The Town of Abingdon is rich in history and tradition because of its location on the Great Valley Road leading from Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley to the Cumberland Gap. It was an area of early interest and settlement. Early surveyors explore the area in the mid-1700s including Dr. Thomas Walker, a physician and early explorer/surveyor of SWVA, who first discovered the Cumberland Gap in 1750; and later Daniel Boone, noted pioneer and explorer of the American frontier who blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in 1775. Abingdon was part of a 6,780 acre tract of land granted by King George II to Dr. Thomas Walker in 1752. Later the community was know as Blacks Fort in 1774 in recognition of a fort constructed by Captain Joseph Black as a fortified homestead.
In 1776, the Virginia Assembly created Washington County which abolished Fincastle County, and in 1778, the Town of Abingdon was incorporated as the county seat. Its early settlement saw pioneers and frontiersmen pushing westward, exploring new territories, and establishing homesteads. The resilience and determination of these settlers in the face of challenges shaped the region’s identity.
The county was a pivotal area during the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Kings Mountain, fought partly within its borders in 1780, marked a significant turning point in the war. Local militias played a crucial role in this battle, impacting the war’s trajectory. When the call to arms was made, the men of Washington County, VA answered in force. 400 men made their way to the muster grounds in Abingdon, a well-known meeting place. The field at the Abingdon Muster Grounds is a remnant of the original muster ground, then known as Craig’s Meadow. They gathered under Colonel William Campbell on September 1780, said goodbye to their loved ones and headed south that same day to join other Patriot militia who were gathering at Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals (TN).
Among the Town of Abingdon’s historic resources includes the Sinking Spring Cemetery. Sinking Spring Cemetery is a 250-year-old site dating back to the origins of Abingdon. Here the first colonial settlers of Black’s Fort now Abingdon met for church services. Originally, the 11-acre site was established as a churchyard for the congregation of the Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church, organized in 1772. The congregation met in a log meeting house, and were led in worship by Rev. Charles Cummings, Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church’s first pastor. Later in 1776, the site became both a place of worship and a place to honor their deceased congregation members. It is believed the first individual to be buried at Sinking Spring Cemetery is Henry Creswell sometime in 1776.
In 1832 the Sinking Springs Presbyterian Church built the central portion of the current Barter Theatre. When the church moved to a new location, the building was acquired by the Songs of Temperance. Temperance organizations, dedicated to promoting moderation or complete abstinence in the use of intoxicating liquor, were popular in the early 19th century, often organizing social occasions in their local communities. In Abingdon “Temperance Hall” was used for lectures, garage meetings, theatrical productions, and in 1855 a male school met in the basement. By the end of the 19th century, the temperance group was no longer functioning and the two remaining trustees gave the property to the Town of Abingdon. By 1905 the building was in such a state of disrepair that bonds were issued to repair and enlarge it. During the next years it was used as Town Hall with offices upstairs, a jail in the basement, and the fire department in the rear. In 1933, Robert Porterfield brought actors to Abingdon and they made their debut performance here exchanging theatre tickets for produce, livestock, or other goods brought by local people. This barter system have the theatre its name, The Barter Theatre.
Taverns played an important role in the early years of Abingdon, when large numbers of settlers were passing through the area on their way further west. Governor David Campbell wrote when he first saw Abingdon as a boy in 1783, there were only four log buildings; three were taverns and one was the courthouse. His father, John Campbell, moved to Abingdon to be closer to his job as Court Clerk for the newly formed Washington County. The present Tavern, a restaurant, was built around 1788 and during its history has been used as a bank, bakery, general store, cabinet shop, barber shop, private residence, post office, and antique shop.
In 1832 the original building of the complex that now houses the Martha Washington Inn was constructed as a private residence for General Francis Preston and his wife Sarah Buchanan Campbell Preston. Mrs. Preston was the daughter of General William Campbell, leader of the Battle of King’s Mountain, and Elizabeth Henry, sister of Patrick Henry. In 1858 the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church purchased the building to use as a women’s college, named in honor of Mary Washington. The college operated from 1860 to 1919 when it was consolidated with Emory & Henry College. In 1932 the college was closed and the property was leased to George G. Barnhill to be reopened as the Marth Washinton Inn.