Indian Trails

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INDIAN TRAILS. What is now the United States was crisscrossed by an extensive network of trails long before the advent of railroads or highways. Even though long-distance travel frequently included a combination of canoe and foot travel, trails connected nearly every person on the continent. The paths of the American Indians, used for war and trade, were usually along relatively high ground or ridges where the soil dried quickly after rains and where there were few streams to be crossed; soft footgear made stony ground less favorable. Major trails followed important mountain passes to connect river drainages, and trails traveling across rather than along rivers usually followed the fall line. Major trails crossed tribal boundaries, although long-term warfare would cause paths between some tribes to become overgrown. Numerous minor trails branched off from principal trails in much the same way as today's highways feed local roads. Indians sometimes blazed trees along a trail so that seasonal changes might not confuse them should they or others see fit to make a return journey.

One of the great trails of the North American Indians was the Iroquois trail from Albany, up the Mohawk River, through the site of Rochester, and on to the site of Buffalo on Lake Erie. Also, there was the Great Warrior Path that connected the mouth of the Scioto to Cumberland Gap and Tennessee Country. Both of these trails followed important routes through the Appalachian Mountains. The trail through Cumberland Gap led early colonial migrations into Kentucky and middle Tennessee. The route eventually became known as Boone's Trail, or the Wilderness Road. The Chickasaw-Choctaw Trail became the noted Natchez Trace between Nashville and Natchez. The Occaneechi Trail, from the site of Petersburg, Virginia, southwest into the Carolinas, followed the Atlantic coast fall line.

Trails following the Missouri and Yellowstone River crossed the Rocky Mountains and followed the Columbia River, connecting the Mississippi Valley with the Pacific Northwest. Along the Columbia River was an important crossroads known as the Dalles. From this junction other trails headed south. Trails following the Pacific Coast or the valleys on either side of the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas provided communication between tribes in Puget Sound and Baja California. Heading west from California, trails passed through the towns of the Pueblos and eastward down the Canadian and Red Rivers to return to the Mississippi, Santa Fe, and Taos. They became important junctions in the trading paths of the Southwest. Only in sparsely settled regions like the Great Basin were there few major trails.

Few individuals followed these trails for their entire transcontinental extent, but exchange along the routes transported valuable materials great distances. Copper from the Upper Great Lakes reached Georgia and the Rocky Mountains; conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico have been found in Oklahoma. Later explorers, traders, and colonists followed these major routes. When future generations laid rails and asphalt for their own transportation networks, they frequently followed paths that had been trodden for centuries.


Salisbury, Neal. "The Indians' Old World." William and Mary Quarterly 53 (1996): 435–458.

Swagerty, William R. "Indian Trade in the Trans-Mississippi West to 1870." In Handbook of North American Indians. Edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Vol. 4: History of Indian-White Relations, edited by W. E. Washburn. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988.

Tanner, Helen H. "The Land and Water Communications Systems of the Southeastern Indians." In Powhatan's Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast. Edited by Peter Wood, et al. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Samuel C.Williams/j. h.

See alsoPortages and Water Routes ; Roads ; Transportation and Travel .

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Indian Trails

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Indian Trails