Long before the southwestern corner of Virginia was discovered by coal men, this land of gently rolling hills, ridges, and winding streams was valued as a safe place for another vital human activity: hiding. As General Imboden learned in the late 1870s, its mountains and forests and narrow valley floors had cut this region off from the rest of the world. Early homesteaders found the lack of level ground so uninviting that land could not even be given away: After the Revolutionary War, many war veterans received government land grants in these mountains for their service in the Continental Army, but few of them actually settled there. Politicians had isolated the region politically as well: The state capital in Richmond was a greater distance from Wise County than the capitals of eight other states.
Many of the first white settlers in Wise, Lee, and Scott Counties liked it this way. Their eighteenth-century ancestors in many cases were impoverished English, Scotch, Irish, and Welsh natives who had been locked up in British debtors prisons for failure to pay their bills and then, as an alternative to jail, shipped to eastern Virginia to open up the new land as indentured servants. Their working conditions on Virginia’s tobacco farms were barely better than those of slaves, and eventually many of them slipped off under cover of night and headed westward until they stumbled upon places where they were unlikely to be found. In these pursuits they were joined by another group of outcasts: the “Melungeons, ” a dark-skinned people of mixed race who were variously said to be descended from American Indians, Greeks, Portuguese, Negro slaves, or even Virginia’s original lost colony at Roanoke. Eventually all of these fugitives settled into hollows and coves