Lead and Gunpowder in the Wilderness: the Virginia Lead Mines – Part 1

This is the story of the logistics fueling the violent struggle for survival on the Virginia frontier. It’s a story of geography, geology, politics, murder, suicide, and wilderness warfare. Many of these words and ideas comes from the handwritten notes of the legendary Jim Webb, a true Appalachian artist, and a close friend of ours, who is perhaps one of the last recipients of the oral tradition and history, handed down through generations, from the beginning to end of this story. He entrusted his beautifully-written notes to me. This is only part 1, and I should probably photograph some of the notes, because they’re beautifully written and drawn. It’s a story about one valuable location in Western Virginia, along the New River valley, near the present-day town of Austinville, Virgina, at a place usually referred to as Fort Chiswell. It’s a story fueled by the desire for wealth, new opportunities, and adventure.

Jim Webb visiting our “Circle of Truth” in Union, West Virginia last year.

Exploration and Land

In the year 1641, a number of citizens of Virginia petitioned the Virginia House of Burgesses for permission to “undertake the discovery of a New River of land West and Southerly from Appomattox.” In July of 1653, permission was granted that Colonel William Clayborne, Esq., Captain Henry Fleet and Colonel Abraham Wood to explore beyond the mountains in Western Virginia “that they may enjoy benefits, profits and trades for fourteen years, which may arise from their discovery.”

Before recounting the story of these hardy Virginians, who first crossed the great divide, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the environment of which they were a product, for their actions were not isolated phenomena, nor were their discoveries wholly disassociated with the event in the far north, an account of which opens this introduction.

Historians have generally interpreted the seventeenth century as one of the pivotal eras in the world’s history. It saw the end of the religious wars, the organization of the modern state, and the rise of new world powers. No less than in the world of politics, the century was the turning point from the old to the new in the world of business. The former supremacy of the city merchant- barons in Italy and Germany had passed away. With the opening of new and broader fields of enterprise in Asia and America, business had become nationalized; and finally by the seventeenth century there were developed the great stock companies for trading and colonizing. This change brought with it tremendous business expansion. Enterprises were started that foreshadowed the Mississippi plans of John Law and the South Sea Bubble. The European population was educated in get-rich-quick schemes of every variety; and rapidly the market for the sale of shares in such undertakings was developed. Men were looking everywhere for rapid financial returns. In the history of business as of politics, the close of the century marks the beginning of the present day world.

This desire for quick profits was the most powerful motive of discovery in the new world. It was the hope of gain that lured men to undertake the long, wearisome, and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic and incited explorer, warrior, and trader to plunge into the interior through the unknown dangers of the almost impenetrable forests. The hope of profits moved the statesmen at home to urge these adventurers to renewed efforts and to play their own cards craftily in the diplomatic game. The great nations of Europe were all seeking to acquire dominion in America that they might share in the treasures of the “Indies.” Spain had been first, then came Portugal; and after a hundred years, the two great rivals, France and England, reached out for North America. Their stake in the game of profits was the great interior valley, long before discovered by Spanish adventurers, but never exploited and so almost forgotten.

The First Explorations of the Trans-Alleghany Region by the Virginians 1650- 1674
By Clarence Walworth Alvord and Lee Bidgood
Published by The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1912

One of the first journeys beyond the mountains they made was by Col. Abraham Wood, seeking possible trade routes with Indians, and as always in those days, a route to the South Sea, and on to the Far East. This was believed to have occurred around 1645. Unfortunately, the early explorers left few written accounts of their travels beyond the mountains. It seems that Col. Wood’s exploration to the West of the mountains all came to naught, as far as establishing trade with the Indians in Western Virginia. All of the Indian guides employed by Col. Wood were “much afraid of the Salt Indians” who lived over the mountains. Col. Wood and most of the Virginia Indian traders dealt primarily with the Carolina tribes, following the “Trader’s Path” from Appomattox to the old ford on the Yadkin River.


In 1671, the party of Thomas Batts, Robert Fallan and Thomas Wood made another journey beyond the mountains, traveling much the same route Col. Wood had taken a couple decades earlier. According to Robert Fallan’s journal:

Sept. 14 we set forward  before sunrise our provisions being all spent, we traveled as the path went sometimes westerly, sometimes southerly over good ground, but stony. Sometimes rising hills and then steep descents as we marched in a clear place at the top of a hill we saw lying South Wests a curious prospect of hills like waves raised by a gentle breeze of wind rising one upon another, Mr. Batts supposed he saw sails. But I rather supposed them to be white cliffs.

Sept. 17, Early in the morning we went to seek some trees to mark, our Indians being impatient of longer stay by reason it was likely to be bad weather and that it was so difficult to get provisions….  When we came to the river side we found it much better and broader than expected, much like the James River at Col. Staggs, the falls much like these falls we imagined by the water marks that it flows here about three feet. It was ebbing water when we were here. We sat up a stick by the water side but found it ebbed very slowly. Our Indians kept such a hallowing that we durst not stay longer to make further trial.

October 1, Being Sunday morning we arrived at Fort Henry. God’s Holy Name be praised for our preservation.”

EARLY EXPLORATION Batts, Fallam and Thomas Wood, send by Abraham Wood to explore western Virginia, passed near here, September, 1671. Conservation & Development Commission, 1935

Fort Henry stood on the site of what later became Petersburg, Virginia, and was the residence and fortification on land belonging to Abraham Wood:

This fortified post remained the property and the home of Abraham Wood for at least thirty years; and there, doubtless, he died, leaving it as an inheritance to his children. He himself always called it “Fort Henry,” but the station or the settlement that grew up about it was long known as Wood. Only when the town was incorporated, in 1748, does the name “Petersburg” seem to have become attached to it. 

Under Wood and his successors, this establishment was the most important and interesting of the stations that dotted the fall line in Virginia. On the other important rivers were similar posts, centers like it of all the varied activity of the frontier. That one which grew into the city of Richmond is particularly well known through the activities and writings of the Byrds. Cadwallader Jones, at the head of tide on the Rappahannock, in 1682, had a considerable trade with the Indians four hundred miles to the south-southwest, and wrote to the Proprietor of Maryland for permission to secure in that province shell money for carrying it on. 

The military history of all the posts can be followed in ‘the laws and the state papers of the colony; but Fort Henry is entirely typical of all, and we know more about it than about any of the others. From it went out the Occoneechee or Trading Path southward to the Catawbas and beyond, and also the trail leading westward to the headwaters of the Roanoke and over the mountains to the New River – the two great roads of early trade and settlement, both of them first explored by Abraham Wood and his associates.

The First Explorations of the Trans-Alleghany Region by the Virginians 1650- 1674
By Clarence Walworth Alvord and Lee Bidgood
Published by The Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1912

Others followed, but it would be nearly one hundred years later when the holders of the Loyal Land Company were granted 800,000 acres of land across the mountains, and more specifically, lying “North of the North Carolina Line and West of the mountains.” Dr. Thomas Walker, one of the principals of the company, as well as chief surveyor, began the exploration and surveying of the area. Prior to that, only a few hardy white hunters had penetrated this deep in the wilderness. Also one of the principals of the Loyal Land Company, was Peter Jefferson, father of the future Governor of Virginia and President of the United States. Peter Jefferson was also a mapmaker:

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. Drawn by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson in 1751, published by Thos. Jefferys, London, 1755. This landmark map, unusual in that it relied on firsthand surveys, is the first correct depiction of the Allegheny Mountains, complete with ‘The Great Road from the Yadkin River through Virginia to Philadelphia distant 455 Miles’ – an accurate survey of what would come to be styled the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road.

Around 1748, a  group of pioneers established the settlement which became known as Draper’s Meadow, at about the present-day campus of Virginia Tech University, at modern day Blacksburg, in Montgomery County, Virginia. All went well with the small settlement until the 8th of July, 1755, when the community was attacked by a Shawnee war party, who killed, wounded, or captured all who were present at the time. The story of Mary Draper Ingles, who was kidnapped, and carried away to the Big Bone Lick in Kentucky, where she escaped and followed the river home to Draper’s Meadow, has been told and re-told countless times.

“…on the 8th July 1755 it being a Sunday a party of Indians came up the Kanawha, thence to Sinking Creek, thence to Strouble’s Creek—Inglis & Draper, brothers in law, were living at Solitude, the present seat of Col. Robert T. Preston. The Indians came to Barger’s (1/2 mile nearer the Mountain) & cut his head off & put it in a bag; Barger was a very old man then came to Inglis’ and Drapers, and killed old Mrs. Draper, two children of Col. Inglis’, by knocking their brains out on the ends of the Cabin logs – took Mrs. Inglis and her sister-in-law Mrs. Draper Jr., who was trying to make her escape with her infant in her arms, but she was shot at by the Indians, who broke her arms by which means the infant was dropped – the Indians picked the infant up, & knocked its brains out agains the Cabin logs – Col. Patton that morning having dressed himself in his uniform, and getting his nephew William Preston to sew up in the fob of his small clothes thirty British guineas, told him to go to Sinking Creek to get Lybrook to help take off the harvest; which was then ready to cut; Preston went very early – After breakfast, Col. Patton sat down to write, the Indian war whoop was heard and five or six of them surrounded the cabin to set in on fore – The Col. Always kept his sword on his writing table – he rushed to the door with it in hand and encountered the Indians – Patton was almost gigantic in size – he cut two of the Indians down – in the mean while another warrior had leveled his gun and fired and killed the brave old pioneer – After Patton fell the Indians ran out in the thicket and made their escape before any pursuers could be brought.”

One of the first-hand accounts discussed in an article written by a local historian I had the pleasure of going through an old house with a few months ago: Untangling the Tale of Mary Draper Ingles, Greenbrier Valley Quarterly, by David Sibray
Mary Draper Ingles’ cabin at Ingles’ Ferry along the New River she and her husband lived in following her escape from captivity.

During the summer of 1756, Fort Vause, near present day Christiansburg, Virginia, was destroyed, and all of its residents killed, wounded, or captured. About five years later, under the direction of Col. William Byrd, a new fort was built, which he named for his friend and business partner, Col. John Chiswell, the proprietor of the adjacent New River Lead Mines. Fort Chiswell was located several miles to the North, and across the New River, from the site of the lead mines. The surrender of Fort Loudon in 1760 began a period in which residents who had settled West of the mountains found themselves in great danger. The situation was so perilous, that before long, most settlers not kidnapped or killed fled East of the mountains.

Discovery of the Lead Mines

Col. John Chiswell had discovered the first significant deposit of lead in the Colony of Virginia in 1756. Some sources allege the date of discovery to be as early as 1750. John Chiswell had been engaged in mining operations near Fredericksburg, Virginia for sometime prior. This is where it starts looking like an Outlanders episode…. Having a rudimentary knowledge of minerals, Chiswell had been searching along the New River of Virginia, when he encountered hostile Indians. Taking refuge in a cave, he found lead ore while waiting for the Indians to depart. Later returning, he located mineralized lead outcroppings in the vicinity. Chiswell returned to his home in Williamsburg, and applied to the Colony for a grant of land surrounding his new discovery. Chiswell formed a partnership with his son-in-law, John Robinson, who was the Speaker of the House of Burgesses and Col. William Byrd, III.

Mining began by digging out lead carbonate ore that was either exposed or lying under shallow overburden, some of which contained as much as 60% lead. A small smelting furnace was erected, and soon pack-trains of horses were carrying lead throughout the colonies. Situated in a remote and wild location, the operation progressed as smoothly as could be expected. Problems arose in 1763, when the “Proclamation Line” was drawn, placing the mines on Indian Land and forbidding encroachment by Virginia colonists. The partners in the lead mine realized the importance of their operations and tried to make them profitable. But in 1766, it began to collapse financially – largely due to the drop in the price of tobacco.

The 1763 Proclamation Line – roughly following the Blue Ridge; Source: Library of Congress, Cantonment of His Majesty’s forces in N. America according to the disposition now made & to be compleated as soon as practicable taken from the general distribution dated at New York 29th. March 1766

The lead mine partners, like most other citizens of the Colony of Virginia, found themselves in heavy debt. They were without good title to the lead mine itself, but remained resolute to continue operations. But such things required great amounts of money. The capital for the operation, it was discovered later, came from the Virginia Treasury, in the amount of approximately 10,000 pounds, acquired – or rather embezzled –  by John Robinson, Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses. At that time, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses was also the State Treasurer. Apparently, Robinson had been loaning out paper notes he was supposed to have destroyed, and was also loaning out taxpayer funds received, prior to submitting them to the treasury. As a direct result of this embarrassing scandal, the Colony of Virginia changed the laws, so that no single individual could ever again be both Speaker of the House, as well as Treasurer – perhaps an early illustration of the importance of separation of powers making its way into the minds of the Founding Fathers.

Old lead mines are dotted around the river in the vicinity of present-day Austinville, Virginia.

With the elicit funds, Chiswell imported new mining equipment and special brick to build a furnace, which he said would extract silver from the lead. The “silver from lead” stories were likely spread by Col. Chiswell in order to stall his creditors, in an attempt to hold off foreclosures and gain some time. Creditors, convinced they might soon be paid in valuable pure silver, also saw opportunity for great wealth. Apparently, the stories about extracting silver from lead was widely believed at the time of Chiswell’s death, when people rushed in from across the Virginia frontier in search of buried silver. Their search continued for many years in the vicinity of Bald Hill. There are also stories of silver mines, which have never been found. Or have they? More about local legends of silver and buried treasure later…..

An overlay of a 1960 plat from the New Jersey Zinc Company, appearing to show the location of “Chiswell’s (original) Hole.”

The collapse of the lead mining operation began at about the same time that John Robinson died suddenly, some say by his own hand. It is not known if the 1,000,000 plus pounds of missing Virginia treasury funds were discovered before his death. But it surely was when the court appointed executors opened his books after his death, thus beginning what was perhaps the largest political embezzlement scandal in American history – even before the creation of the United States. The Robinson Estate wouldn’t get closed until well into the 19th century. It was the Bernie Madoff scandal of its time.

One of the abandoned lead mine sites along the New River at the New River lead mines.

Col. John Chiswell’s life would end his life three months after Robinson’s. On June 3, 1766, Robert Routledge, a Virginia trader who sold foreign merchandise, was said to have been “much in the liquor” in Benjamin Mosby’s Tavern in Cumberland County, Virginia. Words were exchanged between Routledge and Chiswell, which resulted in Col. Chiswell to believe that his honor had been questioned. Col. Chiswell, who was a loyalist, is supposed to have called Routledge “a Presbyterian fellow” and “a Scottish rebel.” Again, cue the Outlander theme song…. Routledge threw a glass of wine at Chiswell. Chiswell threw a bowl of “Bimbo,” along with a candlestick and pair of fire tongs at Routledge. Routledge picked up a chair. Col. Chiswell called a servant to bring his sword to him, and when it was provided to him, he ran Robert Routledge through with the sword, killing him.

What is “bumbo?”:

Bumbo (also known as bombo or bumboo) is a drink made from rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg. Cinnamon is sometimes substituted for or added to the nutmeg. Modern bumbo is often made with dark rum, citrus juice, grenadine, and nutmeg. A related drink is the Traitor, made with orange juice, rum, honey, and cactus, mixed and heated. Bumbo was commonly used during election campaigns in colonial British America, to the extent that treating voters to gifts and other freebies during election campaigns was referred to as “swilling the planters with bumbo”. George Washington was particularly noted for using this technique. His papers state that he used 160 gallons of rum to treat 391 voters to bumbo during campaigning for the Virginia House of Burgesses in July 1758.


Col. Chiswell admitted the deed, stating, “He is dead, and I killed him.” Col. John Chiswell was charged, tried and convicted of murder. He was sentenced to be executed. It was at about this time that the scandal surfaced, with the news that the John Robinson estate owed the Virginia Treasury around 1,000,000 pounds. However Chiswell wouldn’t make it to his execution day. He died the day before it was scheduled, on October 14, 1766. Some say he died from “nervous fits.” Others said it was due to poison slipped to him by a friend. Others said he hung himself to spare his family the embarrassment of a public hanging. In what may be the first crime scene diagram known to have been created in America, the Virginia Gazette published the diagram, in what was the first of many “trials of the century” to come in American History. Here’s the original diagram:

Originally in the Virginia Gazette, Violence and Virtue in Virginia, 1766: Or, the Importance of the Trivial, by Carl Bridenbaugh, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Third Series, Vol. 76 (1964), pp. 3-29

This is a modern version I found:

In the ninety years since the collapse of Bacon’s Rebellion, nothing had occurred to ruffle the surface calm of political life in the Old Dominion. The members of the tobacco gentry were firmly in control and were, in fact, steadily consolidating their power under the able leadership of John Robinson, treasurer of the province and speaker of the House of Burgesses. Here and there, however, one could discovery eddies of discontent. The westward spread of tobacco culture and slavery across the Piedmont, almost to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains . . . had . . . brought about a hitherto unrecognized shift in the colony’s wealth and power . . . .

Violence and Virtue in Virginia, 1766: Or, the Importance of the Trivial, by Carl Bridenbaugh, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Third Series, Vol. 76 (1964), pp. 3-29

At the death of John Robinson, the nation’s first large-scale swindler, Chiswell’s lead mine was the largest debt owed to the Robinson Estate, i.e., the Virginia Treasury, at £8,085 12s. 5d. It just so happens, that Col. Byrd himself was also one of the three justices of the peace to preside over the Chiswell trial, as well as one of the executors of the Robinson Estate, who was therefore attempting to hide the fact that he was in on the scheme as well. It marked a turning point in Virginia society and government:

During the summer months of 1766, Virginians of all ranks read more and more in their two newspapers about the actual workings of their government and society. To say that men were amazed at what they learned would be a considerable understatement….

‘Patriots . . . are alarmed on this occasion; foreigners are alarmed; the middle and lower ranks of men, who are acquainted with the particulars, are extremely alarmed….’ This novelty of printing the news that surprised and worried the gentry fascinated and inspirited the populace.

Violence and Virtue in Virginia, 1766: Or, the Importance of the Trivial, by Carl Bridenbaugh, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Third Series, Vol. 76 (1964), pp. 3-29

Nobody knew until the 1950s that William Byrd and the lead mines owed the most money to the Robinson Estate, or that Byrd – one of the judges presiding over the Chiswell murder case – was Chiswell’s partner in the mines. Tensions over the Stamp Act, as well as this high-profile murder case and embezzlement scandal, changed the Old Dominion for good, having the effect of uniting most of the state by 1775 – just in time.

Fort Chiswell

When all of these men were still alive, they sought their fortunes in the lead Col. Chiswell had discovered along the New River. During the French and Indian War, one of the three partners, Byrd, had mobilized a small army of militia to come to the rescue of the besieged Fort Loudon. Col. William Byrd, III, rendezvoused his troops at Ingles Ferry, on the New River, and marched to relieve Fort Loudon. Tradition has it that the force then constructed a short distance away from the ferry site, which became Fort Chiswell.

It seems quite strange that they would have marched only a few miles West fro their rendezvous point before stopping and building a new fort. Likely, Col. Byrd tarried in the spot only long enough to build a blockhouse, if he constructed a fort all. The site was originally the location of the “camp,” or most likely fortified cabin, of Alexander Sayers. To what extent the Sayer’s cabin was still standing, or in need of repair at that time, is unknown. The site was indeed occupied by Byrd, and was indeed the site which would later become “Fort Chiswell” as soon as less than one year later.

It’s possible that Byrd and his men helped construct part of the “fort” at that time, or that it was constructed by others shortly thereafter, including possibly the known experienced fort-builder, Andrew Lewis, who would have been available to assist at the time. Or, perhaps they just built a stockade wall around the existing Sayers fortified cabin/blockhouse. Later archaeological excavations lend credence to this, since it is apparent that better construction took place in the 1770s, on top of the original Sayers structures, which wouldn’t have been necessary if a fine well-constructed fort had been built just ten years earlier. Fort Chiswell, as it was eventually named, stood about nine miles East of present day Wytheville, Virginia, at almost exactly under the interchange of interstates I-81 and I-77. It was frequently referred to in old records as “Fort Chissel,” which presumably is the way Col. Chiswell’s name was pronounced.

After the stop at what would become Fort Chiswell, Byrd and his troops resumed their march to Fort Loudon, but yet again stopped shortly thereafter, and built yet another fort – this one named Fort Robinson, after Byrd’s other business partner. After Fort Robinson was completed, the march to relieve Fort Loudon was resumed. Shortly thereafter however, they met with a runner who brought the news that Fort Loudon had surrendered. Back at “Camp Sayers” – later Fort Chiswell, Byrd met with Cherokee Chief, Little Carpenter, and thirty two of his warriors, and agreed to suspend further hostilities. The Indians were given trade goods, and records state that they left well satisfied. It wasn’t until a February 7, 1761 letter that the Sayers property is first referred to as “Fort Chiswell.”

Little written record can be found telling about the early days of Fort Chiswell. Only rarely does a traveler’s written record mention passing by. In 1777, Fincastle County was abolished and the county court was moved from the lead mines to Fort Chiswell. A description from the time described about twenty buildings, most being outside the fort, one of which was a mill established in 1767 by one “A. Bledsoe.”

A town was planned, with lots laid out around the new Fincastle county seat. But only a few, if any, were sold. It seemed that nobody wanted to live there. The unsuitability of building a town around the Fort Chiswell location was stated in the Court of Record, November 2, 1779, where it was recorded by the Clerk:

This Court having taken into consideration the situation of the place appointed for a courthouse and town to be fixed at this county are unanimously of the opinion that it is an improper one . . . . Because the land laid off for the town and courthouse is on a high barren hill difficult of access every way and so inconvenient to wood and water that it never can be expected people would settle here or lots would sell at any price so that the County would be deprived of the great advantages affecting towns in the frontier counties….”

This is supposedly a circa 1900 photo of what was left of Fort Chiswell, or rather the part of it built by James McGavock, beginning in 1771.
A nearby log structure which utilizes the same manner of construction as used at Byrnside’s Fort, with a vertical hewn log connecting the original structure with the addition.

The site was the subject of archaeological excavations prior to the interstate excavations decimating some of the site. In the ensuing report, some of the old building foundations were found, providing additional information. Beginning in 1771, James McGavock purchased Fort Chiswell and the surrounding property from the Sayers heirs, where he apparently made vast improvements to the fort. It would stay in his family until 1901. Archaeologists found what were likely the stone foundations of these structures.

One building excavated measured 20 feet by 20 feet. It coincides with court records ordering the construction of a courthouse of the same dimensions at Fort Chiswell. A second structure measured 66 feet overall and consisted of a house 17 feet by 32 feet with a 25 foot by 23 foot addition. Each section had a stone fireplace. A basement was located in the original building which was on the west end…. The third structure located, which measures 31 feet by 23 feet, is thought to be the McGavock ordinary or kitchen constructed circa 1772. All of the buildings appearing to date from the McGavock period have foundations of stone and bear a similar orientation.

NRHP Nomination Form for the Fort Chiswell Site.

This is similar to the existing structure of Byrnside’s Fort, which has an original structure of 30 feet by 20 feet, with the oldest section having a basement, and also having an addition, also with a stone foundation – but no basement – of around 20 feet by 20 feet – both with stone chimneys as well. Then behind Byrnside’s Fort, is a separate structure with a stone foundation of an undetermined size, which possible also served as a kitchen building.

Still to come: Byrnside’s Fort’s connection to “Fort Chissel,” lurking Tories and Indians, the first “lynching,” hero patriot riflemen, the birth of Texas, and stories passed down from the old timers….

To be continued…..