Where is Southwest Virginia?

political jurisdictions in southwestern Virginia
political jurisdictions in southwestern Virginia
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Today, the southwestern edge of Virginia is Cumberland Gap. At one time, however, Virginia stretched much further west. After Virginia ceded its western land claims to the new national government in the 1780's, the southwestern edge of the state was on the Mississippi River.

Kentucky became an independent state in 1792, so at that point Virginia no longer included the Cumberland River watershed west of the Allegheny Front. The shape of Virginia's western boundaries changed again after West Virginia became an independent state in 1863, leaving only a tiny portion of the Levisa Fork, Big Sandy, and Tug Fork watersheds in what became Southwest Virginia.

shaded relef image of Virginia
shaded relef image of Virginia
Source: National Biological Information Infrastructure

Not all of the Virginia mountains are in the southwestern part of the state. However, the mountains are significant barriers to travel there - and the rivers run the wrong way. Well, "wrong" is a relative term, but most of Southwest Virginia is in the Tennessee River watershed.

If you consider Pulaski, Giles, and Bland counties to be "Southwest Virginia," then the New River watershed still drains away from the Atlantic Ocean. So one way to define the region is by the Eastern Continental Divide, with all the lands west of the divide in Southwest Virginia.

Montgomery County is split by the Eastern Continental Divide running through the county, however. If you think Virginia Tech and Blacksburg are in Southwest Virginia, rather than Southside or the Shenandoah Valley or some other region, then you may be a "lumper" who includes Roanoke in Southwest Virginia too.

You could define Southwest Virginia as the region west of the Blue Ridge and *not* in the Chesapeake Bay watershed... The Roanoke River runs to Albemarle/Pamlico Sound rather than to the Chesapeake Bay. It was not until the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad connected the region with Lynchburg that crops and goods produced west of the Blue Ridge and south of the James River could be transported easily to the Fall Line cities of Richmond and Petersburg.

Eastern Continental Divide in southwestern Virginia - the coal country of the Appalachian Plateau drains into the Ohio River
Eastern Continental Divide in southwestern Virginia - the coal country of the Appalachian Plateau drains into the Ohio River
(see names of watersheds)
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Watersheds

If you prefer a narrow definition of specific regions of Virginia, you could try to restrict the definition of Southwest Virginia to the Appalachian Plateau. This would limit it to Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise counties. However, this narrow interpretation might be a better definition for "Appalachia" rather than "Southwest Virginia."

Ask many residents in Northern Virginia, Richmond, or Hampton Roads to name one place in Southwest Virginia, odds are the first place to be mentioned by a high percentage of people will be Roanoke...

According to the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission, however, modern "Southwest Virginia" includes Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Floyd, Franklin, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Patrick, Pulaski, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe county, plus the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton and Radford. The commission obtained nearly $20 million in state and Federal funds to build a tourism gateway center on I-81 known as Heartwood, where visitors could "see the work of regional artisans and musicians and find out about Southwest Virginia's history, heritage, outdoor recreation and scenic beauty". That facility was intended to increase regional employment and celebrate regional heritage, and the urban center of Roanoke was not included within the boundaries of the Southwestern Virginia region.1

the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission defines the Southwest Virginia region by the boundaries of 19 counties and 4 cities (excluding Roanoke)
the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission defines the Southwest Virginia region by the boundaries of 19 counties and 4 cities (excluding Roanoke)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Unique Natural Values

Burke's Garden is considered to be one of the biologically-richest areas of the state. A unique family of salamanders have evolved in the region too, the Plethodontids. Since the area was never glaciated, and it has been at the crossroads of various plant and animal migrations in the last 200 million years, it is not surprising that the Appalachian Mountains have evolved a flora and fauna of great variety. However, the impact of farming the river bottoms, harvesting timber from the hillsides, and mining coal have changed the habitat dramatically in the last 250 years.

The greatest concentration of endangered species in Virginia now is the clams and mussels of the Tennessee River watershed. Degraded water quality, disturbance of the river bottom, and now invasive species threaten the biological diversity of the region.

Burkes Garden, one of the biologically-rich areas on Southwestern Virginia  (and known sometimes as God's Thumbprint)
Burkes Garden, one of the biologically-rich areas on Southwestern Virginia (and known sometimes as "God's Thumbprint")
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Burkes Garden 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (1941)

Urban Growth (or Lack Thereof...)

Southwest Virginia is at the headwaters of the Tennessee River watershed. The Powell, Clinch, and Holston rivers are only marginally navigable, and never became major transportation corridors. (The Holston was used to ship large quantities of salt from Saltville to Kingsport, Tennessee.)

Southwestern Virginia was far from Jamestown, and far from Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, it was slower to develop than eastern Virginia or the Shenandoah Valley.

Even today, Virginia's 5 largest cities (Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Richmond, and Newport News) are on the James River between the Fall Line and the Atlantic Ocean. That has its advantages - author Sherwood Anderson moved to Marion in 1925 because he "had grown tired of city life and wanted the quiet intimacy of life in a smaller place..."

It was not until the 1740's that settlers like the Ingles and the Draper families settled on the New River near modern-day Blacksburg. "Dunkards Bottom" was named after the religious group that found freedom to worship on the frontier, as well as economic opportunity.

The frontier heritage of the region is still evident today in its religious patterns. Baptists of various "flavors," and independent churches not associated with any denomination, are the most common religious organizations in the region. At one time, Primitive Baptists dominated the area around Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County. That group preferred an uneducated preacher, because such a man was less likely to modify the word of God to impart his own bias as the heavenly messages flowed through him to the audience. A strong-willed Presbyterian missionary, Bob Childress, established a different perspective in the area as described in The Man Who Moved a Mountain by Richard C. Davids (Fortress Press, 1970).

The isolation of the region has shaped its people, but also limited its growth and economic development. Even the coal production of the Appalachian Plateau counties of Wise, Dickinson, and Buchanan was delayed while coal fields closer to markets were brought into production. The Pocahontas coal field in Tazewell County was 100 miles closer to Richmond and the ultimate export port, Norfolk. To the west, Kentucky coal in Middlesboro was closer to the Ohio River.

Now, with coal mining so automated, finding jobs for all the residents is a major challenge. While other regions in Virginia have grown substantially since 1980, Southwest and Southside in particular have stagnated. Economically, Southwest Virginia still remains far out of synch with Tidewater and Northern Virginia. 2010 Census statistics show how little has changed since 1995:

Southwest Virginia was a destination, a place to settle, just once - between 1750-1800. That's when the valleys between the ridges were converted from forest to farm. The region was also a destination for capitalists and their hired labor between 1880-1920, when the timber and coal barons "harvested" the natural resources of the region.

Southwest Virginia was "on the way to somewhere else" just once. The Wilderness Road led through Cumberland Gap to the fertile Bluegrass Region of Kentucky. Travel was greatest between the end of the French and Indian War (1763) and the Louisiana Purchase (1803). Prior to 1750, settlement was limited to the Shenandoah Valley and the North Carolina Piedmont. At the end of the period, the Ohio River offered a better transportation route westward. When Meriwether Lewis left the East Coast for their exploration to the Pacific Ocean, he floated down the Ohio River to meet William Clark at the Falls of the Ohio (modern-day Louisville) rather than walked through Cumberland Gap.

Not surprisingly, Southwest Virginia is not a highly urbanized area. Towns are scattered, and there are only two metropolitan areas. In 1999, Roanoke had 231,400 people in the Metropolitan Statistical Area (including the city of Salem) and Bristol has 91,000 in the Virginia portion of the Metropolitan Statistical Area. There are few other cities in the region, and they are small in both size and population. The smaller cities are essentially stable in population... and there are more people at a high school football game in Northern Virginia than in most of them:

City1999 Population
Clifton Forge4,300

Why is the region so rural? Ask the question from the other direction - why would urban areas get established in Southwest Virginia? There's no Fall Line west of the Blue Ridge, no reason for population to expand at one place because shippers needed warehouses and a labor force there to shift modes of transportation from wagon/canal boat/railroad to transatlantic ship.

far southwestern Virginia has lost population since the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929
far southwestern Virginia has lost population since the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929
Source: Bureau of Census Thematic Maps, Percent Increase/Decrease in Population Density 1930-2000

There are few locations with natural incentives for urban development. The New River has some waterfalls, but the industrial potential from waterpower was marginal.

Fries in Grayson County started as an industrial center using New River waterpower to manufacture textiles, and Radford took advantage of the hydroelectric potential by constructing a dam at the mouth of the Little River. The Claytor Lake Dam on the New River, near the Little River Dam, is a pre-World War Two project that is still a major source of electrical power for a power company now known as AEP.

Southwest Virginia is unusually rich in minerals. The salt deposits at Saltville made that site a target for Yankee raids in the Civil War, but processing the brine required just simple tools and skills so there was no reason for a large community to grow there. The Iron Mountains on the northern edge of Grayson County supplied charcoal-fired furnaces with the ore for producing pig iron, but each furnace was essentially a small iron plantation rather than the core of an urban center.

Similarly, the lead deposits at Austinville in Wythe County were easy to extract and process. A shot tower remains from the days when bullets were produced in mass, but much of the lead was sold as raw ore to the end users who then molded it into bullets as needed.

Mining coal in Virginia was economic only after railroads were built through the valleys and mountains. (The first railroad in the state was built to carry coal from Midlothian to Richmond, and mules/horses pulled cars on rails in the days before locomotives.) Communities developed in flat places where the steam-powered locomotives and hopper cars hauling coal could be "marshalled." (Norton was named for the president of the Louisville and Nashville RR, Eckstein Norton, which completed the Clinch Valley branch in 1891.)

Coal was transported away from the area, literally fueling the growth of East Coast and later Ohio River cities. Within Virginia, Roanoke's growth was spurred by the Norfolk and Western Railroad and later the Virginian Railroad, now combined in the modern Norfolk Southern Railroad. They hauled coal from the Appalachian Plateau to Norfolk. Bluefield and Clifton Forge developed as railroad centers for the rival C&O Railroad (now CSX Railroad) hauling coal to its preferred port, Newport News.

Coal traffic was so heavy that the C&O even built a railroad trestle along the James River shoreline in Richmond, to bypass the congestion. That trestle is one piece of visible evidence today that the mineral wealth of Southwest Virginia spurred development outside the region - and the demographic/economic statistics show how little of the coal and timber wealth stimulated growth with the local area. Norfolk and Newport News may have seen more economic benefit from coal mining than Tazewell, Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise counties.

"No Transportation (Transportation?) Without Representation"

travelers on the Wilderness Road headed through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky often walked south into Tennessee before turning northwest, to avoid crossing multiple ridges in southwestern Virginia
travelers on the Wilderness Road headed through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky often walked south into Tennessee before turning northwest, to avoid crossing multiple ridges in southwestern Virginia
Source: Tennessee State Library and Archives, Daniel Boone & the Wilderness Road

The Wilderness Road was created as a southern extension of the Great Philadelphia Road. Daniel Boone's family followed it to the upper Piedmont of North Carolina, and then Boone himself carved the path over the Cumberland Gap and into the bluegrass country of Kentucky.

Other than this trail and the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad built in the 1850's, transportation into and out of Southwest Virginia was severely restricted until the railroads were built into the coal fields in the 1890's. The rivers led into other states, and it was a long long journey to New Orleans down the Tennessee. The isolation could have caused the region to join with other western counties into an enlarged version of West Virginia, had the Compromise of 1850 eluded the politicians and the Civil War had occurred 10 years earlier.

Twenty years earlier, in the 1829-30 Constitutional Convention debates, the political debate in Virginia was clearly divided by region rather than political party. Western Virginians objected to the unbalanced funding of "internal improvements" that benefitted primarily Tidewater Virginia, and to the unfair representation of Eastern Virginians in the General Assembly.

From the early days of the House of Burgesses until the Virginia Constitution was revised in 1830, each county elected two representatives to the General Assembly. There were many small counties in the Tidewater region of the state, so a resident of Tidewater Virginia had more "clout" in the legislature than a resident west of the Blue Ridge.

Eastern Virginians had articulated the concept that fair taxation had to be based on fair representation during the American Revolution. Still, the Tidewater planters had their self-interests to consider. They feared that westerners would change the tax structure of Virginia so slaves, a "property" held primarily by Easterners, would be taxed more heavily to support internal improvements in the western region. Control of the General Assembly allowed the easterners to maintain low property taxes on slaves, requiring a relatively high property tax on land so the state could finance government operations.

Thus two Virginians with the same total value in property could end up paying significantly different taxes. Easterners who had their assets in slaves paid less taxes on their property than westerners with the same total value of property, but who owned primarily land. Westerners thought that the east should invest in improving transportation west of the Blue Ridge, because over time the entire state would benefit.

This argument failed in a General Assembly dominated by easterners. The western counties then pushed in the Constitutional Convention for a different electoral process, one where the numbers of white men in an area would determine the number of representatives elected to the General Assembly. After changing the composition of the General Assembly, they hoped to change the tax structure.

Political debates on taxes continue today, though of course slavery is no longer part of the discussion. Governor Gilmore was elected on a campaign of "No Car Tax" in 1997, and candidates since Henry Howell in 1973 have campaigned on proposals to eliminate the sales tax on food and medicines.

However, political alliances are so fluid in the modern era that long-term sectional disputes are rare. When Northern Virginia desired increased funding for road construction to deal with rapid population growth, for example, the regional delegation allied with representatives from Southside and Southwest Virginia. That provided a majority in favor of new funding for improving US Route 58 parallel to the North Carolina border, along with the roads in Northern Virginia

In the 1850's, Governor Henry Wise, an easterner from Accomack County, sought to overcome the sectional split within Virginia. He wanted east and west to agree and for the South to present a solid front against the Northern states. Wise advocated building railroads and roads to connect the Southwest with Tidewater.

Just as George Washington thought a canal connecting the Potomac and Ohio rivers would help bind western settlers to the Atlantic Coast region, Wise anticipated that transportation corridors would reshape the economic and political landscape of western and southwestern Virginia:2

"Western Virginia as well as Eastern would have slaves, slavery would become more diffused, our interests would be at once more homogeneous and they could not tax us without equally taxing themselves.

The railroad acomplished what Wise predicted. Subsistence agriculture was replaced by a cash crop economy. Farmers recognized the economic opportunity, and in the 1850's began to grow tobacco for shipment to the Fall Line cities via rail.

Even today, Southwest Virginia is one of the two prime tobacco-growing sections of the state. Unlike Southside, however, the farmers in Southwest Virginia grow burley tobacco. The whole stalk is harvested and strung up in barns to be air-dried, whereas tobacco farmers in Southside harvest the leaves individually and flue-cure their crop.

Slaves were brought to Southwest Virginia to provide the labor. Though the percentage of slaves in the region was never as high as in the east, the religious allegiances were different, and other cultural distinctions separated east and west Virginians... the overall economic, cultural, and political patterns in the region finally aligned with that of the Tidewater planters in the 1850's.

When the Civil War came, the counties in Southwest Virginia with access to the railroad stayed loyal to the South. The minset of these counties was comparable to the mindset of the easterners. In contrast, the residents of those counties on the Appalachian Plateau further north lacked a strong tie to Richmond, and were incorporated into the new state of West Virginia.

However, they were sympathetic to the stance of the Democratic Party. By including most of the Appalachian Plateau counties into the new state of West Virginia, the Republicans sowed the seeds of their own destruction in the state over which they had total control in creating. West Virginia avoided Reconstruction, but after the Civil War its voters allied with the Solid South for a century.

During the Civil War, Southwestern Virginia furnished its share of soldiers - the novel Cold Mountain describes some of the changes stirred up by the men leaving the area, and then returning at the end of the war.

One lawyer from Bristol, John Mosby, came north to fight with Jeb Stuart and ultimately lead his own band of partisan rangers. Others contributed without leaving home. Workers at Saltville increased production of salt for the Confederate states. A clue to the integration of Southwestern Virginia with the rest of the state is that areas that suffered from Yankee cavalry raids, including Saltville and Pulaski and Radford, did not become disaffected or disloyal to the Confederacy. In contrast, East Tennessee remained a Union-leaning section of that state throughout the war.

The Tri-Cities Region

State Street in downtown Bristol is the border between Virginia-Tennessee
State Street in downtown Bristol is the border between Virginia-Tennessee
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Bristol is split between Virginia and Tennessee; the state line runs east-west along Main Street downtown. Recently, the focus has been on cooperative, region-wide efforts to encourage economic growth and improve educational quality in the "Tri Cities" region.

The other two cities are Kingsport and Johnson City. Both are in Tennessee, downstream from the Virginia border. The Bristol Herald Courier newspaper provides a regional perspective, and in 1999 the TN/VA All-America City Partnership won an All-America City award for the region rather than one incorporated political unit.

Washington, Russell, Smyth, Wise and Scott counties, and the cities of Bristol and Norton, were members of that 1999 partnership - but Lee County was not. It was too far outside the metropolitan area.

And in the Future?

New highways to "open up the region" are too expensive, especially when you take into account the mitigation now required for environmental impacts. To expand US 460 through Grundy, the state had to move the entire town up to a new plateau, away from the river.

With automation, there's not much demand for coal miners these days, even before the coal finally is mined out. The railroad is equally automated - the large switching and marshalling yards in Appalachia and Norton are historically fascinating, but economically irrelevant.

Forest products have potential... but limited potential. A new chip mill in Dickinson County will harvest timber from 1,500 acres/year above low-value coal lands. Chipping raw material for manufacturing oriented strand wood products (chipboard) will provide only a handful of jobs, however. In addition, companies headquartered in Richmond (such as Pittston Corp.) or "up north" don't reinvest profits in the local community, but instead transfer them to stockholders who rarely live in Southwestern Virginia. And hard-working Southwestern Virginians are also unionized in many places. At the Mullican Lumber and Manufacturing Co. in Norton and Appalachia, the workers voted in August, 2000 to be represented by the United Mine Workers of America.

So it's hopeless, unless a Southwest Virginia politician can become as powerful as Senator William Byrd from West Virginia? (Senator Byrd was able to "encourage" Federal agencies to locate major employment centers in the Appalachian backcountry.) The suburban "rings" of counties around Virginia's urban centers will grow, high school graduates from Lee and Scott and Russell counties will move away for schools and jobs - and never return? Is Southwest Virginia destined to wither on the vine?

Maybe, but all trend lines are not reliable. Just because Southwest Virginia has always been isolated physically from population centers and market cities does not mean the circumstances won't change.

With the advent of the Internet, there may be a cost-effective way to connect the region to other areas. Fiber-optic lines are easy to string through the mountains. Southwest Virginia can be just as close to Chicago and Paris and Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires and Baghdad as New York, Washington, San Francisco, etc.

Under these circumstances, being in a population backwater could be an advantage. Tiny counties in the mountains, not just in the Southwest but also like Bath and Craig and Highland counties, could pitch their natural beauty, reliable workforce, relaxed way of life, easy commutes, and other characteristics of a rural community as advantages.

For example, Genomatix Corporation (a genetic materials manufacturing company that "specializes in producing combinatorial sets of DNA vectors that can be used for comparative transgenic studies in cell lines and organisms") announced on May 26, 2004 that it would relocate from Cincinnati, Ohio to Blacksburg and Roanoke. As the company said in its news release:3

According to Thomas D. Reed, Ph.D., Genomatix Chairman and Chief Science Officer, the company has spent almost two years considering relocation options in the Eastern United States. "We selected the Roanoke/ Blacksburg area for several reasons," said Reed. "Many of our existing and potential customer and partnering relationships are located within an extended life sciences corridor that runs from Upper New Jersey, south to the Atlanta/Birmingham area. Roanoke positions us close to the middle of that corridor, with the added advantage of being in direct proximity to Virginia Tech and UVA-Charlottesville, both of which are very strong life sciences institutions." ...Reed concluded, "We also couldn't help being attracted to the natural beauty of Southwestern Virginia. All of us are excited to be here and enjoy our first summer in the New River Valley region."

Already, phone companies are setting up call centers in communities in Southwest Virginia. When you get operator assistance, you don't know where the operator is located... and they could be in Norton, if you are dialing operator assistance from Winchester or Virginia Beach. The Communications Workers of America Local 2204 represents the Verizon employees in Dryden as well as Norton - the boundaries of that local stretches all the way east to Roanoke. So it should come as no surprise to discover that Representative Rick Boucher from the Ninth District was a major leader in writing new telecommunications law, or that Verizon (formerly Bell Atlantic and GTE) was a major campaign contributor?

If you were an elected official from the region, or appointed to be director of an economicdevelopment administration in Southwest Virginia, how would you define the strengths of your community and the advantages of moving there?


when settlers moved down the Great Wagon Rodand Wilderness Road into southwestern Virginia in the 1700's, the territory was controlled by the Cherokee (blue line) - but by the time of the American Revolution 50 years later, Cherokee land claims (red line) were reduced substantially
when settlers moved down the Great Wagon Rodand Wilderness Road into southwestern Virginia in the 1700's, the territory was controlled by the Cherokee (blue line) - but by the time of the American Revolution 50 years later, Cherokee land claims (red line) were reduced substantially
Source: University of Texas, Perry Castaņeda Library, Cherokee Country by James Mooney 1900


1. "Heartwood Frequently Asked Questions," Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Commission, May 24, 2011, http://www.heartwoodvirginia.org/PressRoom.aspx (last checked May 13, 2014)
2. Kenneth W. Noe, Southwest Virginia's Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 29
3. "Genomatix Corporation Relocates to Southwestern Virginia" news release, May 26, 2004, www.genomatix.com/GenomatixRelocates.htm

(last checked June 2, 2004)

in far southwestern Virginia, the Valley and Ridge physiographic province is bordered on the northwest by the relatively flat topography of the Appalachian Plateau  and on the east by the Blue Ridge (including Mount Rogers, highest peak in Virginia)
in far southwestern Virginia, the Valley and Ridge physiographic province is bordered on the northwest by the relatively flat topography of the Appalachian Plateau and on the east by the Blue Ridge (including Mount Rogers, highest peak in Virginia)
Source: USGS National Elevation Dataset, NED Shaded Relief - Virginia

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