Free Black Landmarks of Early Western Virginia

How Edward Tarr’s Story Reveals Race Relations & More on the American Frontier

Thursday, September 21, 2023, 7 pm | In-Person & Zoom Webinar

With author Turk McClesky

In 1752, an enslaved Pennsylvania ironworker named Ned purchased his freedom and moved to Virginia. Taking the name Edward Tarr, he became the first free black landowner west of the Blue Ridge. Tarr established a blacksmith shop on the Great Wagon Road and helped found a Presbyterian congregation that exists to this day.

Living with him was his white, Scottish wife, and in a twist that will surprise the modern reader, Tarr’s neighbors accepted his interracial marriage. Only after a second white woman joined the household did some protest. 

Tarr’s already dramatic story took a perilous turn when the predatory son of his last master, a Charleston merchant, abruptly entered his life in a fraudulent effort to reenslave him. His fate suddenly hinged on his neighbors, who were all that stood between Tarr and a return to the life of a slave.

This remarkable history unlocks a new understanding of race relations on the American frontier. Tarr and the individuals around him provide fascinating insight into the journey from slavery to freedom, slavery’s advent west of the Blue Ridge, the colonial merchant class, Indian warfare in southwest Virginia, as well as the challenges of establishing frontier societies.

The Road to Black Ned's Forge book cover
The Road to Black Ned's Forge book cover

Turk McCleskey received his doctorate from The College of William and Mary in 1990 and was a member of the Virginia Military Institute faculty from 1994-2023. The Road to Black Ned’s Forge won the 2014 Virginia Historical Society’s Richard Slatten Award for Excellence in Virginia biography and was one of three finalists (and the only work of history) for the 2015 Library of Virginia Literary Award in Nonfiction.