Salt in Virginia

Plantation Creek marks where tradition says Sir Thomas Dale's saltmakers lived
Plantation Creek next to the Town of Cape Charles marks where tradition says Sir Thomas Dale's saltmakers lived
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

Native Americans in Virginia smoked their fish and deer meat to preserve food, rather than salted it. Trade in salt was not significant in their societies; the Algonquians who controlled the Tidewater region did not make salt and exchange it with Siouian-speaking tribes west of the Fall Line.

Hernando DeSoto's expedition between 1538-1543 did record Native Americans using salt as a condiment. They made it by various techniques, including boiling saline water by placing hot rocks into clay pans. The Hernando Moyano expedition into southwestern Virginia in 1567 attacked a Native American settlement on the Holston River (at the modern town of Saltville in Smyth County) that produced salt from natural brine springs. How the Chiscas used that salt in the 16th Century, or traded it with others, is unclear.

Large-scale salt production by Native American tribes in Eastern North America is documented after colonial settlement created a demand for salt. In the 1600's, the Tunica in Louisiana and the the Onondaga tribe in New York boiled brine from salt springs to make enough salt for trade. In 1755, after the Shawnee captured Mary Draper Ingles from a site on or near the modern campus of Virginia Tech, the raiding party stopped on the way home to make salt from a brine spring on the Kanawha River. Mary Draper Ingles was later taken to Big Bone Lick in Kentucky to make salt, 500 miles away from Blacksburg. Her long journey home to safety from that site, a dramatic tale of personal endurance, was so lengthy because she had been carried to a salt-manufacturing site.1

For the English in Virginia, salt was more than a condiment. It was essential for preserving food in the days before refrigeration.

Colonists used indentured servants (and later slaves) to boil kettles of brackish water to drive off the water as steam, precipitating a crust of mineralized salt. The technology dates back to the days of Romans; the word "salary" is derived from paying soldiers enough to purchase salt. Lewis and Clark made salt by boiling Pacific Ocean water in kettles in the winter of 1805-1806, after they crossed the continent and reached the Oregon coast.2

The first major salt-making operation in Virginia was started by Sir Thomas Dale in 1614. Dale, the marshal of the colony responsible for military defense and discipline, sent colonists to Smith's Island on the southern tip of the Eastern Shore to make salt. The indentured servants were sent to boil ocean water - 35 parts per thousand (ppt) are sodium chloride (NaCl), with the NA+ and Cl- ions in solution. Inside the Chesapeake Bay, fresh water runoff diluted the seawater entering the estuary, while the concentration of salt drops upstream until water on the surface is "fresh" (with less than 0.5ppt) on the James River near Jamestown.

The colonists set up a base on the peninsula, where they stayed when not manning the kettles on Smith's Island in 1614. One traditional story about the Eastern Shore in that their base camp became known as "the plantation," and that name is still applied to the creek next to the Town of Cape Charles. Realistically, the support base would have been closer; walking back and forth from a bayside location to Smith's Island would have wasted most of each day.

The salt manufacturing operation relied upon driftwood and nearby trees for fuel. Saltmakers boiled 250-300 gallons of seawater in large kettles, evaporating the water to produce salt. It was not a desirable job, but the saltmakers were indentured servants working for the company that owned the colony until 1624.

methods used by Lewis and Clark to make salt in 1805-1806 were similar to how the indentured servants at Dale's Gift made salt in 1614-17
methods used by Lewis and Clark to make salt in 1805-1806 were similar to how the indentured servants at Dale's Gift made salt in 1614-17
Source: National Park Service - Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, Frequently Asked Questions

The workers may have named the isolated salt-making site "Dale's Gift" satirically, because it was so far from the protection and social connnections of Jamestown itself. Colonial leaders had idealistic visions of manufacturing enough salt to preserve fish for shipment to Caribbean islands and back to England, but salt production at Dale's Gift lasted less than four years and never produced enough salt to meet all the needs of the colonists in Virginia.

In 1620, a new set of saltmakers were sent to the Eastern Shore. Before abandoning that effort they tried to make salt through solar evaporation in shallow ponds lined with clay - a technique identified in 1613, when Samuel Argall first explored the area and reported:3

Salt might easily be made there, if there were any ponds digged, for that I found Salt Kerned where the water had overflowne in certain places.

Later efforts in the 17th Century to make salt from seawater also were based on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Eastern Shore ("sea side" in local jargon), where salinity was higher than on the "bay side." In 1660, the General Assembly promised Edmund Scarborough (Scarborough) a monopoly on salt production, with a ban on competition from imports, if he could produce 800 bushels of salt. The bar was set too high and Scarborough's arrogant behavior cost him political support from other members of the Virgina gentry, so he lost his monopoly after failing to produce enough salt.4

Col. Edmund Scarborough made salt at Gargaphia Plantation (red X) in the 1660's
Col. Edmund Scarborough made salt at Gargaphia Plantation (red X) in the 1660's
(today, the place name has been modified to Gargathy Bay and Gargathy Creek)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

It required substantial labor to collect the firewood, feed the fire, and boil water in kettles, then scrape the salt out; importing salt produced by slaves on Caribbean islands was less expensive than making salt on the Eastern Shore. During the Revolutionary War, the Americans first established a boycott that stopped importation, and later the British warships blocked most of the trade with the Caribbean.

Virginians struggled to preserve enough beef and pork to feed their families, especially on Piedmont plantations with large numbers of slaves. At the start of the American Revolution, merchants hoarded salt and prices climbed until the Virginia General Assembly established a state monopoly and imposed price controls in 1776. The Virginia Convention (which governed the colony after until the state declared independence) proposed creating 10 state-owned saltworks, with shallow ponds to be constructed for evaporating the brine and precipitating salt.

Either out of ignorance regarding salinity differences or fear of British attack, most of the saltworks were located within the Chesapeake Bay rather than on the sea side of the Eastern Shore. Evaporation efforts failed to generate more than a token amount of salt, and plans to purchase metal pans and boil brackish water floundered over the difficulty of acquiring the pans. The most effective solution turned out to be importing salt from Bermuda and the Caribbean islands via fast ships that could avoid the Bristish blockade.5

Inland from Tidewater, there are no salt lakes in Virginia equivalent to the Great Salt Lake in Utah because there are no depressions in Virginia without an outlet. Just as in Utah, rainfall leaches minerals out of the soil in Virginia, but in Virginia streams carry the dissolved ions downstream all the way to the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.

in 1775, the Virginia Committee of Safety sought to increase the availability of salt by allowing a free market, but price controls were imposed in 1776
in 1775, the Virginia Committee of Safety sought to increase the availability of salt by allowing a free market, but price controls were imposed in 1776
Source: Virginia Gazette (Purdie), December 8, 1775 (posted online by Colonial Williamsburg)

There are a few places in Virginia where salt springs from underground salt beds create "salt licks" on the surface of the ground. Animals seek out the minerals at those locations, and for perhaps 15,000 years hunters have been well aware of the locations where salt from underground formations is carried by groundwater to the surface. Mastodons and other large mammals utilized salty marshes that later were the site of the Chiscas and then today's Saltville; "Big Lick" was an animal concentration point long before it became the modern city of Roanoke.

The few natural salt licks in the western part of the state were identified early by colonial explorers. Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam (or Fellows) explored across the Blue Ridge in 1671, discovering the New River before turning back. Native Americans told them that if they had traveled further beyond the mountains, they would have reached where others "lived on a plain level, from whence came abundance of salt." The Chiscas may have been replaced by Cherokees a century after Hernando Moyano's attack, but the salt springs on the North Fork of Holston (now Saltville) were still being utilized.6

In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker traveled past "the great Lick on A Branch of the Staunton" River. That site, later called "Big Lick," is now in downtown Roanoke. Dr. Walker noted how the mineralized soil attracted game, and how the early settlers had wasted that asset:7

This Lick has been one of the best places for Game in these parts and would have been of much greater advantage to the Inhabitants than it has been if the Hunters had not killed the Buffaloes for diversion, and the Elks and Deer for their skins.

Before the buffaloes, there were mastodons seeking out the mineral springs in southwestern Virginia. Thomas Jefferson saw mastodon bones dug up at Saltville and from a salt lick in Kentucky. He was not aware of the salt springs on the Kanawha River, but in his only published book he noted the existence of three salt springs in Kentucky as well as the one at Saltville:8

The country westward of the Alleghaney abounds with springs of common salt. The most remarkable we have heard of are at Bullet's lick, the Big bones, the Blue licks, and on the North fork of Holston.

The salt resources at the North Fork of Holston (now Saltville) formed when seawater evaporated in tidal flats, in an area similar to today's Persian Gulf or the Gulf of California. Evaporation created concentrations of minerals already dissolved in the seawater, until salts were precipitated as deposits.

The Maccrady Formation, which is rich in evaporite deposits, was folded and fractured as it was deposited 350 million years ago. Thrust faults created during the later Appalachian orogeny moved the bedrock around 20 miles; 280 million years ago, the deposits underneath Saltville would have been located in what is now North Carolina.

The tectonic pressures caused the rock layers to break, created the Saltville fault, and scrambled the underground beds until the once-horizontal beds of salt ended up as fragmented pods and stringers. Groundwater then brought some of that salt to the surface, and humans have exploited the underground resources for 200 years. The largest deposits were of sodium chloride and gypsum (calcium carbonate, CaSO42H2O). Salt has been extracted at Saltville in Smyth County, and gypsum (used for plaster and modern drywall) mined at Plasterco in Washington County.9

Virginia first major commercial production west of the Alleghenies was on the Kanawha River, before the creation of West Virginia. The same springs where Mary Draper Ingles was forced to make salt in 1755 were converted into an industrial production site starting in 1797. The westward expansion of population created a strong demand for salt used to preserve meat and butter, and the product could be flaoted down the Kanawha River to supply settlers all the way to New Orleans.

Within 14 years, wells were drilled over 400 feet deep to tap into the saline aquifers. Saltmakers soon switched from wood to coal to fuel the fires that kept the kettles boiling, and organized the Kanawha Salt Company to monopolize production and control prices. The Kanawha salt industry boomed until a major flood in 1861, followed by the Civil War, disrupted production and altered state boundaries so the site was no longer in Virginia.10

Virginia's first industrial-scale saltworks began in 1797 on the Kanawha River near modern-day Charleston, West Virginia
Virginia's first industrial-scale saltworks began in 1797 on the Kanawha River near modern-day Charleston, West Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, Map of the "Kanawha City" estates, Kanawha County, West Virginia, United States of America (1875)

During the American Revolution and the Civil War, Virginia's salt imports from overseas and the Caribbean were cut off by naval blockades.

the Big Lick station on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad (which developed into the city of Roanoke) was named for mineral-rich springs
the Big Lick station on the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad (which developed into the city of Roanoke) was named for mineral-rich springs
Source: Library of Congress, Roanoke County, Virginia (1865?)

Salt was extracted after 1790. The colonists moving to the western edge of European settlement discovered their water wells were saline - but those colonists needed salt to preserve meat (especially pork) for food.

Waste residue from the saltmaking, discarded into the Holston River, caused Kingsport, Tennessee, to sue. That lawsuit forced Saltville to reduce the pollution that was making Kingsport spend extra money to treat its drinking water.

boiling brine-filled kettles to make salt at Saltville during the Civil War
boiling brine-filled kettles to make salt at Saltville during the Civil War
Source: Harper's Weekly, Interior View Of The Salt-Works (January 14, 1865)
posted online by Son of the South

The same limitation occurred in the Civil War. Coastal plain residents could cope with this hardship, especially by using slave labor to make salt. Across the Blue Ridge, however, salt was expensive and occasionally hard to acquire at any price. Salt imported from the Caribbean had to be hauled upstream, across the mountains on roads barely fit for wagons even at the time of the Civil War. Modern salt production in Virginia is a byproduct. The old minining operations in Saltville created voids in the underground salt beds, and the voids are more valuable today than the salt. In the 1990's, the underground brine was pumped to the surface to create a natural gas storage cavern. During the summer when demand was low, natural gas (transported to Saltville by pipeline, primarily from the Gulf of Mexico) was injected into the ground. During the cold winter months, when the pipeline from the Gulf Coast to Saltville was at capacity, gas was pumped out of that artificial reservoir and sold to customers in the region and further north.

Developing and maintaining the reservoir required pumping brine to the surface, so starting in 2000 the pipeline company began to process the saline water and sell the salt for agricultural operations in the region. Because the original horizontal salt bed deposits were disrupted by tectonic faulting and broken up into underground blocks, the solution caverns ended up being smaller than anticipated. After determining that at least one was 70% filled with rubble, the natural gas storage company reduced its estimate of vlume by 30%.1 Amy K. Gilmer, Catherine B. Enomoto, James A. Lovett, David B. Spears, "Mineral And Fossil Fuel Production In Virginia (1999-2003)," Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Open-File Report 05-04, pp.18-20,; "Saltville Gas Storage," SpectraEnergy,; "Capacity at VA Storage Facility 30% Lower Than Anticipated," Natural Gas Intelligence, October 8, 2007, (last checked June 28, 2014)

Some caverns have collapsed and formed sinkholes on the surface.



1. Carroll E. Smith, Pioneer Times in the Onondaga Country, 1904, p.109,; Jeffrey P. Brain, Bill Day, "On the Tunica Trail," Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission, 1994,; John Ingles, "The Narrative of Col. John Ingles Relating to Mary Ingles and the Escape from Big Bone Lick," 1824, posted online by Boone County Public Library, (last checked July 5, 2014)
2. Online Etymology Dictionary,; "The Salt Works," National Park Service, Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, (last checked July 5, 2014)
3. Jennings Cropper Wise, Ye Kingdome Of Accawmacke Or The Eastern Shore Of Virginia In The Seventeenth Century, The Bell Book And Stationery Co., Richmond, Virginia, 1911, pp.21-25,; Nora Miller Turman, The Eastern Shore of Virginia, 1603-1964, The Eastern Shore News, Onancock (Virginia), 1964, pp.5-6,; Charles E. Hatch, The First Seventeen Years: Virginia 1607-1624, University Press of Virginia, 1957, p.1, (last checked June 28, 2014)
4. Jennings Cropper Wise, Ye Kingdome Of Accawmacke Or The Eastern Shore Of Virginia In The Seventeenth Century, pp.304-306, (last checked June 26, 2014)
5. Larry G. Bowman, "The Scarcity of Salt in Virginia during the American Revolution," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, irginia Historical Society, Vol. 77, No. 4 (October 1969), pp. 465-472, (last checked July 5, 2014)
6. "Batts and Fallam Expedition of 1671," West Virginia Archives and History, (last checked July 5, 2014)
7. Thomas Walker, "Doctor Thomas Walker's Journal (6 Mar 1749/50 - 13 Jul 1750), A Record of His Travels in Present-day Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, 1750, (last checked July 5, 2014)
8. Thomas Jefferson, "Query VI," Notes on the State of Virginia, (last checked June 26, 2014), from "Documenting the American South," University of North Carolina,
9. Robert C. Whisonant, "Geology and the Civil War in Southwestern Virginia: The Smyth County Salt Works," Virginia Minierals, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, August 1996, pp.22-24,; Charles S. Bartlett, "Developmental History and Subsidence Resulting From Salt Extraction at Saltville, Virginia," in K. S. Johnson and J. T. Neal (editors), Evaporite Karst and Engineering/Environmental Problems in the United States, Oklahoma Geological Survey Circular 109, p.338, (last checked June 26, 2014)
10. :History of West Virginia Mineral Industries - Salt," West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, July 19, 2004, (last checked July 12, 2014)

Gargaphia Plantation, site of Col. Edmund Scarborough's saltmaking operations, was recorded as Scharburgs Gargaphra in 1670
Gargaphia Plantation, site of Col. Edmund Scarborough's saltmaking operations, was recorded as "Scharburgs Gargaphra" in 1670
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year 1670 (by Augustine Herrman)

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