A Historiographical Evaluation of the Founding of Roanoke, Virginia


In February of 1882, the Virginia General Assembly granted a charter that authorized the small but growing town of Big Lick to officially become Roanoke, Virginia. As Rand Dotson has noted, “In the 1880s, no city in the South grew faster than the railroad hub of Roanoke, Virginia.”[1] In terms of population growth, Roanoke was certainly successful in its foundational years. However, a rise in population is not necessarily the only qualification for judging a city’s vitality. One might look to factors such as the social conditions, educational opportunities, safety, entertainment, or racial equality. Furthermore, when historians have looked at the city of Roanoke’s founding, a variety of interpretations have been made. Each school of thought has offered helpful insights, but all require a critique as well. To keep the discussion precise, only the historiography of Roanoke’s first three decades will be analyzed in this research: 1882-1912. By comparing the different historiographical schools, conclusions can be made as to why the interpreters made their decisions. Such an endeavor can also lead to a more refined understanding of Roanoke’s founding.

Before comparing the historiographical schools of thought on the origins of Roanoke, it will be helpful to first consider United States historiography as a whole so that the arguments from Roanoke’s historians can be placed into a broader context. William Archibald Dunning and his like-minded students focused more on the years in American history just before the founding of Roanoke, but were nevertheless influential in how historians articulated their views in the early twentieth century. According to James S. Humphreys, “The Dunning School portrayed Radical Reconstruction as an abject failure, cast blacks as ill-equipped for the responsibilities of freedom, and described southern whites as hapless victims of the Reconstruction policies of the federal government.”[2] Towards the end of Dunning’s career, some scholars, including Charles A. Beard, began to look at United States history through the lens of economic self-interest.[3] These latter historians have generally been considered as being within the “Progressive” historiographical school of thought.

By the middle of the twentieth century, another historiographical position began to crystallize: the Consensus School. Dwight H. Hoover, writing in 1965, made the following observation: “The core of this interpretation is that Americans are more similar than [dissimilar], that no class struggle in the European sense occurred in the United States and that historians have been deceived by the public arguments used by those disputants in the past to overwhelm their opposition.”[4] Coincidentally, as Daniel Joseph Singal later observed, “Consensus history…reflected the pervasive social and cultural conservatism of the 1950s.”[5] In other words, just as the cultural influences in the early 1900s seemed to have influenced the way Progressive historians interpreted the past, so also did the unified, post-World War II climate of the 1950s affect how Consensus historians made their conclusions.

Following the Civil Rights Era, numerous historians started to focus much more attention on African Americans and their impact on American history. The study of race in the New South is presently a very common topic among historians, and is likewise a very important issue in regards to the origins of Roanoke. However, according to some historians, despite the fact that plenty of injustices occurred during the era of the Jim Crow laws, the South has been treated unfairly in recent years. Edward L. Ayers is one such proponent, and warned, “The South and its people get to play only limited roles in the story of America; they are dragged into the textbooks and movie houses to demonstrate slavery, to cause the Civil War, to suffer in poverty, to inflict and partially overcome injustice. The result is a South that is easily pegged, easily caricatured, easily explained.”[6] Ayers was not denying any of the major problems that existed in the New South. Rather, he was arguing that historians had gone to the opposite extreme of assuming the worst about the South. Furthermore, he asserted that the New South was more complex than as it had been previously branded.[7] Overall, then, historians have approached the history of the United States, and the New South in particular, with different perspectives. Many of which played an important role in influencing the historians of Roanoke.

In 1912, E.B. Jacobs wrote the first book on the history of Roanoke. Eight years before History of Roanoke City was published, Jacobs helped found the Roanoke Chamber of Commerce.[8] Thus, Jacobs held a high position in society, which was also influential for the economic prosperity of the city. Despite his prominent role, Jacobs pledged in his book, “While it is not possible at all times to describe in detail the factors which helped to give impetus to the city’s upbuilding, what is set forth has been written with due regard for accuracy, and is based on information compiled from sources deemed reliable and authentic.”[9] However unbiased Jacobs claimed to have been, the book presents a strikingly different image of Roanoke compared to modern interpretations, and leaves out certain issues that were undoubtedly newsworthy at the time. If Roanoke was a person, then History of Roanoke City could be considered “hagiography” in the sense of idealizing its origins. Jacobs wrote, “The story of the growth of Roanoke from a cross-roads village to the city’s present proportions is not only picturesque, but it contains a lesson of dramatic force.”[10] He went on to state, “It portrays the confidence and determination of a people possessing supreme faith in their city’s future, and exemplifies a spirit that enabled them to surmount obstacles which were encountered during the city’s development.”[11] Roanoke, according to Jacobs’ interpretation, was a city of unwavering progress with virtually no problems.

To be fair to Jacobs, plenty of what he presented was meticulously researched.[12] Still, his interpretations of the data require a critical evaluation. Although Jacobs conceded, “[T]here was a feeling of uncertainty and a lack of confidence in the stability of Roanoke institutions that interfered in some degree with substantial progress of the city” in the late 1880s, he assures his readers propagandistically, “Values are now permanent, and the financial condition of the city and the stability of its institutions are a guaranty that investments in Roanoke property are safe, and a satisfactory income assured.”[13] Most of what had taken place in Roanoke, from its inception to the date of Jacobs’ publication, had been for the city’s betterment. Whether it was the Roanoke & Southern Railroad workers, the ladies of the Women’s Civic Betterment Club, or owners of local businesses, Roanoke citizens all appeared to be contributors and happy recipients of Roanoke’s progress.[14] Yet, there is a noticeable aspect of Roanoke’s origins that is missing from Jacobs’ book, namely, the issue of race. Jacobs never mentioned anything about the racial tensions that were experienced in the 1890s, and with just a couple of minor exceptions, he made no mention of African Americans.[15] Therefore, while Jacobs’ interpretation of Roanoke’s early history has some value to it, there are numerous weaknesses. It is possible that the Dunning and Progressive historiographical schools had a modest impact on Jacobs’ views, but most of all, he clearly had an agenda for expanding Roanoke’s economic growth, which had a much greater role in influencing his interpretations.

Raymond P. Barnes wrote A History of Roanoke in 1968, a voluminous work that covers each year of Roanoke’s history from its origins to World War II. In his preface, Barnes stated, “The History of Roanoke is not devoted to individuals or families but instead reflects the gradual growth of a heavily populated community on what were farm lands in 1881.”[16] By looking to the community as a whole, Barnes, whether he was conscious of it or not, seems to have been influenced by Consensus historians, or at the very least, Barnes interpreted the history of Roanoke in similar ways to how Consensus historians view United States history. While there are certainly differences between Barnes’ book and Jacobs’ earlier sketch of Roanoke, similarities can also be seen. Generally speaking, Barnes, as Jacobs did, had a very positive outlook on Roanoke’s past and its hope for a prosperous future. Despite the challenges that had come to the city in 1893, such as economic struggles and social unrest, Barnes wrote concerning the outlook in 1898, “Roanoke was still young, a badly mauled infant, recovering fast.”[17] He later stated, “In spite of the tragedies and sorrows, 1912 will long be remembered as a happy and successful year and once of those reflecting the far off days when nations were not at each others throats. Roanoke City was sound as a rock!”[18] Therefore, while Barnes was much more transparent than Jacobs on some of the problems that existed in the community, both historians of Roanoke viewed their city as a beacon of progress and prosperity.[19]

Not all was well in Roanoke, however. For example, Barnes, unlike Jacobs, discussed the issue of race relations. The interpretations of Barnes, nevertheless, reflected an attitude of racial superiority towards black citizens of Roanoke’s early years. Perhaps the clearest example of this mindset is demonstrated in the following comment:

One would think that the negro, who was fast learning to become a better citizen, would appreciate the fact that he was educated by tax money furnished by the whites. All public utilities and conveniences and charities were maintained by white people. The negro had contributed very little financially to the public weal. Instead of taking a cooperative attitude, many of the people remained bitter and antagonistic to the prevailing political sentiment and tried in every way to obstruct harmony between the races. This attitude was costly to the negro and in no small way held back the progress of the race.[20]

There were several alleged acts of violence that took place between white and black citizens, but one of the most significant instances, according to Barnes, concerned the attack of a white man named Thomas Massie by a black perpetrator. After discussing the outrage in the town that resulted from this episode, Barnes wrote, “Back in those days a negro in the white section, or a white man in the negro section, where neither had any business to be was a sure sign of proposed rascality.”[21] However, Barnes also suspected that the Massie incident, “[C]ontributed much to the widening gap between the whites and negroes.”[22] In many, if not most, of the discussions that pertained to race, Barnes displayed an insensitive view towards African Americans, an outlook that likely reflected cultural ideologies from others in Roanoke during his lifetime as well.

Recent historians of Roanoke’s origins have built upon what previous authors left them, but new interpretations have also been made. Carolyn Hale Bruce, in her book, Roanoke: Past and Present, published in 1982, was much more sensitive to the black citizens of Roanoke. She interpreted the riot of 1983 as having resulted, “Perhaps [from] declining fortunes and the threat of worsening times.”[23] Bruce condemned the lynch mobs from this incident, but also highlighted the bravery of Dr. William Creighton Campbell, who “single-handedly put an end to the riot of 1893 with his personal courage and sense of right.”[24] Although that might be a bit of an exaggeration, overall, Bruce’s interpretations of Roanoke’s origins were transparent, yet they also focused on positive features, even when not everything appeared to be altogether pleasant.

In 2007, The University of Tennessee Press published Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South by Rand Dotson, which is by far the most well researched of any text on Roanoke’s founding.[25] It was the “heavily revised doctoral dissertation” that Dotson completed at Louisiana State University.[26] Dotson, towards the beginning of his book, wrote, “Rather than simply viewing the city as a static entity, this study also considers Roanoke and its people as part of an ongoing process—one laden with a multiplicity of unintended consequences, uncertain outcomes, and ambiguous conclusions.”[27] Similar to Bruce, Dotson was sympathetic to black citizens of Roanoke, and believed that racial tensions “surfaced as the result of a growing belief among whites that African Americans were largely responsible for a fantastic increase in crime.”[28]

Contrary to all previous interpretations, however, Dotson presented a much less sanguine view of Roanoke’s origins. While previous interpretations praised Roanoke for its progressive spirit, Dotson critically stated, “[P]rogressivism in Roanoke mirrored the regional variant of the movement: it was paradoxical, hierarchical, undemocratic, racist, paternalistic, and won only through coercion of those being ‘reformed.’”[29] He also said the following:

The results of the quest for a New South, especially when measured in terms of gaining economic equality with the North, were by the early twentieth century a colossal failure. Roanoke, which exemplified what southern boosters claimed the region needed most, was the prototypical New South city—an extreme version of everything that was supposed to remedy the South’s torpid post-Civil War economy.[30]

Although he conceded, “Whether or not it met this promise is ambiguous,” Dotson presented a much different understanding of Roanoke than what previous authors had given.[31] In a somewhat dreary fashion, Dotson concluded, “While Roanoke took only eighteen years to become Virginia’s third largest municipality in 1900, over the course of the next hundred years, it fell to ninth, and it will likely tumble further still since the town is steadily declining in population while the rest of urban Virginia is increasing.”[32]

Multiple historians have recounted the origins of Roanoke, and in each portrayal, something unique was offered. E.B. Jacobs, despite having left out important information about the city, provided a strong case for why Roanoke was a place of progress, in many ways at least. Raymond P. Barnes left behind an impressive 844-page text, though his interpretations at times were highly questionable. Carolyn Hale Bruce managed to balance optimism with sensitivity towards African Americans.[33] Finally, Rand Dotson’s scholarly treatment of Roanoke’s origins supplied a necessary critique of some of the exaggerated promises propagated by local leaders. At the same time, Dotson went perhaps too far in his evaluation. While Roanoke did go from the third to the ninth largest municipality in Virginia, Dotson failed to analyze this change in light of two world wars and the Cold War, which brought forth new industries to Northern Virginia and along the coast. An arguably better way to approach Roanoke’s origins is to simply admit that it was a city of complexities and contradictions, reflected both in primary sources and in its historiography, and that while it was truly a city of progress in many ways from 1882-1912, Roanoke was not a utopia, nor were all promises fulfilled.[34]

[1] Rand Dotson, Roanoke, Virginia, 1882-1912: Magic City of the New South (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2007), xv.

[2] James S. Humphreys, “William Archibald Dunning: Flawed Colossus of American Letters” in John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, eds., The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 77-78.

[3] John R. Richard, “Turner, Beard, Chandler: Progressive Historians” The Business History Review 82:2 (Summer 2008), 227-240.

[4] Dwight W. Hoover, “Some Comments on Recent United States Historiography” American Quarterly 17:2 (Summer 1965), 299.

[5] Daniel Joseph Singal, “Beyond Consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American Historiography” The American Historical Review 89:4 (October 1984), 977.

[6] Edward L. Ayers, “Narrating the New South” The Journal of Southern History 61:3 (August 1995), 564.

[7] Ayers wrote, “The planters ran their plantations but were neglected by the town-based politicians; politicians ran the state house but were sneered at by the railroad companies; preachers guided large congregations but were detested by many profane people; women supervised their households but could always be overruled by their husbands; rural merchants held their customers’ futures in their hands but saw their own futures controlled by town-based wholesalers; white people assumed themselves superior to the blacks among whom they lived but blacks laughed at white pretension.” Ibid., 562-563.

[8] Dotson, Roanoke, Virginia, 300 (Note 80).

[9] E.B. Jacobs, History of Roanoke City (Roanoke: Stone Publishing Company, 1912), 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. Jacobs was even so bold to say the following: “Proud of her past accomplishments, conscious of her natural advantages, resourceful and vigorous in her undertakings, she is the embodiment of energy and progress—a queenly municipality, crowned with the well-earned prestige of notable achievements, and destined to occupy a commanding position among the progressive cities of the land.” Ibid., 99.

[12] For example, he listed the names of those involved in the meeting concerning the Shenandoah Valley Railroad’s construction in Big Lick/Roanoke, which included forty-one people. Ibid., 94.

[13] Ibid., 96.

[14] Ibid., 98-99.

[15] When he was discussing the churches that existed in Roanoke, he first recorded, “The white churches are composed of the following denominations:—Presbyterian, four; Methodist, seven; Baptist, five; Roman Catholic, one, Reformed, one.” But when he talked about the black churches, he was much less specific: “The ten colored churches are divided among the Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Christian denominations.” Ibid., 104.

[16] Raymond P. Barnes, A History of Roanoke (Radford: Commonwealth Press, Inc., 1968), vii.

[17] Ibid., 232.

[18] Ibid., 496.

[19] For a description on the level of crime, see Ibid., 142. Barnes even stated elsewhere, “It may be commented here that the death rate in Roanoke as of June 1885 was fixed at 30.20 per thousand – 20.4 for the whites and 40 for the negroes! Such a high death rate makes a researcher wonder if health conditions were not as bad as reported.” Ibid., 149.

[20] Ibid., 312.

[21] Ibid., 219.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Carolyn Hale Bruce, Roanoke: Past and Present (Norfolk: Donning Company/Publishers, 1982), 32.

[24] Ibid., 34.

[25] David Goldfield affirms, “This is a crisply written, well-researched study confirming that the urban South was where New South experiments became the southern way of life for the twentieth century.” “Review” The Journal of American History 95:2 (September 2008), 555.

[26] “Editor, Author, and Historian Rand Dotson Offers Advice to Historians Looking to Be Published,” http://blog.lsupress.org/editor-author-and-historian-rand-dotson-offers-advice-to-historians-looking-to-be-published [accessed November 28, 2015].

[27] Dotson, Roanoke Virginia, xvi.

[28] Ibid., 57.

[29] Ibid., 237.

[30] Ibid., 240.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 241.

[33] Another work that shares the same positive spirit, but also emphasizes the significance of the role of African Americans in Roanoke’s history is Sheree Scarborough’s African American Railroad Workers of Roanoke: Oral Histories of the Norfolk & Western (Charleston: The History Press, 2014). However, since Scarborough’s work is composed of oral histories, and was recently published, the material does not quite reach back to Roanoke’s founding years.

[34] This view is strongly influenced by Edward Ayers’ article on the New South, cited above.


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