February 16, 2022
Elkin History – Part 1
There are several interesting and comprehensive histories of Elkin that have been compiled and researched by talented historians, so I won’t try to repeat that here. Instead I’ll do something a little different and let old documents that I’ve found tell their own story. I originally thought I’d write an article or two about what I’ve found, but it’s become longer than I expected. It looks like this might be a four-part series, with each article listed on my Elkin History page. Here, I’ll start by discussing the use of the name “Elkin” in early records. Later parts will be:
Part 2 – Commerce Begins with the arrival of David Allen (1770s – 1830s) [coming soon]
Part 4 – Bridges on the Yadkin River and Big Elkin Creek in Photos (1860s – 1930s) [coming soon]
On The Big Elkin
The township where Elkin is located was called “Hotel Township” in the 1850 census. That name was used until 1893 when it was officially changed to Elkin Township. The town of Elkin was incorporated four years earlier in 1889.
But the name “Elkin” has been in use much longer than that. The town got its name from the creek that runs south into the Yadkin River, but the exact name of that creek took a while to become consistent. By my count, there were 259 original land grants issued by the state of North Carolina on the waters of Big Elkin Creek between 1778 and 1908. Most of them referred to the watershed as “the Big Elkin”.
This example of a land grant shows a survey made in 1781. It is Surry County file #422, grant #421 to David Allen. Starting at the library, this tract of 640 acres extended east to Brookwood Dr above Elkin Furniture, and north to Claremont Dr near CVS.
Zooming in on the same grant, the land was located on the waters of “the Bigg Elkin”.
After going through all 259 land grants, this is the breakdown of the names that were used to identify the watershed and the frequency that they occurred.
By far, “Big Elkin” was the most commonly used name to refer to the watershed during the 130 years that land grants were issued from 1778 through 1908. Usually the designation of “creek” or “river” wasn’t made, but when it was, it was called a creek. In other records, occasionally the name “Elkin River” was used. While that name isn’t found in the land grant property records or in other county-level documents, there are some state-level maps that identified the waterway as “Elkin River”.
The 1770 Collet map of North Carolina shows the Elkin River, Mitchels River, and Fishers River flowing south into the Yadkin River. The area was only sparsely populated at that time.
The Price and Strother map from about 1798 shows the Big Elkin and Little Elkin without designating them as creeks or rivers.
This 1833 map also shows the Big Elkin and Little Elkin. Yadkin River crossings are shown on either side of the Big Elkin. The one to the west might be where South St is today near the Wilkes County line.
What’s In A Name?
So where did word “Elkin” come from? The name was obviously in use by 1770 when the Collet map was produced, but how early was that name used in other records?
Before 1753, Elkin was in Anson County. Then it was part of Rowan County until 1771 when Surry County was created. In 1778, Wilkes County was created from the western-most part of Surry. So when we’re looking for early usages of the word “Elkin”, we can’t confine ourselves to only looking at Surry County records.
The page above is from the Rowan County court records on 10/17/1766 (Rowan P&Q Vol 2, p656). It’s an order for a road to be “laid out from the Yadkin Shallowford upon the Yadkin River to the Ford called the Elkin Ford upon said river”. The wording suggests that the name “Elkin” might be new and not commonly known yet. That’s the earliest instance of the word that I’ve found.
There are several theories about the origin of the word “Elkin”. Of course there’s the legend that a Native American shot an elk on the river bank, and when it fell into the water, he shouted, “Elk in!”. That was fun when I first heard it in fourth grade North Carolina History, but I have my doubts about that one now.
Another suggestion is that the name came from an early settler on the creek. That’s possible, but I haven’t been able to find a record of anyone by that name who settled here before 1766. The 1790 Wilkes census lists “Wm. Elkins”, but he was living in the part of Wilkes that would become Ashe County in 1799. Nothing more is known about him, but I suppose it’s possible that he stayed for a short time on the Big Elkin as he was moving west to the mountains. Perhaps he stayed here long enough for his name to become associated with the creek.
This page from the 1790 Wilkes County census for the 16th Company lists the household of William Elkins with one male over age 16, two males under age 16, and five females. This area became Ashe County in 1799, so William Elkins wasn’t living very close to Elkin at that time.
A third possibility is that an early explorer or map maker named the creek as he was passing through the area. He might have named if after himself or after a friend or relative. Once the name was documented on a map, it was repeated and eventually became official.
Finally, I can’t help but notice how similar the word “Elkin” is to the word “Yadkin”. Could there be a connection between the two? In the early Moravian records, they referred to the Yadkin River with various spellings including Adkin, Etkin, Atkin, Yatkin, and Yadkin. In a 1753 entry, a Moravian diary refers to “the Etkin” near their Wachovia tract. According to the Yadkin County Chamber of Commerce website, “Yadkin” derives from the Sioux word Yattken or Yattkin. Maybe the same root word had two derivatives. One waterway came to be spelled Yadkin, and the other was spelled Elkin.
Let’s go back to the 1766 Rowan County road order that was shown above and is repeated below.
Notice how the word “Elkin” is written. It would be easy to argue that the word is actually spelled “Etkin”. Maybe it began as the “Etkin ford”, was later misspelled to become “Elkin”, and that misspelling is what we have today. The full page from the court records is here if you want to view it to evaluate the handwriting.
UPDATE: I started questioning whether this entry in the court records actually referred to the Elkin area. After all, even though the word looks like “Elkin”, maybe it’s only a similar word that refers to some other place along the path of the Yadkin River. Then I remembered that there’s another entry referring to the same road.
This is from six months later on 4/16/1767 (Rowan P&Q Vol 2, p696). It refers to the same road. While the first record ordered that a road be laid out between the two fords, this second record appoints overseers for that road. This one more clearly says “Elkin Ford”. I’m now convinced it’s referring to “Elkin”, but the question is whether a) the 1766 entry was written incorrectly as “Etkin”, b) the 1767 entry was written incorrectly as “Elkin”, or c) the 1766 entry simply had an accidental mark that makes the “L” look like a “T”.
The discussion about the origin of the town name has been going on for more than a century, and we’ll probably never know for sure how the name was derived. But, if we can find other instances of the word “Elkin” used in the 1760s or earlier, that might provide more clues to its origin.
I’ll stop here for now. Part 2 will continue with the story of David Allen and his manufacturing operations on the Big Elkin. See all of the Elkin history articles here.