If we look at a map of the United States, we see a major difference between the shapes of the eastern and the western states.
The states in the east are small with at least one irregular border while those in the west are large with mainly straight-line borders. Until recent times, borders were set according to important geological features, such as mountains and rivers. People tended to settle in regions that were easy to reach – mountains and rivers slowed the migrations so a settlement formed naturally within their boundaries.
The eastern states formed from the original colonies that had had most of their boundaries determined naturally. The western states had boundaries largely determined by government functionaries drawing lines on maps.
Blacksburg straddles one of those natural barriers: the Eastern Continental Divide. Waters on one side of the Divide ultimately flow to the Atlantic Ocean; waters on the other side to the Gulf of Mexico.
This is an interesting geographical fact but probably of little interest to most people. It turns out, however, that it had a major impact on the early settlement of Virginia.
The area around present-day Blacksburg started to have settlements around 1750 in what was then Indian territory. The earliest English settlers were the Drapers of Draper’s Meadow; the earliest German settlers were the Prices who settled close to the Price’s Fork area.
The Germans seem to have been content with farming and quarrying, but English land agents, such as William Preston, made money by selling and developing more and more lands that were traditional Indian hunting grounds.
This came to a head in the Draper’s Meadow Massacre when the Shawnee Indians attacked the Draper’s Meadow settlement, killing several people and abducting several others (for more details, see the book Follow the River).
Some people consider the Draper’s Meadow Massacre to be one of the opening salvos in the French and Indian Wars. Actually those small wars were part of the Seven Years War in Europe with England on one side and France and Spain on the other. (Another part of that war involved Prussia against Austria, France, Russia and Sweden, with England supporting Prussia against France.)
A rearrangement of territories was made as part of the war’s settlement. In particular, France gave up claim to most of its land in America in favor of England. This left England with vast new American territories which it did not have the capability to govern.
The solution, which was part of the agreement between England and France, was the Royal Proclamation of 1763. It ended British settlement of America at the Eastern Continental Divide – right through the middle of modern-day Blacksburg.
Lands to the east of the Divide were designated for English settlers, lands to the west for Indians. This gave the British Crown the right to all future land uses in the newly declared Indian Territory, taking that right away from the Virginia colony.
This did not have much impact on the few settlers who lived here, but it had a great impact on those in Kentucky and Tennessee who now had no official legal status. In spite of this fact, the now illegal migration did not slow down.
New settlers ignored the Proclamation Line and kept pouring into Kentucky and Tennessee from Pennsylvania and New York along the Wilderness Trail through Blacksburg or Christiansburg. It is worth noting that land agent William Preston built his home Smithfield just west of the Divide.
The Proclamation had a great impact on the rich planters in the eastern part of Virginia who controlled the Colonial legislature. They had planned on making vast sums of money by deeding the lands on the western part of the Divide to themselves, and suddenly that chance was taken from them.
England was left impoverished by the war, so King George compounded his problems with the colonies by raising their taxes to help pay off the war debt.
A good argument can be made that the Proclamation of 1763 led Virginia to join the northern colonies to fight for independence from England.
The men in the House of Burgesses did not want to lose a major source of income and did not want to pay additional taxes to England without representation in the English government.
You can see where the Eastern Continental Divide crosses Main Street in Blacksburg at Sunset Boulevard. A blue line currently crosses the street at that point with Continental Divide signs at both ends of the line.
A more permanent marker is planned when Main Street is next resurfaced.
James Shockley writes a monthly history column. He lives in Blacksburg.