The Kentucky Road

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Through privations incredible and perils thick, thousands of men, women, and children came in successive caravans, forming continuous streams of human beings, horses, cattle, and other domestic animals, all moving onward along a lonely and houseless path to a wild and cheerless land. Campbell, 1921

From: Campbell, 1921

Movement through the mountains had continued even during the Revolution, but at its close the western settlements drew to themselves from all our reservoirs of population; they drew even from the territory north of Pennsylvania, sweeping in their stream some from the frontiers of New York and New England. The great northwest territory of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, which in the next century was to be the goal of desire, had not at this time been clearly defined by treaty boundaries and was occupied by hostile tribes. Northern routes, moreover, were dangerous of travel, and not made safe until the British, by Jay's Treaty in 1795, gave over the Lake Forts.

For many years, therefore, the tide of migration to the west flowed along the southern routes. The Kentucky country was widely known for its fertility. It was also accessible, and its government was early organized and stable. To this pioneer land of promise, then, migration flowed in a swollen stream after the Revolution. A study of this great westward migration shows it moving along two main lines or routes — one the famous so-called Wilderness Road, a large part of whose course lay within our Southern Highlands, and the other the Ohio River, which forms part of the northwest boundary of the mountain region.

The Wilderness Road was the first route to the west to be extensively used. To reach it from the north, emigrants followed the old route up the Valley of Virginia; but instead of turning southeast to the Piedmont, they crossed the divide in southwestern Virginia to Fort Chissell. This rude block-house and outpost in the wilderness, built in 1758 by Colonel Bird as a menace to the Cherokee Indians, was situated near the site of the present Wythe- ville, on the headwaters of the New or Kanawha River, which flows northwest across the Valley through West Virginia to the Ohio. Here the traveler reached the borders of the " great Wilderness," that dark and mysterious forest which stretched over valley and mountain almost two hundred miles to the Cumberlands, whose cliffs, in the words of Boone, were " so wild and horrid that it is impossible to view them without terror." Thence it was about one hundred and fifty miles to the young transmontane settlements. So dense was this forest wilderness that travelers are said to have moved in a leafy gloom, lightened only where a great tree had fallen and let in the sky.

Interlocking with the headwaters of the New River, those of the Holston flow south until, joining the Clinch, whose sources lie not far to the west of its own, they form the Tennessee. The course of the traveler followed down the Holston Valley to the region of the Holston settlements, the first outposts in the wilderness, and later, receiving stations through which passed the great migrations to the Far West. Here was a block-house, and here travelers rested in comparative safety before facing the dangers of the next step in the wilderness.

It might be supposed that the tide would have continued to the junction of the Clinch and Holston,1 and so on down the Tennessee. Later travelers wishing to reach the Cumberland settlements about Nashville did indeed proceed this way as far as Fort Campbell, situated on the site of the present Kingston, Tennessee. They then struck up the plateau through Crab Orchard, and across and down to Nashville, or on to southwestern Kentucky. After 1783 this route was marked by a well-defined wagon road. Knoxville was not founded and named until 1791, although a fort was there in 1786 "on the extreme border-land of the Indian country." But the greatest number of travelers turned northward from the Holston settlements, across the Holston River, into Virginia through Moccasin Gap, across the Clinch, over a spur of Powell's Mountain, and down Powell's Valley to Cumberland Gap.' This great portal to the west, once probably a river gap, was situated at the point where the boundaries of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky come together, and to it converged many trails. An important contributing route from North Carolina was joined at the French Broad by one from South Carolina, probably just about where the railroad line runs today, and this in turn was joined by land Gap the Wilderness Road passed northwest to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky.

Records are few of the great concourse which for many years passed to the west over this rough trail. Usually the travelers formed companies to lessen the danger of Indian attack, and axe and rifle were always ready. Until 1795 the road was but a trace, to be traveled only on foot or horseback. In the years before the road was open to wagons, 75,000 persons at least are estimated to have passed over it.

Through privations incredible and perils thick, thousands of men, women, and children came in successive caravans, forming continuous streams of human beings, horses, cattle, and other domestic animals, all moving onward along a lonely and houseless path to a wild and cheerless land. Cast your eyes back on that long procession of missionaries in the cause of civilization; behold the men on foot with their trusty guns on their shoulders, driving stock and leading pack-horses; and the women, some walking with pails on their heads, others riding with children in their laps, and other children swung in baskets on horses fastened to the tails of others going before; see them encamped at night expecting to be massacred by Indians; behold them in the month of December, in that ever memorable season of unprecedented cold called the " hard winter," traveling two or three miles a day, frequently in danger of being frozen or killed by the falling of horses on the icy and almost impassable trace, and subsisting on stinted allowances of stale bread and meat; but now lastly look at them at the destined fort, perhaps on the eve of merry Christmas, when met by the hearty welcome of friends who had come before, and cheered by fresh buffalo meat and parched corn, they rejoice at their deliverance, and resolve to be contented with their lot.