As early as 1749, land speculators held huge tracts in this region of fertile valleys separated by rugged mountain ridges. Yet settlement had to wait another half century because frequent skirmishes with Native Americans made the area a bloody battleground. Not until the late 1700s, some years after a particularly grisly massacre in Abbs Valley, did the territory become relatively safe for the settlers. By 1799, the area was populated enough to form a county from parts of Russell and Wythe. The new county was named for Henry Tazewell, a U.S. senator from eastern Virginia who died in office the year the county was formed.
Initially, the county's economy was based on subsistence agriculture, but by 1850 the more prosperous farmers were selling cattle, grains, wool, maple sugar, and dairy products. By the end of the nineteenth century, gristmills were prospering, and, not long afterwards, timbering became important and a woolen mill was established. On the hardscrabble northern edge of the county, a seam of coal dominated the county's economic life until the mid-twentieth century. Small communities developed around a number of mines, with Pocahontas being the first and most prominent of them. Between 1880 and 1900, the population of the county swelled from almost 13,000 to about 23,380. Agents working for the coal companies recruited workers for the mines, mainly from Italy and Eastern Europe. African Americans also moved and worked here, although they were not paid equitably. For a time, workers earned a relatively lucrative—if extremely hazardous—living from Tazewell County's coal mines, and Northern and English entrepreneurs struck it rich. When its rich seam of coal ran out in 1955, Pocahontas fell on hard times, but other towns, like Bluefield, Virginia, the lesser twin of Bluefield, West Virginia, and the sprawling community of Richlands, have adapted by becoming service centers for outlying coal mining areas.
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