Appalachia’s Sunken City

Posted by | June 24, 2007

Originally posted at Hillbilly Savants by Mike Mason


In 1939, the Hydro-Electric boom in the Appalachian Mountains was reaching it’s peak. Rural hollers (a steep valley, for our non-resident readers) throughout the region were being flooded to bring modern technologies, jobs and, ironically, flood control to the Southern Appalachians. I’ll leave the debate for whether or not organizations such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee Valley Authority and Appalachian Power have served the region for the greater good to others with more introspective opinions on the subject. I want to focus on one community, lost under seventy feet of water of the New River. The place is know as Dunkard’s Bottom today but to the residents of the community, it was Mahanain. It’s kind of ironic given the Biblical history of the city that shares this name, meaning “Host”, would see similar fate.

John Buchannan, agent for the Wood’s River Company and assistant surveyor of Augusta County, made his exploratory trip to the region in the fall of 1745. He found inhabitants already in the New River area (The New River was labeled “Wood’s River” on early survey maps due to the Company’s intensive mapping of the area). These inhabitants were German eccentrics of German Seventh Day Baptists from the Ephrata Society in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, called Dunkers Dunkard’s. (Many people incorrectly refer to this sect of the Anabaptists as Dunkard’s. The word “Dunker” was actually a anglicized corruption of the German Word “Tunker”, which means “dipper” or immerserer referring to the mode of baptism practiced by this group.) It is reported that 900 acres of rich river bottom-land was chosen and surveyed for the colony, which later had the only mill west of New River. However, many of the Dunkards became unhappy with their lot in the wilderness on the frontier of a new nation. They were said to be “odd” people who were very clannish and shunned by other settlers.

In 1749 the Moravian missionaries noted that in the region of Dunkard’s Bottom they found a “kind of white people who wore deer skins, lived by hunting, associated with the Indians and acted like savages.” The Dunkard’s were also pacifists. They were ill suited for life on Virginia’s wild frontier. Thomas Walker describes the Dunkard’s as: “A Sect of People who call themselves of the Brotherhood of Euphrates, and are commonly called the Dunkard’s, who are the upper Inhabitants of the New River….The Dunkard’s are an odd set of people, who make it a matter of Religion not to Shave their Beards, lay on beds, or eat flesh, though at present, in the last, they transgress, being constrained to it, they say, by the want of a sufficiency of Grain and Roots, they have not long been seated here. I doubt the plenty and deliciousness of the venison and turkeys has contributed not a little to this. The unmarried have no property but live on a common stock. They don’t baptize either Young or Old, they keep the Sabbath on Saturday, and hold that all men shall be happy hereafter, but first must pass through punishment according to their Sins. They are very hospitable.”

In the year 1740 there were 36 single brethren in the cloister, and 35 sisters. At one time the society numbered nearly 300. For the next decade the community continued to grow until their presence in the valley became an issue for native inhabitants. In 1754, George Hoopaugh, one of the Dunkard’s, recorded that the previous May, 60 “Norward Indians” came to his house and burned it and the stable. Before that, the Indians had threatened him, burned his corn and killed his best dogs. In May of 1755, Henry Zinn, another Dunkard, was killed on the New River by the Indians. This was probably one of the reasons for the sudden and premature dispersal of the remaining Dunkard’s. Recorded in the chronicles of the Cloisters: “They fled as if they were chased by someone, for justice persecuted them for the spiritual debts which they had contracted in the Cloisters, until they reached a water which is running toward the Mississippi, called New River, beyond all Christian government. There they made their home among riffraff, the dregs of human society who spend their time murdering wild creatures. With such people they had communion instead of their Brethren whom they left.”

Later settlements would be centered in the same area of what was Mahanain. The Wilderness Road would follow the New River through this area. William Ingles would establish his family’s homestead and river portage ferry here. His wife, Mary Draper Ingles, would be abducted during Shawnee raid and taken to Kentucky only to escape and follow the river back home. Modern day Radford, an 1850’s Tennessee and Virginia ailroad town, is just a few miles downstream from the old community. Today, Claytor Lake covers all signs of the Wilderness Road and Dunkard’s Bottom. All archeological surveys now must contend with 70 years of river silt 4,500 acres of lake surface above.

All information above was pooled from Rootsweb.com and “The Brethern in Virginia” by Roger E. Sappington.

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