Win tickets to see the smash hit musical Mamma Mia at the Roanoke Civic Center. Two winners will each receive four tickets!
Courtesy of Wade Gilley
This photo of Wade Gilley’s great grandparents was taken in 1927 (or so) in Hilltown, Carroll County, with all of their children. The matriarch was born in 1847 into a fairly well-off Wythe County family, who gave her enough money to buy several hundred acres of farmland in 1867 when she married John Robert Hill.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Being a native Virginian with strong roots in Southwest Virginia, I read Jim Glanville’s Roanoke Times article a few months ago with great interest (“Western Virginia shaped America,” Sept. 13, 2012 commentary). He is right in saying that the western wedge of Virginia was a place that people traveled through to settle the nation, but many stopped and planted roots.
Looking back over the decades, I find Southwest Virginia to be a very dynamic place. For example, I grew up near Fries, which was founded at the turn of the 19th century by Col. Francis Fries, an American innovator who also founded Wachovia Bank and another planned city — Mayodan, N.C. He also built a railroad to connect Mayodan with Roanoke, the Roanoke and Southern Railway, which became the Norfolk and Western rail system in 1892.
And there were many other American leaders who found their roots in Southwest Virginia, including the father of Texas, Stephen Austin, whose family founded Austinville in Wythe County.
These are only a few of America’s leaders who lived in Southwest Virginia, as this section of Virginia contributed to the growth and development of both the nation and Virginia throughout the years.
When we lived in Wytheville in the 1960s and early 1970s, on cold winter days I would put on my overcoat and walk over to the courthouse to conduct the research on my family history as requested by my inquisitive Fries/Hilltown mother.
I learned that a great-great-great-grandfather had left King George County in 1762 to join the British army moving northwest to fight the French and Indians. He survived the war and stopped in Staunton on the way back home to marry a widow. They had one child and then he died, apparently of an infection. She remarried and moved to Wythe County, taking my great-great-grandfather with her. Her son is the principal ancestor of literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of Southwest Virginia natives.
I learned that in 1867 my great-grandmother married a man named Hill and moved to Carroll County. They bought a large tract of land with the cash from the sale of some land in Wytheville and had 13 children. So I grew up there in Hilltown, near Fries, where I had more than 30 first cousins and more than 100 second and third cousins.
In doing my research, I learned that this branch of my family was quite prosperous and had quite a bit of land, but few, if any, owned slaves. The large family provided the labor to grow, make and sell things. And looking at the various censuses over the decades of the 1800s, I found that while the population of Virginia as a whole was significantly slave (close to 50 percent in Tidewater and Southside), that was not the case for Southwest Virginia.
There was less enthusiasm for the Confederacy in the western counties of Virginia, and that was why being a Lincoln Republican was a dominant political stance in the mountains of Virginia until the coal mines brought labor unions to the state. The people there did not want to tear America apart for the plantations and slave owners in Southern Virginia, which they did not favor.
Finally, in doing this research, I learned that there are a lot of Jewish genes in the Valley of Virginia, which was the question my mother was always interested in, as she believed we had Jewish roots. Jews could not own property in England after King James unless they converted and became members of the Church of England. So many hid their religion, packed their bags and headed to America.
Many people came up the Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia as they traveled west to seek free land, but when reaching the mountains they turned south to go down the Valley of Virginia. People with diverse heritages found paradise in the western Valley of Virginia because they had escaped government-imposed discrimination in England and all of Europe and found a free and energetic place to live — Southwest Virginia.
I have had the opportunity to travel to five continents and more than a dozen foreign countries as well as many U.S. states, and I still believe there is no place quite like Southwest Virginia. The region has character, history and a unique population.
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