Highland County is one of four Virginia counties named for its natural features. Settlement began about 1745 when immigrants of both German and Scots-Irish descent began to push up the tributaries of the South Branch of the Potomac and the James Rivers. The county’s remote and isolated location was noted by early land speculators. One such petition to the Colonial Governor of Virginia asking for a grant of 50,000 acres on the “… head branches of the James River…” noted that “… the lands are very remote and lying among great mountains being about 200 miles from any landing…”*
Efforts to create a new county from the territory of Bath and Pendleton were begun in 1839 and continued in 1840. In both years, polls failed to capture a majority in the two parent counties.
In 1838, the area was opened to development by the completion of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. The road was built and sited by the famous engineer, Claudius Crozet, who believed the Pike would benefit the State by retaining and increasing its western population, clearing and settling an extensive territory, and adding to the State’s revenues by the enhanced value of land through which the road would pass. His vision was accurate and the Turnpike served as a major artery through the Allegheny Mountains for more than 100 years.
Finally, in 1847, Highland was created with its seat located in a patch of woods and laurel thickets between two straight creeks. The site was located on Bell’s farm at the house and tavern of John Cook. Carved from Pendleton and Bath, the county consists of 422 square miles and has the highest average elevation of any county east of the Mississippi River.
By the time of the Civil War, Highland was able to enlist more than 500 men into the Confederate Army. Fewer than a dozen joined the Union side. On 8 May 1862, a significant battle was fought at the small village of McDowell that resulted in Stonewall Jackson repulsing Union General Milroy and preventing Federal forces from advancing on Staunton. The battlefield at McDowell remains essentially unchanged, save for the growth of trees. The historic character of two ante-bellum brick homes in the village, and the Presbyterian Church (which served as headquarters and hospital) remains essentially the same. The names of some soldiers were carved into the bricks of the church and remain visible today.
The county was thought to be on the verge of a growth spurt in the late 1800s and early 1900s when plans were afoot to build a railroad into Highland. When the railroad failed to materialize and investors lost significant sums, the promise of industrial growth faded. Highland has remained essentially an agrarian community.
Currently three sites in the county are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register -- The Highland Center, the Highland Inn and the Mansion House. The Highland Historical Society, located in the Mansion House at McDowell, maintains information on these and other historic properties. The Society serves the county as the principal repository for Highland County artifacts and documents related to its history.
* Oren F. Morton, A History of Highland County, Virginia, Regional Publishing Co., Baltimore, MD, 1985; p. 61.