Skip to main content

A Brief History of Buncombe County

Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, August 2021

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 4.

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. 6

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. 7

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 home-based industries.8

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. 10

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 stands.11

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. 12

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. 18

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. 21

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 burley tobacco.23

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. 25

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. 28

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. 29


References

  1. “Warren Wilson (Buncombe County)” Ancient North Carolinians, (Accessed 8/10/2021)
  2. Tennett, Gail, The Indian Path in Buncombe County, NP abt. 1950, (Accessed 8/10/2021)
  3. Anderson, William L. and Ruth Y. Wetmore, “Cherokee, Part III: Disease, destruction, and the loss of Cherokee Land” NCPedia, 2006. (Accessed 8/10/2021)
  4. Norris, David A., “Rutherford’s Campaign” NCPedia, 2006. (Accessed 8/10/2021)
  5. Sondley, F.A., “Samuel Davidson” NP, 1913. Copy held in Buncombe County Special Collections.
  6. Mazzocchi, Jay. “Buncombe County,” NCPedia, 2006. (Accessed 8/11/2021)
  7. Gregory, Lisa, “Asheville,” NCPedia 2010, (Accessed 8/11/2021)
  8. Inscoe, John C, Mountain Masters: Slavery and Sectionalism in Western North Carolina (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), 70-74.
  9. Hill, Michael. “Buncombe Turnpike” NCPedia, 2006. (Accessed 8/11/2021)
  10. “Hickory Nut Gap Forest,” Southern Appalachians Highland Conservancy, (Accessed 8/11/2021)
  11. Cutshall, Katherine Calhoun, “In the Grip of Slavery: The Rise of a Slave Society Surrounding the Establishment of Stock Stand along the Buncombe Turnpike 1790-1855” Unpublished thesis, UNC Asheville Department of History, 2015
  12. Starnes, Richard, Creating the Land of the Sky: Tourism and Society in Western North Carolina. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press) 2005, 4.
  13. Inscoe, John C. and Gordon McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 36.
  14. Inscoe and McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia, 49-55.
  15. Inscoe and McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia, 253-257.
  16. Nash, Steven E. Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016) 89-118.
  17. McKinney, Gordon, Zebulon Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). 325-365.
  18. Elliston, Jon, “WNC’s Lynchings: New study sheds light on a once-pervasive Southern atrocity” Carolina Public Press, Feb 18, 2015, (Accessed 8/11/2021).
  19. McKinney, Zebulon Vance, 325-365.
  20. “History”, RAIL Project, (Accessed 8/11/2021)
  21. Starnes, Richard. Creating the Land of the Sky. 9-12.
  22. Asheville, North Carolina, Buncombe County Special Collections, Vertical File Reference Collection, US Census Population Data for Buncombe County.
  23. Starnes, Creating the Land of the Sky, 9.