- Wilderness Road
The Wilderness Road was the principal route used by settlers to reach
Kentuckyfor more than fifty years. In 1775, Daniel Booneblazed a trail for the Transylvania Companyfrom Fort Chiswellin Virginiathrough the Cumberland Gapinto central Kentucky. It was later lengthened, following Native American trails, to reach the Falls of the Ohioat Louisville. The Wilderness Road was steep and rough, and could only be traversed on foot or horseback. Despite the adverse conditions, thousands of people used it. In 1792, the new Kentucky legislature provided money to upgrade the road. In 1796, an improved all-weather road was opened for wagon and carriage travel. The road was abandoned around 1840, although modern highways follow much of its route.
European explorers of the southern Appalachian Mountainswere Spanish. Hernando de Soto and his troops traversed the region in 1540 and 1541 searching for gold. He was followed by several other Spanish expeditions.
The first recorded English explorations of the mountains were those of
Abraham Wood, which began around 1650. Later, Wood sent exploring parties into the mountains. The Batts-Fallam expedition reached the New River Valleyin 1671. In 1673, Wood sent Gabriel Arthur and James Needham to the Overhill Cherokeeof modern Tennessee. The purpose was to try to make direct contact with the Cherokeefor trade, so as to bypass the Ocaneechee "middlemen" traders. The expedition did reach the Overhill Cherokee area, but Needham was killed on the return. Gabriel Arthur was almost killed, but was rescued by being adopted by a Cherokee chief. For his own safety, Arthur was then sent with one of the chief's raiding parties. For about a year, he traveled with the Cherokee, throughout the Appalachians. He was probably the first European to visit modern West Virginiaand cross the Cumberland Gap. [cite book
last = Drake
first = Richard B.
title = A History of Appalachia
University Press of Kentucky
year = 2003
isbn=978-0-8131-9060-0 ] In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, an investor in the Loyal Land Company, with five companions, made a famous exploration through the Cumberland Gap and into eastern Kentucky. The Loyal Land Company settled people in southwest Virginia, but not Kentucky.
In 1774, Richard Henderson, a judge from
North Carolina, organized a land speculation company with a number of other prominent North Carolinians called the "Transylvania Company". The men hoped to purchase land from the Cherokees on the Kentucky side of the Appalachian Mountains and establish a British proprietary colony. Henderson hired Daniel Boone, an experienced hunter who had explored Kentucky, to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap into central Kentucky.
Boone, the trailblazer
The Appalachian Mountains form a natural barrier to east-west travel, from
Pennsylvaniato Georgia. Settlers from Pennsylvania tended to migrate south along the Great Wagon Roadthrough the Great Appalachian Valleyand Shenandoah Valley. Daniel Boone was from Pennsylvania and migrated south with his family along this road. From an early age, Boone was one of the longhunters [http://www.rootsweb.com/~vawise2/sketches/HSpubl35.html] who hunted and trapped among the Native American nations along the western frontiers of Virginia, so-called because of the long time they spent away from home on hunts in the wilderness. Boone would sometimes be gone for months and even years before returning home from his hunting expeditions. [cite book
last = Newby
first = Eric
title = The Rand McNally World Atlas of Exploration
publisher = Mitchell Beazley
year = 1975
location = London
pages= pp. 172-173
id = ISBN 0-528-83015-5.] Boone recommended three essentials for a pioneer: “A good gun, a good horse, and a good wife.” He also would need a strong body, a sharp ax and good luck. Another essential was
salt. Before 1776, it had to be shipped into the Thirteen Colonies from the West Indiesat great expense. It was the only meat preservative available for men on the move and Kentucky had an extra lure with its large salt brine lakes near what is today the community of Boonesborough, Kentucky. [cite book
last = Cooke
first = Alistair
title = Alistair Cooke’s America
publisher = Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
year = 1973
location = New York
pages= pp. 158-160
id= ISBN-13: 978-0394487267 ] . The many "
salt licks" of Kentucky are today reflected in the many place names in the state that use the words "lick" or "licking". Starting on March 10, 1775Boone, along with 35 axmen, cut a trail through the forests and mountains to Kentucky. It was a rough mud trail, hardly more than a path. Although the Transylvania Company had obtained title to Kentucky from the Cherokee and Iroquois, they had not from the Shawnee, who lived and hunted in Kentucky, claimed it, and viewed Boone and other settlers as invaders. On March 24, 1775Boone and his party were only convert|15|mi|km|0 from their final destination of the Kentucky Riverwhen they camped for the night. Just before daybreak a group of Shawnee, slinging tomahawks, attacked the sleeping men. Some of Boone's party were killed and a few were wounded but most were able to escape into the woods. Boone regrouped his men and managed to drive off the hostile Shawnee. The party did, however, lose some of their horses. Here Boone built a temporary open barricade with 6 to convert|7|ft|m|sing=on high logs [cite book
last = Kincaid
first = Robert
title = The Wilderness Road
publisher = Arcata Graphics
year = 1992
pages= pp. 100-103
id= ASIN B0006BNK0U ]
The route of the Wilderness Road made a long loop from Virginia southward to Tennessee and then northward to Kentucky, a distance of over convert|200|mi|km|-1.cite book |last=Bodett |first=Tom |title=America’s Historic Trails |publisher=Small World Productions |location=
San Francisco, California|year=1992 |isbn=0-912333-00-6 |pages=p. 83]
The Long Island of the Holston River(modern Kingsport, Tennessee), the road went north through Moccasin Gap of Clinch Mountain, then crossed the Clinch River and crossed rough land (called the Devils Raceway) to the North Fork Clinch River. Then it crossed Powell Mountain at Kanes Gap. From there it ran southwest through the valley of the Powell River to the Cumberland Gap.
After passing over the Cumberland Gap the Wilderness Road forked. The southern fork passed over the
Cumberland Plateauto Nashville, Tennesseevia the Cumberland River. The northern fork split into two parts. The eastern spur went into the Bluegrass regionof Kentucky to Boonesborough on the Kentucky River (near Lexington). The western spur ran to the Falls of the Ohio(Louisville). [Kincaid, p. 77] [cite book |last=Williams |first=John Alexander |title=Appalachia: A History |year=2002 |publisher=University of North Carolina Press |location= Chapel Hill, North Carolina|isbn=0-8078-5368-2 |pages= p. 62] As settlements grew southward, the road stretched all the way to Knoxville, Tennessee, by 1792. [cite book |last=Calloway |first=Brenda |title=America's First Western Frontier: East Tennessee |year=1989 |publisher=The Overmountain Press |location= Kingsport, Tennessee|isbn=0-932807-34-8 |pages=p. 26]
Because of the threat of Native American attacks, the road was so dangerous that most pioneers traveled well armed. Robbers and criminals also could be found on the road, ready to pounce on weaker pioneers. [Kincaid, p. 351] Although the Transylvania Company had purchased the region from the Cherokee, and the
Iroquoishad ceded it at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, other tribes, such as the Shawnee, still claimed it and lived there. Often entire communities and church congregations would move together over the road to new settlements. Hundreds of pioneers were killed by Indian attacks. [Kincaid, p. 175]
Defensive log blockhouses built alongside the road had portholes in the walls for firing at Native American attackers. They were often called "stations". No one knew exactly when the next attack would happen. The Shawnee came from the north, while the Chickamauaga (Cherokees who rejected the land sale treaty) came from the south. The tribes were resentful of the settlers taking their ancestral hunting lands, and the
French and Indian Warhad further stirred up their passions against the white man. [Kincaid, p. 116]
The Scots-Irish were great fighters. They had lived in
Ulster, an English colony in Northern Ireland, for a hundred years before coming to America. They had taken over land previously owned by the Irish and had much experience as fighters in defending their homeland. [cite book |last=Leyburn |first=James G. |title=The Scotch Irish A Social History |year=1962 |publisher=University of North Carolina Press |location= Chapel Hill, North Carolina|isbn=0-8078-4259-1 |pages=pp. 120–132]
There was a great variety of animal life in the wilderness. At night, the pioneers could hear the hoots and screeches of
owls, the howls of wolves, and the cries of panthers and wild cats. Sometimes the Native Americans imitated these sounds. Poisonous snakes such as copperheads and rattlesnakes blended into the leaves and undergrowth which were a danger to the pioneers, their horses and cattle. [cite book |last=Rouse, Jr. |first=Parke |title=The Great Wagon Road |location= Richmond, Virginia|publisher=The Diaz Press |year=2004 |isbn=0-87517-065-X |pages=p. 6]
Judge Richard Henderson had made a treaty with the Cherokee at
Sycamore Shoalsin 1775, purchasing over 20,000,000 acres (80,000 km²) of land between the Cumberland and Kentucky Rivers. On March 28, 1775, he left Long Island (Kingsport, Tennessee) with about 30 horsemen on grueling trip on the Wilderness Road to Kentucky. At Martin's Station 40 to 50 additional pioneers joined the venture. On their way, they met nearly a hundred refugees fleeing Native American attacks further down the road. Despite the danger, the party kept going toward Kentucky. Since some of the streams were flooded, the pioneers had to swim with their horses. On April 20, they arrived at Boonesborough, a fortified town, named by Judge Henderson in honor of Boone. [Kincaid, pp. 98-110)] After 1770, a surge of over 400,000 Scots-Irish immigrants came to this country to escape the poor harvest, high rents and religious intolerance of Ulster. Since the better lands had already been taken, they constantly pressed onward to the western frontier of the foothills of the Carolinas. [cite book |last=Axelrod |first=Alan |title=What Every American Should Know About American History |year=1992 |publisher=Adams Media Corp. |location= Holbrook, Massachusetts|isbn=1-55850-309-9 |pages=p. 52]
Yet the flood of Scots-Irish, German, and others immigrants kept coming. Over 200,000 pioneers came over the Wilderness Road, enduring severe hardships. In the winter of 1778-79, the weather was so cold that the Kentucky River froze to a depth of two feet. The frontier settlements alongside the road struggled to survive. Many of the cattle and hogs froze to death. The settlers had to eat frozen cattle and horses to survive. [Kincaid, p. 151]
Often the Chickamauga, under the leadership of
Dragging Canoe, would hide in ambush for weeks between Cumberland Gap and Crab Orchard, a distance of convert|100|mi|km|-1. They would not attack large groups but wait for weaker ones who were not able to defend themselves. More than 100 men, women and children were killed in the fall of 1784 along the Wilderness Road. Many families, even in ice and snow, crossed the creeks and rivers without shoes or stockings; they often had no money and few clothes. They lived off the land by hunting in the woods and by fishing in the streams. [Kincaid p. 175]
Since they had hardly any money, entire families sometimes walked hundreds of miles after landing in America. They even used
cattleas pack animals to carry their heavy loads. Cabins were built and land was cleared of trees and undergrowth so crops could be planted. [cite book |last=Webb |first=James |title=Born Fighting How the Scots-Irish Shaped America |year=2004 |publisher=Broadway Books |location= New York City, New York|isbn=0-7679-1688-3 |pages=p. 149] Chestnutwas the most popular wood since its logs could be used to build cabins and rail fences to protect crops from wild animals. It could easily be split into shingles for roofs to cover cabins and barns. Its bark was used to make medicine and tannic acidfor tanning and dyeing. In the fall, its rich nuts were used to fatten razorback hogs for the market and the home. Hemlock was also highly valued for its many uses. [Rouse, p. 6]
Commerce and mail
The Wilderness Road served as a great path of commerce for the early settlers in Kentucky. Horses, cattle, sheep and hogs found a waiting market in the Carolinas,
Marylandand Virginia. Hogs in groups of 500 or more were driven down the Road to market. Beef in Eastern markets had become a main source of income for farmers in central Kentucky. [Kincaid, p. 205]
A postal road was opened in 1792 from
Bean Station, Tennesseethrough Cumberland Gap to Danville, Kentucky. This was due largely to the efforts of Governor Isaac Shelbyof Kentucky. This connection of Kentucky to the East was a great advantage. Frontier settlers considered the postal riders heroes and waited eagerly for their arrival for news from settlements along the trails as well as getting their mail and newspapers. [Kincaid, p. 187]
Civil War and decline
Use of the Wilderness Road fell when the
National Roadwas opened in 1818, allowing travel to the Ohio Riveron level ground from the East. At the same time, the steamboatfirst appeared on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, allowing travel both up and down the rivers. (Hitchcock, 85)
American Civil War, both the Union Armyand the Confederate States Armyused the Road. An early battle (Camp Wildcat), stymied the first attempt by the Confederates to seize control of neutral Kentucky. The Cumberland Gapchanged hands four times throughout the war. The southern armies used the road for marches into Virginia. General Ulysses S. Grantcame down the road for the Union campaign in Tennessee in 1864. Grant was so taken by the Road that he said, "With two brigades of the Army of the CumberlandI could hold that pass against the army which Napoleon led to Moscow." [Bodett, p. 100]
The road today
A segment of the Wilderness Road was among the first roads in the United States to be paved. The old road from the town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee to
Middlesboro, Kentuckythrough the mountain pass was paved and completed on October 3, 1908. This was an "object-lesson" road (a new kind of paved macadam construction funded by local communities but with federal governmental supervision) initiated by the U.S. Office of Public Roads. At that time, only about convert|680|mi|km|-1 of paved roads existed in the United States. Later, it was linked to the famous Dixie Highwaythat connected Detroit, Michiganto Miami, Floridaby a paved road. Its name was later changed to U.S. Highway 25. This new road brought a new industry, tourism, to the rural areas filling hotels and restaurants with travelers. [Kincaid, p. 352] Today, Cumberland Gap is a National Park, [cite web |url=http://www.nps.gov/cuga/ |title=Cumberland Gap National Park |publisher=National Park Service |accessdate=2007-05-14] and portions of the Wilderness Road can be visited at the Wilderness Road State Park in Virginia.cite web |url=http://www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/wildroad.htm |title=Wilderness Road State Park |publisher=Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation |accessdate=2007-05-14] Additionally, a reconstructed fort at Martin’s Station in Virginia on the Wilderness Road can be visited about convert|5|mi|km|0 east of the Cumberland Gap. Since the completion of the Cumberland Gap Tunnelin 1996, a project has been underway to restore the original appearance of the Wilderness Road as it crosses the historic Cumberland Gap. Since 2001 Hwy. 25E has been obliterated over several miles of its length and the original grade restored, including the addition of convert|32|ft|m of elevation to restore the Gap to its original contour, with virtually all modern artifacts, buildings and roads removed. The replanting of thousands of seedlings from original forest stocks in the area is intended, over a period of decades, to recreate a forest that will allow visitors to view the crossing of the Gap on the Wilderness Road as travelers would have experienced it circa 1790. This section of the Wilderness Road is now a hiking trail, including an interpretive center about the road's history located on the Tennessee side.
* Axelrod, Alan: "What Every American Should Know About American History" (1992) Holbrook, MA. Adams Media Corp. ISBN 1-55850-309-9.
* Bodett, Tom: "America’s Historic Trails" (1992) San Francisco James Connoly (Small World Productions). ISBN 0-912333-00-6
* Calloway, Brenda: "America's First Western Frontier: East Tennessee" (1989) Kingsport, Tenn. The Overmountain Press . ISBN 0-932807-34-8
* Cooke, Alistair: "Alistair Cooke’s America" (1973) New York Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
* Eslinger, Ellen: "Running Mad for Kentucky: Frontier Travel Accounts." Univ. Press of Kentucky, (2004).
* Drake, Richard B. "A History of Appalachia". University Press of Kentucky (2001).
* Kincaid, Robert: "The Wilderness Road" (1992) Kingsport, Tenn. Arcata Graphics. ISBN Unknown ASIN|B0006BNK0U
* Leyburn, James G: "The Scotch Irish A Social History" (1962) Chapel Hill .University of North Carolina Press . ISBN 0-8078-4259-1.
* Newby, Eric: "The Rand McNally World Atlas of Exploration" (1975) London: Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 0-528-83015-5.
* Riley, Darnell: "The Tennessee Blue Book" (2004) Nashville: State of Tennessee. ASIN|B000B9LQIK
* Rouse, Parke, Jr: 'The Great Wagon Road" (2004) Richmond: The Diaz Press . ISBN 0-87517-065-X.
* Webb, James: "Born Fighting How the Scots-Irish Shaped America" (2004) New York : Broadway Books . ISBN 0-7679-1688-3.
* Williams, John Alexander: "Appalachia: A History" (2002) Chapel Hill, N.C. : University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-5368-2.
* [http://www.danielboonetrail.com/map.php Detailed map of the Wilderness Road]
* [http://www.rootsweb.com/~vanrhs/wrrm/map.html Map of the Kentucky part of the Wilderness Road]
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.