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Journal suggests famous explorer visited Smyth County

Journal suggests famous explorer visited Smyth County

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Lewis & Clark program

Peggy Crosson with the Virginia Lewis & Clark Legacy Trail recently provided a program for members of the Smyth County Historical Society and Holston Rivers Heritage Center about William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition traveling through Smyth County in 1809.

To boost tourism in Virginia and highlight a not well known aspect of its history, members of the Virginia Lewis & Clark Legacy Trail are mapping a visit to this region by William Clark of the famous Lewis & Clark Expedition.

According to History.com, the expedition began in 1804, “when President Thomas Jefferson tasked Meriwether Lewis with exploring lands west of the Mississippi River that comprised the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis chose William Clark as his co-leader for the mission. The excursion lasted over two years…the approximately 8,000-mile journey was deemed a huge success and provided new geographic, ecological and social information about previously uncharted areas of North America.”

Both Lewis and Clark were native Virginians.

Clark is known to have traveled through Southwest Virginia in 1809, a portion of the trip from Bristol to Wytheville, according to a journal he kept along the way. His spelling was atrocious but the journal notes visits and stops in places believed to be Bristol, Abingdon, Seven Mile Ford, Atkins and Wythe County, places where he knew people or had friends.

Peggy Crosson, president of the Virginia Lewis & Clark Legacy Trail, visited Marion last week to provide a program to members of the Smyth County Historical Society and Holston Rivers Heritage Center.

According to the organization’s website, “The Virginia Lewis and Clark Legacy Trail is a driving and ‘stop-to-experience’ trail along or near the Great Valley Road (Rt. 11 and I-81), from Bristol to Charlottesville ‘and beyond’ that follows and honors the travels of Meriwether Lewis & William Clark in the Commonwealth, and the people and places they visited….”

The trail’s mission is to “expand heritage tourism & economic development by: Preserving the routes that Lewis and Clark traveled before and after the expedition; honoring & celebrating the connections of Meriwether Lewis & William Clark to Virginia and to the people & places they visited during their travels; recognizing the Virginia-born members of the Corps of Discovery; and promoting citizen awareness and trail exploration in Virginia & beyond.”

Crosson said that in 1978, Congress approved the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail that travels through 10 states from Missouri to Oregon. In 2008, Congress authorized the National Park Service to conduct a feasibility study to determine if there should be an eastward extension of the trail.

The slide program presented to the local historical society outlined the reasons for the study along with estimated outcomes.

Crosson said the study has shown increased interest in the whole lives of Lewis and Clark, not just their expedition years and could boost tourism in Virginia. The National Park Service in 2007, she said, researched potential Lewis & Clark routes and historic sites in eastern states and discovered a significant number of existing Lewis & Clark related sites in Virginia.

Identification of some of these related sites is why Crosson came to Smyth County. She told the group gathered at the museum in downtown Marion that local sites that seemed to have been visited by William Clark in 1809 included houses or taverns from Bristol to Wytheville.

Clark kept a journal of his group’s travels but with no formal education and being a poor speller, much of the writing has been difficult to decipher. The Legacy Trail is divided into 24 segments (six of them in Virginia) with segment 10 being from Bean Station, Tenn., to Charlottesville along the Great Valley Road with a side trail to and from Fincastle.

Clark’s journal entries mention such people and places as Col. John Preston, where he had breakfast on Nov. 12, passing through “Abbingdon” and staying at a brick house, then breakfast on Nov. 13 at a house one mile back of Seven Mile Ford, then staying all night at “young Atkinses” (possibly the Old Stone Tavern in Atkins), then traveling to “Capt Kents house” leaving horses at “Capt Kents Tavern” and on Nov. 14 “passed through Wyth, staid all night at Majr. Kents a little off the main road” possibly sending his servants to the tavern. On Nov. 15 he “arrived at Majr Prestons late at night.”

This segment would have taken Clark all the way through Smyth County (then still part of Wythe County) from the current Chilhowie area and border with Washington County to Groseclose and the border with Wythe County.

“So look,” Crosson said to the group as she pointed out the path on a map, “They came right through Marion.”

The Legacy Trail has been organized in several areas of this region, including Bristol, Washington County and Pulaski, and also above Wythe County to Albemarle and eastern Virginia.

Crosson said she visited the Smyth County Board of Supervisors around 2018 to talk about the Legacy Trail and then economic development director Lori Deel (now a supervisor) was excited about it. However, Deel left her position, Crosson said, so the Legacy Trail organization went on with other counties planning to come back to Smyth and Wythe.

“We hope to make a presentation to the Wythe County Historical Society,” Crosson said. Currently there are no Lewis & Clark related sites in Wythe that are accessible, she said, and no county chair for the project.

Signage for where Clark visited with Arthur Campbell could mention Wythe County, said Crosson, as his property was in the area of Wythe that is now Smyth County.

“That’s so important,” Crosson said of meeting with county residents. “I’m looking forward to working with Smyth County and with other counties on Lewis & Clark related or suspected to be related visits along the Great Valley Road and eastern Virginia.”

Crosson talked about the project’s progress with fundraising and hopeful creation of historical markers for areas determined to be part of the Legacy Trail. She said the organization will be going to the General Assembly in 2022 about more funding and is expecting to meet with Southwest Virginia legislators the week before Thanksgiving.

“It’s so exciting to think that they traveled to our area,” said Anna Leigh DeBord, president of the Smyth County Historical Society. “Now the job of proving and the documentation begins!”

DeBord is excited to be involved in helping the project with its connections to Smyth County.

“We had such a diverse group at the meeting and those folks know the area in detail and can help,” she said. “Linda and Harry Dean for Chilhowie, Barbara Jo Bunch for Seven Mile Ford, the Detweilers and Grahams for Marion. I can’t wait to get started.”

Crosson, a resident of Fincastle, was delighted with her visit to Smyth County.

“They were very gracious,” she said. “They asked relevant questions and were so knowledgeable. The trip was so enjoyable for Jim and I. We feel at home in that area.”

Jim Johnston is treasurer of the Virginia Lewis & Clark Legacy Trail organization and Crosson’s fiancé.

The Old Stone Tavern that Crosson talked about in her presentation – currently owned by Issac Freeman who is the Smyth County chair for the project -- is on the National and the Virginia Registers of Historic Places. Tours were once held at the site in Atkins right at the intersection with U.S. 11 and Nick’s Creek Road.

Located on what was once called the Wilderness Road, the tavern was erected before 1815 by Frederick Cullop to accommodate travelers in the heavy westward migration through the Cumberland Gap to the west in the early 19th century. Constructed using local limestone, the tavern is one of the oldest stone buildings in Smyth County.

The Cullop family members were pioneers in that portion of Wythe County, which became the present Smyth County in 1831. Following Cullop's death, his heirs eventually sold the land to John Snavely whose heir Thomas J. Snavely lived there until the Civil War.

To learn more about the Virginia Lewis & Clark Legacy Trail, visit valewisandclarklegacytrail.org.

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