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A Short History of the Wilderness Road

Settlers on the Wilderness RoadThe Wilderness Road, which was first known as Boone's Trace, was and remains one of the most famous and significant pathways in American History. The road played a vital role in the early frontier leading to the westward expansion of the United States. The road's earliest stages were as a Buffalo game trail used by the great herds that once roamed the region. Cherokee and Shawnee warriors then used the game trail as a convenient pathway to make raids upon one another for at least several generations. Their name for the path was the Athowominee, or the "Path of the Armed Ones."

It is believed that the first white colonist to record crossing Cumberland Gap, using at least a portion of what became the Wilderness Road was a young man named Gabriel Arthur, who was captured by Shawnee warriors in 1673. Arthur was released and reached present day Petersburg, VA on June 18, 1674 after an epic journey through the Wilderness.

In 1750 the Loyal Land Company of Virginia launched an expedition to seek out far western lands for potential settlement. The company had received a grant of upwards of 800 acres of western lands. The man selected to head the expedition was Dr. Thomas Walker of Charlottesville in Albemarle County. Dr. Walker was an adventurous soul of many talents. He would sally worth with a survey party of 5 companions and plenty of packhorses, hunting dogs, provisions and supplies. Walker's odyssey for the vast American backwoods began in April of 1750. He did not return home until July 13th. During the journey Walker kept a detailed diary, which is a treasure indeed, an invaluable look into these exciting days of early America. Walker holds the distinction of being the man who gave the name "Cumberland Gap" to the mountain pass that features so prominent a place in the westward movement. Walker and his party grew discouraged by the rough, mountainous region of southeast Kentucky and turned back before reaching what we now call the Blue Grass. Yet their efforts and report proved to be invaluable to those who would follow.

Martin Greets BooneThe decade of the 1760's would prove to be the next important era of progress in the story of the road west. At the conclusion of the French & Indian War, market hunters, or men who hunted peltry for market and profit began to penetrate the far off western lands, in search of their fortunes. They were a hearty, adventurous lot as well. Commonly called "Longhunters", due to their extended hunting forays away from hearth and home. They were a daring and uniquely American breed of men, a roll call of names that would forever leave their mark upon the region. Names like Joseph Martin, Daniel & Squier Boone, Michael Stoner, Elisha Wallen, James Knox, Kasper Mansker, Henry Skaggs and others. These Longhunters, more than any before them, used the game trail and the Warrior's Path to venture through the Gap and into the rich resources to be found in the "Middle Ground", Kante-ke, the land to become known as Kentucky. The Longhunters, after spending so many months in the far-flung Wilderness, brought home, glowing reports of the new "Eden" to be found westward, for they had found the rich bluegrass, which had eluded Dr. Walker years before.

The year 1769 would prove to be a momentous year for the story of the road. That year two woodsmen made a friendship and association that would prove fortuitous. Joseph Martin, who was a friend of Dr. Thomas Walker, accepted a challenge from the good Doctor to attempt to settle in present day Powell Valley, Virginia. If Martin succeeded, he would be awarded 21,000 acres for his efforts. He and a party of stout, young companions wanting to make their way in the world, reach Powell Valley in the spring, where they break ground and commence to build a few cabins. Another party of Longhunters happens by in May, bound for Kentucky hoping to find the gap in the mountains. They are led by Daniel Boone. The meeting of these two men, with their combined ambition to begin a new life, carved out of their "hunter's paradise", would change early American history. Their association will last throughout the critical days of the first wave of settlement. Martin and Boone, both experience hard days and even tragedy in these earliest attempts yet they both return in 1775 on the eve of the revolution to take up their cause again with others and valiant efforts.

Judge Richard Henderson and a board of trustees comprised of wealthy businessmen and civil servants from North Carolina form a new land company in 1775. They call themselves the Transylvania Company, which is Latin for "Land beyond the woods." The audacious ambitions of these land speculators has been both condemned and admired. One thing is certain; historians agree that their efforts played a milestone in the settlement of Kentucky and the American West. Henderson, a shrewd man, surrounded himself with others who knew what they were about. He hired both Boone and Martin in the employ of the proposed Transylvania Colony. Martin would serve as entry taker & civil leader in Powell Valley. Boone would serve as chief guide & scout and civil leader on the Kentucky side of Cumberland Mountains.

The Treaty at Sycamore ShoalsIn March of 1775, Henderson and Co. struck a bargain with the Cherokee nation at the Sycamore Shoals of Watauga River. At a huge gathering of Cherokee and backcountry settlers, Henderson's associates and Cherokee Chiefs haggled over the price for 20-million of what is now the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Before the ink upon the purchase treaty was dry, Daniel Boone was sent forth by the Company to carve out a path to the purchased lands. Boone, with 30 road cutters began their guest from Long Island of Holston River (modern-day Kingsport, TN) they cut their way over Holston, through Moccasin Gap, Walker Ridge and into Powell Valley past Joseph Martin's Station. After resting at Martin's they continue on through the Gap and into Kanta-Ke. By April they arrive at a meadow on the south side of Kentucky River in modern day Madison County. They began labor on the capital of the new Transylvania Colony, which the inhabitants began to call Boonesboro. With these developments, as the War for Independence begins, the race for settlement takes flight.

Settlers Arriving Martin's Station

Virginia and North Carolina protest Henderson's schemes and declare his purchase null and void. In late 1776 Transylvania becomes Kentucky County, Virginia. The war throws hard, violent times upon the settlers as the Cherokee and Shawnee become allies of the British. A war many of them wanted to avoid now comes to their doorsteps. The flow of travelers upon the Wilderness Road waxes and wans during the war years, yet heroic efforts continue; efforts that will prove to be invaluable to the development of the infant United States. It is estimated that approximately 2 to 300,000 hopeful settlers used the Wilderness Road the years 1775 to 1810. The old path more than proved itself to be the lifeline to a budding new nation.

These brief words can only be used to hopefully instill a hunger in the reader to learn more, much more about the rich and stirring story of America's Road West. Besides visiting a new museum and Visitor's Center, as well as Martin's Station at Wilderness Road State Park, the staff hopes that visitors to their website and out park will read some of the sources listed below to learn more of the history and heritage that we represent.

To read more about the Wilderness Road:
  • The Wilderness Road by Robert Kincaid
  • Virginia's Western War by Neal Hammond & Richard Taylor
  • The Life of Daniel Boone by Lyman Draper, edited by Ted Franklin Belue
  • Daniel Boone by John Mack Farragher
  • Joseph Martin and the War of Revolution in the West by Stephen Weeler
  • These are but a recommended few. Enjoy!

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