Bear, buffalo, deer, and elk were the only inhabitants in Washington County for many centuries. Later, Indians migrated into the area. However, none lived in Washington County. They viewed the Great Valley as a hunting ground for all tribes rather than a place of residence for a particular tribe. Initially, the migration of settlers into what would eventually become Washington County was not seen as a threat to the Cherokees and Shawnees whose land bordered the area. When this migration was perceived as a threat, conflict occurred.
By the 1750's a large number of settlers had moved into Washington County. By 1755 they all had returned to more populated regions. The reason? The French and Indian War had begun. Shawnees, who were allies of the French but also were fearful of the advancement of the settlers, attacked the settlements, terrorizing the people. Settlers began their occupation of the Valley in the second quarter of the 1700's. They traveled along the Great Wagon Road. Coming primarily from Northern Ireland (Ulster-Scots) and Germany, they heard of available land in the Great Valley and thousands came here to establish their homes.
Following the French and Indian War, settlers returned to the area. Washington County was created in 1776. Two years later, in 1778, Abingdon (first known as Wolf Hills and later as Black's Fort) was established as the county seat. The town quickly grew. During the Revolutionary War, militia from this county participated in the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780 when the "mountain men" defeated the British, effectively halting the British Army in its westward campaign in the South. In the summer of 1776, a war party of Cherokees entered Washington County, causing the settlers to seek refuge in Black's Fort, near the future town of Abingdon. Though the fort was not attacked, there were skirmishes between colonists and Cherokees.
Following the Revolutionary War, Washington County became quite prosperous. Wilderness was turned into farmland and villages, new roads were built, schools and colleges were established, fine homes were constructed, the professions multiplied, and craft persons prospered. A major event for the county was the coming of the railroad in 1856. It enabled citizens to import and export products. Railroads helped remove the isolation of this region and created new towns. Prior to this time, difficult mountain roads limited travel in this area. Rivers were suitable only for short distances.
The County's progress was interrupted by the Civil War (1861-65). Abingdon, the county seat, experienced no battles; however, a company of Federal troops passing through town in December 1864, burned buildings used by the Confederacy. Several other buildings, including the courthouse, were burned by a disgruntled citizen. He was mortally wounded by a Confederate soldier. Washington County, like much of the South, suffered following the Civil War. Eventually the economy was given a boost by the development of the lumber industry, agriculture, in neighboring counties coal mining, and tourists coming to the country to escape the heat of summer.
During the 20th and early 21st centuries Washington County experienced the kinds of changes that have been true of
communities. The soil, climate, and an ample supply of water, for example, had caused the county to receive wide
recognition for its tobacco and dairy farms during much of the 20th century. Today fields of tobacco and dairy farms
are declining. Highway 11 and Interstate 81 have had major impact by both removing isolation and encouraging growth in
the county. Largely because of the Barter Theatre, Martha Washington Inn, the Virginia Highlands Festival, the William
King Regional Arts Center, the Virginia Creeper Trail, and the numerous historic buildings, the county gained national
recognition as a center for entertainment as well as both graphic and performing arts.
A variety of influences shaped Washington County in recent years; shopping centers, an influx of outsiders moving into the county to live and work, the growth of industry and business, the rapid increase of people in various professions, and the gradual replacement of farmland with residential development. In many ways the county remains essentially the same as it had been in earlier times. The continued success of the county will ultimately depend upon its ability to hold on to its natural beauty and the visible reminders of its heritage while continuing those activities so essential to its survival and growth in the years ahead.