Martinsville City - The Carolina Road

Carolina Road
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Martinsville City - The Carolina Road

Nestled among the rolling foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge, the City of Martinsville played a part in Virginia's Heritage Migration Route. The Carolina Road passed just west of the city (roughly parallel to Route 220).

Prior to the opening of the Wilderness Road and other routes west, this was part of the main corridor connecting Pennsylvania with settlements in the Carolina backcountry - particularly the Moravian Wachovia Tract. Beginning in the 1740s, many settlers traveled to/through the area with as many as 1,000 wagons a day in the 1760s.

Initial settlement of the area around Martinsville coincides with the road. Settlers represented diverse cultural backgrounds: Germans, Welsh, Scots-Irish, English and African. The first documented account of the area was recorded in 1728 with William Byrd's journal during a survey establishing the Virginia-North Carolina border. Henry County was established in 1776.

In 1793 the county moved its seat to a small village called Henry County Court House. The name was later changed to Martinsville, in honor of local citizen General Joseph Martin. Martinsville became an incorporated town in 1873, with city status in 1929. As with most county seats, Martinsville became the cultural and social hub for Henry County.

This area had been previously occupied for many thousands of years by Native Americans who called the area home. It is not known who the first people were, but later groups were likely associated with the Siouan linguistic group including the historic Saura, Tutelo, Saponi, and Occaneechi.

During French & Indian War, a chain of forts in western Virginia were built in 1756 to protect the frontier. The southern most, Fort Trial, was on the Smith River. George Washington, then state militia commander, visited in 1757.

As settlement took hold, agriculture became a common theme in the formative years of the county. Of interest was the introduction and rapid rise of tobacco as a chief cash crop. Henry County was a part of the Southern Virginia region that specialized in tobacco. By 1860 the region, known as the tobacco sack, grew 36 percent of the nation's crop and local plants processed 44 percent of the crop.

With its climate, soil, and smaller farms the area proved ideal for leaf tobacco and particularly plug tobacco. This was such a successful crop for the area that a family factory to manufacture it opened in 1792. They developed a brand of plug tobacco, which was called Superior and was marketed in Europe, preferred by the English court and popular enough to be imitated by other manufacturers.

One aspect that distinguished Henry County plug tobacco was manner it was cured. A county farmer reportedly invented the rock flue process for curing tobacco. The use of flues for curing created a unique flavor known as Sweet Chew.

The Smith River, Martinsville's largest stream, witnessed limited navigation on its waters. As early as the 1840s batteau traveled downstream with products from an iron works. Evidence of navigation can be seen today in the form of small wing dams that enabled boats to traverse small rapids.

Notable settlers in vicinity of Martinsville include: Colonel George Waller, George Hairston, and John Redd - who were all present at Cornwalllis's surrender at Yorktown; Colonel Abraham Penn - led troops to join General Greene at Guilford Courthouse; and General Joseph Martin – Brigadier General during Revolutionary War, Superintendent of Cherokee Affairs, member General Assembly, and advisor to President Madison. Patrick Henry was a brief resident when he built a house in 1780 lived there until he became governor for a fourth one-year term in 1784.


Additional Sites

Martinsville Historic District

Southern Virginia Artisan Center

Fayette Street Historic District