The area surrounding Asheville had been explored since the 1500s by several expeditions, including those of Hernan De Soto and Rutherford Trace, but no white settlers had taken residence in the area. It wasn’t until the spring of 1784 that Asheville would first be settled.
Samuel Davidson left from the area near present day Old Fort in the spring of 1784 and headed west into the Mountains. He decided on a beautiful piece of land known as Gum Spring that is today located just inside the gates of the Biltmore Estate to build his home and farm. After constructing a rough cabin and clearing some land to plant crops, Davidson went back down the mountain and collected his wife and infant child. That fall he returned to Old Fort and loaded up his family and more supplies. After making the long slow journey back up the mountain to his new home, the Davidsons began their life in the frontier.
Davidson spent the majority of his time that first fall clearing land for farming in an attempt to prove ownership against potential future competitors. It was on one of those days that he met his demise.
He had tied a bell around the neck of his horse to keep track of him until a proper barn could be built. The story goes that a Cherokee hunting expedition came over the rise near Davidson’s farm and saw smoke from the fire. They found the horse and carefully untied the bell around its neck. Then, they lured Davidson by ringing the bell out into the woods. Davidson, thinking he was tracking his horse, was caught unaware by the Cherokee hunters who fired multiple shots and killed him.
Early map outlining Buncombe County
Back at the cabin Davidson’s wife heard all the rifle fire and knew what had happened. She gathered their child and some food and hurried back down the mountain towards Old Fort.
Once she reached Old Fort and told the other members of the Davidson family what had happened, a posse was formed to get revenge. William Davidson, Samuel’s twin brother, led the group and they headed back into the mountains. After killing two Cherokee and sending the others in the group running, Davidson and his team relaxed and noticed the fertility of the land and the beauty of their surroundings and decided to make the area their home.
Over the next few years, thousands of white settlers moved into the region, and it was decided by the state that a separate county should be established to better govern the new settlements. The county of Buncombe was formed in 1792 and the first court session was held in William Davidson’s home at Gum Spring.
Further north, a keen developer named John Burton was building a settlement of business along a flat piece of land near the corner of present day Patton and Biltmore Avenues. As a county seat for the new Buncombe was being decided there was much debate as to where it should be. Many argued that Gum Spring was already serving as the county seat as that is where the first courthouse was, and it made sense to keep it there. Burton, though, saw the county seat’s location being as being the key to his development’s success.
Burton found William Morrison of Burke county, a man appointed by the state to help settle the issue, and brought him to his new row of businesses. The story goes that he brought Morrison into one of the small wooden stores and gave him whiskey while pitching him on the idea of “Morristown” being the seat of Buncombe. Apparently the talk and the whiskey worked and Morrison ordered that Morristown be the county seat of Buncombe in 1794. The area was renamed Asheville the following year to honor Samuel Ashe, the new governor of North Carolina.
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