A Time before “Buncombe”
Archaeologists believe that for thousands of years various Indigenous peoples and cultures
have made their homes in western North Carolina. The earliest evidence of permanent human
settlement in the region dates to approximately 8000 BCE1.
The geographic region that is now Buncombe County was home to many indigenous towns
including a settlement at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers on the
present day Biltmore Estate2.
Western North Carolina was primarily occupied by the Cherokee People, but was also home
to other indigenous cultures like the Catawba People. The traditional territory of the
Cherokee covered more than 100,000 square miles of what is today western North Carolina,
eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia, and Upstate South Carolina. In the early 18th
century, the estimated population of the Cherokee People was 36,000. By 1770, however,
only about 7,000 Cherokees remained. A series of smallpox outbreaks not only caused
massive population decline, but also forced the relocation and consolidation of
Cherokee towns throughout the southern mountains.3
Early European Settlement
Following the Seven Years’ War, England’s King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763.
The royal order created a boundary line roughly following the Blue Ridge Mountains between
the lands of the Cherokee and those claimed by invading white settlers. As tensions
between the English crown and American colonists increased prior to the Revolutionary War,
settlers began ignoring the treaty line and illegally moving west. By spring of 1776, many
Cherokees were discussing taking up arms against the intruders.
White traders learned of the plans and warned surrounding settlements, and both Cherokees
and white settlers began preparing for war. Griffith Rutherford, leader of the Sailsbury
district militia, mustered a group of 2,500 volunteer soldiers to lead a military campaign
against the Cherokee in WNC. Rutherford’s troops destroyed Cherokee settlements across the
region, (including the village near present-day Asheville along the Swannanoa River), and
imprisoned or enslaved the survivors. After the Rutherford massacre, there were virtually
no indigenous inhabitants left in the present-day Buncombe County region
Formation of Buncombe County and First Local Government
According to oral tradition, Samuel Davidson was the first white person to permanently
live in what is now Buncombe County when he built a homestead on Bee Tree Creek in 1781.
5 Over the next decade, as the populations of
the westernmost sections of the extant Burke and Rutherford counties continued to
attract Scots-Irish, German, and Dutch settlers, citizens petitioned the state
legislature to form a new county. The measure passed in 1791, and a small group of
wealthy landowners formed Buncombe County’s first local government in 1792. Originally
named Union County, the petitioners eventually settled on Buncombe to honor Colonel
Edward Buncombe, a Caribbean-born plantation owner and Revolutionary War veteran.
At the time of its creation, the jurisdiction of Buncombe County encompassed most of the western
part of the state. It was so large that it was often called the “State of Buncombe.” The county
seat, originally called Morristown, was re-named Asheville in 1793 to honor Governor Samuel Ashe.
Buncombe County’s Developing Economy
Throughout the first part of the 19th century, Asheville was a small town with few homes and
buildings. The dangerous conditions of the roads made travel nearly impossible for merchants.
As a result, Buncombe County’s primary industry was subsistence agriculture. Most families
owned a small amount of land and could not afford to take advantage of enslaved labor.
However, many wealthy farmers in the region maintained small plantations and exploited
enslaved people to produce cash crops like corn, wheat, and flax. It was also common for
enslaved people in WNC to perform skilled labor, such as blacksmithing, tanning, and other
In the years before the Civil War, residents and politicians from Buncombe County lobbied for
infrastructure improvements, hoping that easing the difficulty of transportation would boost
the western economy. By 1828, work was complete on the county’s first turnpike road. Following
the course of the French Broad River, the route passed through the center of Asheville
connecting present day Greeneville, Tennessee to Greenville, South Carolina
9. At the same time, other roads leading to Asheville
from eastern North Carolina were built and improved. One often journeyed route sent travelers
through the Hickory Nut Gap passing by Sherill’s Inn, a well-known stop for travelers.
The turnpike was a major catalyst for the continued economic growth in Buncombe County and
surrounding regions. Though the turnpike roads were far from perfect, they allowed for relatively
safe and hassle free travel. As a result of these new roads, the population of enslaved people
rose dramatically as commercial agriculture became more profitable and Buncombe residents began
catering to travelers. Wealthy slave-owning families shifted from primarily farming to hosting
affluent tourists in hotels, and boarding livestock drovers at roadside inns known as stock
As transportation improved throughout the 19th century, Asheville became a popular destination
for merchants from the Appalachian foothills as well as leisure travelers from the lower South
seeking refuge from mosquito-borne diseases and intense summer heat, laying the groundwork for
an increasingly robust tourism-based economy later in the century.
The Civil War and Reconstruction
By the 1850s, Civil War was on the horizon. White men in Buncombe County began taking up arms
to defend the practice of slavery as early as 1859. In response to John Brown’s raid on Harpers
Ferry, William W. McDowell, a wealthy slave owner, organized the Buncombe Rifles, a militia
group of 100 or more men who began preparing for war more than a year before Southern states
began exiting the Union.13 Although some narratives
offer the idea that the practice and support of slavery and disunion was rare in the Southern
Highlands, Buncombe County proved to be pro-secession.14
Western North Carolina remained relatively peaceful during the war, but Asheville faced the
conflict head-on as it reached its bitter end. The Battle of Asheville was a five-hour skirmish
on the northern edge of the city. Bad weather and misinformation saw the battle end without
consequence. Peace was short-lived, however. Two weeks later, Union Cavalry led by General
George Stoneman rode through Asheville. Stoneman’s troops sacked towns and emancipated enslaved
people across WNC in what became known as Stoneman’s Raid.15
After the war, Asheville was home to a local office of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and
Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau. Despite the efforts of the Bureau, the
violent oppression of Black people did not end with emancipation.16
Racialized violence and the “White Supremacy Campaign” touted by southern conservatives continued
to promote harmful policies and practices known as Jim Crow Laws.17
Between 1880 and 1900, three Black men were lynched at the hands of white Buncombe County residents.
The Gilded and Industrial Age
After the Civil War, the people of Western North Carolina continued advocating for infrastructure
improvements, especially the completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad, a project halted
during the war. Governor Zebulon Vance, a Buncombe County native, successfully pushed the
legislature to fund the railroad project.19
The railroad was primarily constructed by more than 3,000 incarcerated laborers. The majority of
these laborers were young Black men convicted of petty crimes. Convicts provided the state with
free labor, while the health and safety of the workers was ignored. An unknown number of laborers
perished while building the railroad.20 In 1879, workers
finished the Swannanoa Tunnel, one of the most important pieces of the project. The completion of
a railroad into Asheville resulted in a major boon to the local economy. Only 10 years later,
Asheville was among the most popular health tourism destinations in the United States.
As a result of the area’s reputation as a health resort, Buncombe County became a popular
destination for Gilded Age millionaires like George W. Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt enjoyed the area so
much that he purchased approximately 125,000 acres in southwest Buncombe County to build his estate,
a massive French-style Chateau he called Biltmore. The completion of Biltmore drew additional
attention to Buncombe County and the surrounding area. Between 1880 and 1900, the population of
Buncombe County more than doubled.22
The booming tourism-based economy carried Asheville into the 20th century; however, the region was
not completely dependent on the service industry. Between 1900 and 1930, the economy of Buncombe
County continued to diversify with the arrival of large-scale textile manufacturing firms such as
the American Enka and Beacon Blankets mills. Across the county, rural farmers thrived on crops of
The Post-war Era
As post-war euphoria subsided across the United States, Buncombe County’s economy faced a period of
relative stagnation throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century. The service and
manufacturing industries continued to be the region’s primary source of jobs and revenue. However,
manufacturing was on the decline across the country, Buncombe County not excepted. Two of the
region’s largest employers, American Enka and Beacon Blankets, began to shrink eventually ceasing
operations altogether in 1985 and 2002, respectively. As manufacturing jobs became increasingly
scarce, Buncombe County once again turned to the hospitality sector to create economic stability.
24 In 1983, the North Carolina legislature created
Buncombe County’s Tourism Development Authority to oversee the collection and investment of
occupancy taxes paid by tourists who used overnight lodgings in the region.
Buncombe County Today
Since the 1980s, Buncombe County has continued to attract visitors. More than 10 million people make
their way to Buncombe County each year, and tourism remains one of the primary drivers of economic
growth. In FY19/20, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority collected more than $392
million in tourism-related tax revenue.26 Other industries
also continue to make an impact, including agriculture. Buncombe County is home to at least 21 working
family farms that have been in business for more than 100 years.27
As of the 2020 census, Buncombe County is home to more than 263,000 residents, and continues to grow.
Buncombe County is a caring community in harmony with its environment where residents succeed,
thrive, and realize their potential. Buncombe County strives to promote a healthy, safe,
well-educated, and thriving community with a sustainable quality of life, and provide effective and
efficient government our citizens can trust. Buncombe County delivers needed service through a
responsive workforce committed to excellence, integrity, and teamwork.