paused, fearful of hidden foes beyond the ridges. Here, too, the cattle-driver, following in his steps, stopped to raise his rough shelter in the wilderness. And here, still later, the pioneer settler, gazing up at the formidable barrier, halted his pack-horse or wagon and built his cabin by the side of a rushing stream.

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The traveler today, weary from his long train ride, looks out at the railway winding serpent-like up the face of the mountain and no longer wonders why westward expansion from the South Atlantic seacoast was so slow. He wonders rather that the first advance to the Far West was begun across this mountain country at a time when the settlers of New York State had scarce ventured beyond the Valleys of the Hudson and the Mohawk, and when Maine and Vermont formed one frontier of a New England which was just beginning to cross the Berkshire barrier.

History has concerned itself but little with our Southern Highlands, except in incidental fashion as it has dealt with movements, early and later, across the mountain barrier to the west, and with settlements within the mountains, notably in the Valley of Virginia and in the Holston region, which marked or contributed to these western movements. From these movements and settlements, however, came the early population of the Highlands, and a brief review of them and their sources is an integral part of any study of the region.

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