Crossing the River: The Catawba Valley and the Appalachians (1747 – 1849)

By Michael Barrick

The Catawba Valley is a river basin fed by the creeks, streams and rivers tumbling down the Blue Ridge escarpment. Though actually in the foothills of the Appalachians – also known as the Piedmont (though over time, those terms have come to mean two different regions along and beyond the Blue Ridge) – the Catawba Valley’s settlement was essential to the economy and growth of the southern Appalachians, especially in western North Carolina.

Today, its economy is on unstable footing, as many of the furniture and textile companies which employed tens of thousands have closed.

This is not the first generation to find challenges in the valley.

The swift and rocky waters of the Catawba River presented a formidable obstacle for the first European pioneers wishing to settle the western shores of its rich valley. However, the pioneering spirit guiding Adam Sherrill would not allow the river to stand in the way. The family had trekked through the wilderness of Virginia and North Carolina to find a home, and the rich rolling hills and fertile fields formed by the river valley offered everything an industrious farmer would need. A pastoral environment, it offered not only the soil, rain and sun needed for productive fields, it also offered peace and the opportunity to prosper – all that a pioneering family could ask for.

Not surprisingly, many others immediately began to settle the valley. Eventually, the river, rather than being an impediment, was the life source for those living alongside its shores and tributaries. While those who first forged the river at present day Sherrills Ford in southeastern Catawba County could not have envisioned the Catawba Valley today, it nevertheless is their legacy. Through their determination and industry, through a belief in self-reliance tempered with a reverence for God and stewardship of the natural resources afforded them, the first settlers – mainly German but also many Scotch-Irish and others – established not only a community, but a lasting set of values that continue to help guide it more than 250 years after they first arrived.

Among the first to arrive were the Schufferts, the ancestors of Dr. Jacob Harrison Shuford, who founded Richard Baker Hospital in Hickory in 1911.

North Carolina, ca 1760 and North Carolina, ca 1850
In 1760, western North Carolina was a wilderness, as evidenced by the top map. However, as is clear in the bottom map, by 1850 Catawba County’s borders were established. Clearly, the early settlement by the Sherrills and other early pioneers to the Catawba Valley paved the way for rapid growth of the region.
© Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, N.C.

It isn’t all that surprising that the Shufords would settle in the Catawba Valley. The family had originally migrated to Pennsylvania from a region along the Rhine River and its tributaries in Germany. The geography surrounding the South Fork River may not have been as famed as their ancestral home, but a description of the home they left behind sounds similar enough to make the Catawba Valley enticing. “The soil along the Rhine and its tributaries is rich and the primary occupation is farming.” The tributaries flowing from the mountains make for “…beautiful, rich farmland, well watered and fertile.”

Consequently, in their new home, “With the fertile soil and temperate climate, they were soon blessed with a great abundance of everything they needed.” With literally dozens of streams feeding the farmland from the mountains, the valley’s geography was ideal. “The gently rolling hillsides, fertile and watered valleys, and plateaus are suitable for the growth of many crops. Agriculture also is prompted primarily by the mental nature of the early settlers: German and Scot pioneers were accustomed to farm life and were attracted locally due to the desire to pursue the tilling of the soil in productive and peaceful surroundings.”

However, they were also accustomed to densely populated villages in Germany. Conceivably then, a primary draw to the valley was that it was not yet crowded with villages. The large river offered protection and fertile valleys; its many tributaries formed subtle yet beautiful slopes, hills, valleys and plateaus. Indeed, today, in a few areas of the county, the countryside remains remarkably similar to what the first settlers encountered. At first, settlement was deliberate, largely because of the unknown wilderness, and also because the migration from Pennsylvania was initially small. Immigration to the New World with an entire family and all of its belongings in toe was a physically-demanding, uncertain route to a new life.

Yet, the Schufferts chose the new life and all the challenges that came with it. “Many families from the area around Langenselbod (Germany) made the journey to America, among them, Johan Jerg Schuffert and his family.” By the 1750s, the Schufferts had also settled on the western side of the river, though several miles further west than the Sherrills. Though they would have followed the same route as the Sherrills much of the way, it is possible they took the more western Island Ford route that branched off of the Sherrill’s path just north of the Yadkin River in present-day Iredell County and crossed the Catawba River several miles upstream from Sherrills Ford. “In early 1755, George Shuford and his family left Pennsylvania, accompanied by the families of his son and daughter, and traveled to the western part of North Carolina (on what was known as ‘The Great Wagon Road’)….In September 1755, he bought 500 acres on land from Samuel Wilkins on the south side of the South fork of the Catawba River. This is the land he is buried on today.”  Today, the old family cemetery remains, not far from the South Fork River. It is there that Johan Schuffert died in 1762. He had taken his family about 435 miles from their settlement in Pennsylvania. Little did he know how far his family, fellow settlers and their descendents would carry a community over the next 250 years.

The countryside – while full of challenges – must also have offered tremendous hope and opportunity, at least as viewed from the highest point in the county – Baker’s Mountain. Today a county park, its trails and vistas offer not only a peaceful break from the hectic lifestyle for area residents, it also offers a peak into the past and what the Shufords and their early neighbors saw stretched before them. To the west is a narrow valley, greeted on the far side by the steep slopes of the South Mountains, a narrow, fingered prong of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. To the north, in the distance, are some of the highest peaks of the Blue Ridge; the imposing slopes providing life to the Catawba River Valley from its countless tributaries. To the east, the ridges gradually give way to the rolling hills of the Piedmont, but not before stubbornly holding ground, forcing the river to bend hard to the south. It was not far from Baker’s Mountain that the Shufords settled, on a 2,000 acre tract of land along the South Fork River. It offered bottom land, forests, hilltops, valleys and streams. Today, remnants of the homestead remain.

They did experience raiding parties and a few outright battles with Native Americans wishing to preserve the upper Catawba Valley as hunting grounds. Eventually, as more settlers from the Old World followed the trails blazed by Sherrill and the others, the Native Americans retreated west over the mountains. Still, maintaining the settlement required hard work. All tools for clearing forests, building homes, gardening, hunting and crafting furniture were hand-made. Farming was hard work with uncertain outcomes. Thriftiness was a hallmark, the result of needing to make use of every resource available to them. “Every member of the family, old and young, had work assigned. After providing shelter for his family, the pioneer had to clear the land, plow and plant….Marriage came early, and very often the women, who worked so hard, died young. All pioneer boys and girls learned to do their share of work as a matter of course.”

Wood was essential not only for the cabin, but also the furniture, utensils, tables and benches. Woodworking then, was an essential skill. Cooking was done over open fires. Clothing was home made, as was soap. Though a life of work, there were also times of merriment, as events accompanying farming or church life were also often festive and social occasions.

At first, families were self-sustaining. Then, as more people moved in, markets began to develop among the different communities. Eventually, local, narrow trading paths became market roads to distant coastal and commercial centers. This gradual transition from colonial wilderness living to the ante-bellum community provided the societal and institutional building blocks that would guide and sustain subsequent generations inheriting the riches of the valley. For instance, Jacob Shuford, the grandson of the family patriarch Johan, exercised sound stewardship with his inheritance. A prosperous farmer, “…he inherited a substantial portion of the Shuford farm on the west bank of the South Fork River. He eventually gave that farm to his son, Eli. He owned several large areas of farm land, the most notable of which he called ‘Bunker Hill.’ He was a good businessman….Among his descendents was Abel Alexander Shuford, industrialist and entrepreneur and one of the founders of Hickory, North Carolina.”

The Revolutionary War strained relationships among not only neighbors, but families. Yet, the importance of community, their common faith and interdependence led the families of the county’s various townships to eventually overcome the divisions brought about by the colonial revolt.

Religious faith offered hope and guidance. St. Paul’s church near Newton, which was shared by the Lutheran and Reformed congregations, was the first church built west of the Catawba River. “An unfaltering faith in God and certainty as to its beneficial manifestations are perhaps the most basic characteristics of the Catawbans….History bears out the fact that the building of a church almost invariably preceded the construction of other institutions in the community. The church edifice, in fact, served in the earliest days as a general center. Schools were conducted in church buildings.” In short, churches were the community center. They also were the first school houses, as “Education and religion were closely allied in the beginning of the county’s history. Men of education often performed the dual functions of teaching and preaching.”

Language barriers between German-speaking and English-speaking immigrants proved difficult. Eventually English became predominant and the spelling of Schuffert was changed to Shuford to accommodate English-speaking sensibilities. The challenges of agrarian living, with the many chores required of all family members, provided many practical learning opportunities, but still did not allow much time for formal instruction. Hence, a learned preacher would be the logical choice to entrust one’s children to for “book learning.” Of course, the elders almost certainly would have closely monitored the instruction provided the children, in particular on theological matters.

Eventually, by the early 1800s, several private schools were listed throughout the county. “Location of the schools generally followed the walking patterns of the neighborhoods.” In fact, while the teachers recruited to some of the schools were met with resistance as they brought in ideals and ideas not necessarily aligned with those within the community, their work was a forerunner to the common schools, which began operating as North Carolina’s first public schools circa 1840.

As important as churches were for the development of religious, social and educational moorings for the fledgling communities, the advent of improved transportation routes and systems were equally crucial for the eventual economic growth the region was to enjoy. Still, “Early Catawbans measured their status by their access to land. Since most farmed, how much land they owned, how good it was, and what they did with it determined to a large degree their places in the community.”

The river and tributaries were not navigable; therefore, with the exception of local trade conducted via canoe or the occasional pole boat, they were not travel routes. Foot travel was along established trading paths of the Native Americans and later from home to home and home to church. Pack horses hauled freight along the same routes, slowly expanding the markets from settlement to settlement. Wagons soon followed. What had been one-foot-wide trading paths were now rutted roads, carrying produce, lumber and durable goods. “It is believed that the earliest road of the Catawba territory was the State road, the Catawba county portion of which was constructed in 1763. The road entered Catawba county in its southwest part, traveled in an easterly direction through Bandys, Jacob’s Fork, and Newton townships, to and through the present town of Maiden and on east to Sherrills Ford.” Interestingly, Jacob’s Fork is named for the aforementioned Jacob Shuford, an ancestor of the hospital’s founder by the same name.

By the last decades of the 1700s, Hickory Tavern – now known as Hickory – had roads that allowed travel to and from the mountains or the coast; however, a few streams – including the Catawba River – would have to be traversed at various fords. A few stagecoaches came through, but personal conveyance such as the Conestoga wagon remained the preferred means of transport for those who could afford it. Several covered bridges connected communities, with the Bunker Hill Bridge still standing today. “Some of the early wooden bridges were built without the use of a single nail, the timbers being cut in such a way that wooden pegs were sufficient to hold them in place.”

A moving away from self-sufficient farms led to the growth of the trades in the late eighteenth century. “The Catawba’s early tradesmen included the blacksmith, the miller, the shoemaker, the cooper, the millwright, the tanner, the tailor, the hatter, the wheelwright, the saddler, the gunsmith, the silversmith, the fuller, the weaver, the clock maker, the joiner or cabinet maker, the carpenter, the felt maker, the miller, the mason, the potter and the merchant.”

Grist mills were common along the many streams and even the first sawmills were founded as more settlers moved in, needing wood for homes. Weaving and spinning became a necessary trade, a foretaste of the role textiles would play in the development of the region. Iron forges also enjoyed a period of prosperity well into the 1800s. Indeed, early on, the trades proved more stable and rewarding than the professions. “Virtually all the early lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers and newspapermen supplemented their ‘profession’ with another, more remunerative, occupation, usually farming.”

Later, such professionals would play a pivotal role in establishing and developing Hickory. However, as the county was first settled, what is now known as Hickory was of little consequence. A license to operate a tavern was granted to John Bradburn, circa 1784. He built what became Hickory Tavern alongside the road that had been constructed about 15 years earlier. It is not certain how the town got its name, though it is commonly – though not universally – believed that it was near a notable hickory tree or perhaps a stand of them. In any event, what is today downtown Hickory was then but a building or two. Yet, in 1849, just about 100 years after the first settlers forged the Catawba River, Hickory would become a center of commerce and trade, facilitated by the opening of the Horseford covered bridge into Caldwell County. This event opened up markets and opportunities heretofore not possible.

© Michael Barrick / Appalachian Chronicle, 2012

Works Cited:

David Shuford,. Origins of the Shuford Family in America: A Brief History and Genealogy (Baltimore, Md.:Gateway Press, Inc., 1998)

Charles J. Preslar, Jr. editor, A History of Catawba County (Salisbury, N.C.: Rowan Printing Company, 1954)

Gary R. Freeze, The Catawbans: Crafters of a North Carolina County (Newton, N.C.: Catawba County Historical Association, 1995)

One comment

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