The current city of Bristol, Virginia has its origins as a frontier outpost on the edge of the wilderness. Until the late 1760’s it was native Indian land that for centuries had bountiful vegetation, game and herds of buffalo. In 1768 the Evan Shelby family purchased the Sapling Grove tract of land that straddled the Virginia and North Carolina state line, before Tennessee became a state. Shelby from his block house built a thriving “way station”, providing supplies and safety for settlers moving west. It was a significant location at the end of the Great Valley Road, from the Valley of Virginia and New River Valley into the Holston Region. It is the most defined opening to the west in the Appalachian Region and was considered the “Gateway to the West” for generations of settlers. At this opening there was an intersection to Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road, The Island Road (Kingsport), and the Cumberland Road to Nashville.

What is now Bristol was located in a “squabble state” and claimed by Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee for hundreds of years and was an important location on the western frontier. During the American Revolution Sapling Grove and Fort Shelby was the center of the North Holston Settlement where the venerable Evan Shelby resided and where his son, Isaac Shelby, lived before settling in Kentucky and becoming its first Governor. Isaac Shelby and William Campbell led troops from Sapling Grove in 1780 to muster at Fort Watauga with hundreds of Overmountain Men on the way to the Battle of Kings Mountain.

After the death of Evan Shelby the land became the plantation of James King who developed the bottom land for grazing cattle and continued to bring immigrants from the Great Valley Road by horse and stage coach. King set up a post office in his home in 1839 and starting formulating plans for a town. The speculation was enhanced when the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad began plans to move into the region. James King and his neighbor and Virginia Delegate, Samuel Goodson, petitioned the rail company to adjust their plans and place the line through their property. In 1848 James King gave the land for the depot adjacent to the state line as an incentive. It was not King that would eventually lay claim as the founder of Bristol, as he sold 100 acres of his prime meadowland to his son-in-law, Joseph Anderson. Both Anderson and Goodson founded adjoining towns of Bristol and Goodsonville along the Virginia & Tennessee rail line in 1852, and in 1856 all of the Virginia side, now Bristol Virginia, became the town of Goodson, Virginia. In 1890 the town again changed its name to Bristol, Virginia.

During the Civil War Bristol was again a very strategic location on the south-western edge of Virginia and the last outpost for the Confederacy after Tennessee had a Union military governor and other than Sullivan County, the rest of East Tennessee leaned toward the North. This put Bristol in the center of potential raids from Union troops. Among the most noted residents that took the call to arms was John Singleton Mosby who operated the first law office in the fledgling town of Bristol. He became a noted military officer and gorilla fighter, better known as the Grey Ghost of the Confederacy.

Bristol, Virginia cannot be separated from its twin sister across the state line of Bristol Tennessee. Both cities’ join at State Street where brass markers down the middle of the thoroughfare mark the historic center of downtown. Also, on the eastern end of downtown is the historic Bristol Slogan Sign which was placed in 1910 and recognized as one of the largest and oldest city promotional signs in the United States. It reads, Bristol, A Good Place To Live, and was placed on the National Register in 1988.

Today, Bristol has a number of claims to fame, including the official Birthplace of Country Music. The famed Bristol Sessions of 1927 led to what has been referred to the Big Bang of Country Music. That series of recordings brought together the first family of country music, the Carter family, with Jimmie Rodgers and the Stoneman family. Since 2014 Bristol has been home to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, telling the story of the Bristol Sessions and music of southern Appalachia.

When visiting Bristol there are a number of notable historic sites, including the 1902 Bristol Union Railway Station, the site of James King’s original lure to the railroad company. The highly embellished station served rail traffic until 1971 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. While visiting Bristol people crowd “Burger Bar” which is an original 1950’s era restaurant in downtown, thought to be the last stop of Hank Williams, Sr as he passed through town December 31, 1952 and found dead in the back seat the next morning by his chauffer. The story of country music begins and ends in Bristol!

Local Events

While there are currently no events listed specifically for City of Bristol, search the VA250 Statewide Calendar of Events for a comprehensive listing of programs across the state.


Debi Denney

Skip to content