History of the Blue Ridge
“It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here…The rapture of the spectator is really indescribable.”
— Thomas Jefferson, on beholding the wonders of the Blue Ridge
The Blue Ridge Mountains, in some ways more seemingly humble and homespun than any number of more majestic ranges we could think of, are nonetheless one of the oldest, most accessible, and most culturally fascinating ranges in the world.
The Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian range, was created by the uplifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates 1.1 billion to 250 million years ago. At over 1 billion years of age, the Blue Ridge Mountains are among the oldest in the world, second only to South Africa’s Barberton greenstone belt. (By comparison with the Blue Ridge, the Rockies and Himalayas are young “upstarts.”) At the time of their emergence, the Blue Ridge was among the highest mountains in the world. Today, as a result of age and erosion, the highest peak in the system, Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, is only 6,684 feet high – still the highest peak east of the Rockies.
Divided into Northern and Southern sections by the Roanoke River gap, the Blue Ridge traverses 8 states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, with the longest portion slicing a great crescent through all of western Virginia. Starting as a narrow ridge, the range widens as it goes south, stretching 70 miles across at its widest point in North Carolina. The highest point of the Blue Ridge in Virginia is Mount Rogers in Grayson County at 5,729’ above mean sea level.
The distinctive blue that gives this range its name emanates from its mountain forests which release hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Tens of thousands of years ago spruce and fir trees dominated much of the Eastern United States ecosystem. But as the climate warmed, this “cooler” ecosystem retreated to the ridges and peaks of upper elevations, so that only about 100 square miles of this unique habitat remain, almost all of it in the Blue Ridge.
The temperate climate and the rolling, gentle character of the mountains has made the Blue Ridge accessible and attractive from the time of the first settlers . . . which has lent the Blue Ridge a rich history and produced a wealth of lore. Humans arrived in the Blue Ridge perhaps as early as 12,000 years ago. The Siouan Manhoacs, Iriquois, and Shawnee all hunted and fished the Blue Ridge in Virginia, and the Cherokee lived in the Blue Ridge in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
* The mountains played host to foxhunting on foot with hound dogs and night coon hunts. According to FBRM Board member Lella Smith, an historian and writer who grew up on the mountain in her family’s mountain homestead (Oak Grove) on Sunny Ridge, gypsies wandered through the mountains with their mules and horses and painted wagons. The mountains were also the site for civil war skirmishes, the fortifications for one of which still exist, and for the only fort against the Indians (during the French and Indian War) in the Virginia – West Virginia – Maryland triangle. “Dancing grounds,” where paths and lanes crossed and people gathered to dance by moonlight still exist.
** In what was once the small community of Woodgrove (situated on Route 719 between Round Hill and Hillsboro), Conestoga wagon outfitting stations were located to serve those setting out for the “frontier” – considered to be the top of the Blue Ridge in the mid-1700’s.
In addition to the variety of secular activity the mountains have known, they have also taken on a notable spiritual significance. Lella reports that in terms of large areas, the Blue Ridge is considered to be one of only two spiritual areas or centers in the U.S.
*** Cherokee holy people have reported that when Andrew Jackson burned Cherokee villages and marched the inhabitants off to Oklahoma, Cherokee medicine people fled up into the Virginia Blue Ridge. Native American medicine people continue to seek out Oak Grove; one such visitor was Wallace Black Elk (of Black Elk Speaks), one of the two most pre-eminent medicine men in the U.S., who requested permission to conduct medicine ceremonies at the site.
The Blue Ridge is widely-known and highly regarded. Both George Washington, who surveyed the area for Lord Fairfax, and Thomas Jefferson were admirers. The Blue Ridge is the subject of numerous musical tributes and the popular Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic drive along the ridge, connects two of the most visited parks in the National Park system: the Shenandoah in Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains in the southern section. The Appalachian Trail system, which follows the Blue Ridge Mountains throughout Virginia, is a major recreation destination for hikers. The Bear’s Den cabin, known by many as “the castle in the woods,” which serves as a stopover place for Appalachian Trail through-hikers and as a destination for locals seeking the stunning beauty of its panoramic vistas and glorious sunsets is located in western Loudoun County, just off Rt. 7 on the Mount Weather road.
* English settlers in the early 1600 noted that the Powhatan name for the Blue Ridge was Quirank.
** Examples of both civil war fortifications and dancing grounds can be found in the western Loudoun County section of the Blue Ridge
*** The other large U.S. spiritual center is the Four Corners area where New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona meet.