Abingdon is located on the former hunting grounds of the Cherokee Indians, at the intersection of two great Indian trails, which followed ancient animal migration trails through the mountains. As English colonists pushed westward, Abingdon became a stop on the Wilderness Road, a migration trail that saw thousands of settlers traveling west through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky.
Abingdon traces its modern roots to 1750, when Dr. Thomas Walker, who had been granted over 6,000 acres of land by King George II, explored the area. Later, Joseph Black purchased some of this land from Dr. Walker, settled on it and built a small fort. The area became known as “Black’s Fort.” Abingdon was the first English speaking settlement to be incorporated in the watershed of the Mississippi.
Abingdon acquired another nickname around the same time, from a well-known explorer. In 1760 Daniel Boone, on his first expedition to Kentucky, camped at the southern base of present-day Courthouse Hill. Legend has it that his dogs were attacked by wolves appearing from a cave near the hill’s crest, and so Boone named the area “Wolf Hills.”
Look for nods to Abingdon’s original name of Wolf Hills throughout downtown. Brightly colored wolf statues are part of a fundraiser for the Abingdon Main Street organization, while the local craft brewery, Wolf Hills Brewing, takes its name from the legend.
In 1776, the Virginia Assembly created Washington County and in 1778, the Town of Abingdon was incorporated as the county seat. The name is thought to be in honor of Martha Washington’s ancestral home of Abingdon Parish in England.
You might notice the two vintage English phone boxes in downtown Abingdon and wonder why they’re located in a small Appalachian town. Abingdon’s official sister city is Abingdon-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, England. The towns have exchanged delegations in the past, and in 2015 Abingdon, VA installed the phone boxes as a fun nod to its sister city. The boxes will soon be outfitted with visitor information kiosks.
Over the two centuries of its existence, Abingdon became center of both commerce and culture. Concerts, operatic performances, and theater all became an important part of life in early Abingdon, and several colleges were established in the area. Although no Civil War battles were fought in the area, Abingdon was occupied by Union troops, and many buildings became makeshift hospitals. Coal and timber proved a major economic boon at the turn of the century, and the construction of a rail line to North Carolina became the site of what’s now the Virginia Creeper Trail. Since 1933, Abingdon has been home to Barter Theatre, the State Theatre of Virginia, and the importance of the arts can be seen today in the town’s rich music, craft, and arts scene.
For more history and a self-guided walking tour of historic downtown Abingdon, visit the Abingdon Visitors Center at 335 Cummings Street.
Special thanks to Nanci King for her book Place in Time, and to the Historical Society of Washington County.