It was the edge of an empire. When Augusta County was formed in 1738 its boundaries started at the Blue Ridge Mountains and headed west, encompassing British Colonial territory all of the way to the Mississippi River. While modern Augusta County is much smaller than it was nearly 300 years ago it is still a community on the leading edge.
The first inhabitants of the land that would become Augusta County were Native Americans, notably the Shawnee and Delaware tribes. By the early 18th century the land had seen its first European explorers. John Lewis, an Irish immigrant, was one of the area’s first permanent residents, settling near what is now Staunton in 1732. In 1736 Virginia planter William Beverley was granted nearly 120,000 acres by the colony’s governor. His land became known as the “Beverley Manor.” Part of Beverley’s agreement with the governor required him to have the land occupied, so he began to encourage settlers. A few immigrants crossed the mountains from eastern Virginia but most, of German and Scotch-Irish descent, came down the Valley on the Great Wagon Road (now U.S. Route 11) from Pennsylvania and New York. They brought with them their Presbyterian and Lutheran faiths. The first permanent church in the area, the Augusta Stone Presbyterian Church near Fort Defiance, was built in 1749 and is still in use today.
Many of the early settlers who came to Augusta County came for the rich agricultural lands. They raised cattle and sheep, and fields full of grain. Industry soon followed on the heels of agriculture. Mills sprang up along the county’s numerous streams and rivers to process wheat. Iron was mined in the local hills and processed in forges.
As its population grew it was decided that the area needed to have its own local government. Augusta County was formed from Orange County in 1738 and named after Augusta, Princess of Wales, the mother of King George III from whom the colonists would later rebel during the American Revolution. Initially the county’s population was so sparse that a local government wasn’t organized until 1745, when Staunton was established as the county seat and a courthouse built. While no battles of the American War of Independence were fought in the county numerous local residents participated in the war and Staunton served as the temporary home of the Virginia state’s government.
Over the years Augusta County became smaller as new counties were formed out of its territory. The nearby counties of Bath, Botetourt, Rockbridge and Rockingham counties were all once part of Augusta. By 1791 the county had been reduced to its current size, nestled in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Allegheny range to the west.
When the Civil War came Augusta’s agricultural productivity made it a target. Two major battles were fought in the county, at Waynesboro and Piedmont, but the brunt of the war’s destruction came in the fall of 1864. The county seat of Staunton was targeted for its rail yards and warehouses. In the fall of that year Sheridan’s army rode in to carry out Grant’s order to lay waste to the Shenandoah Valley and from Staunton north barns, mills and forges went up in flames, crippling the Confederacy’s “breadbasket” for the remainder of the war.
After the war a new Augusta County was rebuilt from the ashes. Today industry and agriculture still make up a large part of the local economy. With over 1,700 farms and 260,000 acres of farmland it is one of the top agriculture counties in the state and one of the top cattle and sheep producers in the state. Local industry varies from food processing to high tech manufacturing and a regional airport brings in travelers from around the world. Augusta Health, an award winning regional hospital, is one of the area’s top employers and draws in patients from outside the county.
The county’s industry is matched by a thriving cultural scene. Two colleges are located in the Augusta County, along with numerous public and private schools. The area is well-known for its local musicians and artisans and world famous cultural destinations like the Frontier Culture Museum and the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Theatre. Local farms combine with award winning restaurants for a unique culinary experience.
Augusta County is known for its outdoor recreational opportunities, from fox hunting to fly fishing. The county is bordered by the Shenandoah National Park, Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway to the east and to the west the George Washington National Forest, one of the largest areas of public land in the eastern United States. Its streams and rivers attract anglers from around the world and the nearby mountains hold some of the top ski resorts on the East Coast, including Wintergreen Resort, which Augusta shares with Nelson County.
Today, at 971 square miles, Augusta County is the second largest county in the state. With a population of 73,000 it is the15th most populated county in state, right behind neighboring Rockingham County, with two cities and numerous small towns and communities within its borders. The county’s school system has 21 schools and is the area’s largest employer. The Augusta County government is run by an elected board of supervisors, each who represents one of seven magisterial districts.
In Augusta County the past and the present are balanced in such a way that makes for a unique place. What was once the outpost of an empire has become a star attraction in the mid-Atlantic.
Augusta County, Virginia
Date established: 1738 Current population: 73,000 Physical size: 971 square miles Police force: Augusta County Sheriff’s Office – 72 sworn officers Largest local employer: Augusta County Public Schools Claim to fame: The second largest county in Virginia and one of the top agriculture producers in the state.
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