The Dan River Basin resides on the North Carolina and Virginia state line and includes portions of 16 counties of the two states. The main body, the Dan River, rises in Patrick County VA on the Western boundary of the Basin and flows 214 miles to the Kerr Reservoir where it enters the Roanoke River. Five main tributaries feed the Dan along its route: the Mayo, Smith, Sandy, Hyco and Banister Rivers.
What's in a name?
The source of the Dan River's name is up for some debate. One may read many books and articles regarding the history of our river's namesake and still be uncertain of the source. We will share with you the two most credible versions that we have found over the years.
William Byrd II
Possibly the most told or known version of the name is from the account of William Byrd II that was recorded in 1728. While on expedition with a crew to survey the Virginia border, sources claim the men sat for a break by the river. Byrd said he felt as though he had traveled "from Dan to Beersheba", a biblical reference to the Tribes of Israel. In this instance, the name "Dan" is said to have come from this reference to the Tribe by Byrd.
The Saura Tribe
Record of the Saura Native American Tribe was first noted near Asheville in North Carolina by European explorers in the 1500's. The Saura eventually relocated to present day Stokes and Rockingham Counties in NC and remained there until the early 1700's. Many mountain ranges and towns across the Carolina's still have names reflecting the history they share with the Saura (i.e. Suwali Gap, Saura Town Mountains, Cheraw). In some accounts the name "Dan" is believed to be in reference to an early Saura Chief, Danapha.
A Brief History of the Dan River Basin
Our region is rich and significant in its history. Native Americans have inhabited areas along the many streams and rivers since prehistoric times and remained along the Dan River until the early 18th century. Portions of fish traps built within rock formations are still visible in some of our rivers and artifacts like arrowheads and pottery shards can be found along the banks. Historical markers sit alongside the Dan, memorizing the last known settlements of the Saura tribe. Upper and Lower Saura Town were abandoned by 1710 but other tribes, like the Sappony, are still present.
As early modernization reached the basin, the Dan presented many opportunities and challenges for those wanting to navigate the waters. Wooden bateaux were a common site on the river in those times. Many free men and slaves alike captained these primitive vessels up and downstream between Virginia and North Carolina carrying horses, livestock and other goods. River trade and travel played a crucial role in developing towns in both North Carolina and Virginia. South Boston, Danville, Madison and common day Eden were founded largely due to river activity. Hand dug channels and remnants of bateau landings are still present along this route in the Dan River. As steam powered vessels rose in popularity, the race to industrialize the river heightened. A great fortune was spent by many attempting to facilitate travel to and through the vacant lands along the river but never fully reached their goals of surpassing the Stokes County mark, now Danbury. The costs and obstacles were too great to further expand river travel and as the early and mid 19th century brought railways through the basin, the Dan River trade endeavors soon vanished.
The railroad fostered an economic boom for the lucrative tobacco and forestry industries. Yields could be transported more quickly and to much farther regions of the country. Tobacco reined as king of the cash crops for many years before the consolidation of small farms and factories. The decline of the market made way for early textiles and industries to replace the void in local economies and employ more residents. Many diverse farmers and industries remain in our region today.