In the first half of the eighteenth century, large Indian populations and the Appalachian Mountains limited the Euro-American population outside the eastern colonies to a mélange of French, British, and American fur traders and small military outposts. Then in 1750 the famed Cumberland Gap in northeastern Tennessee was discovered and by the 1770s it became a route for pioneers through the mountains. In 1775 Daniel Boone marked off the Wilderness Road through the Gap into the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. Concerted American expansion into the region followed, with migrations from east to west along lines of latitude. In addition to Chesapeake natives who followed Boone into Kentucky and Tennessee, New Englanders moved through Pennsylvania into the Ohio River Valley into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and later, Michigan and Wisconsin. White and black Southerners formed a third migration stream from the Carolinas and Georgia west into the Black Belt of northern Alabama and Mississippi, so named for the dark, rich soils of the region.
Because western routes crossed tremendously rugged terrain, wagons were an impractical method of travel. Instead, pioneers took to the river courses that traversed the frontier. The intricate network of rivers meant that goods and settlers could eventually travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans and all points in between by water. In the early decades of westward expansion, numerous flatboats and canoes plied trans-Appalachian rivers, and after 1815 the introduction of the steamboat on inland waterways facilitated and spurred migration. Rivers afforded not only routes of travel but the only supply and communication link with the East.
Numerous Indian peoples lived across the entire Trans-Appalachian frontier. The fear of Indian hostilities did much to shape the character of migrations, as whites faced the threat of reprisal from the formidable Shawnees in the Ohio Valley and the Creek Confederacy in the Lower South. One form of defense was for families to travel in groups, and it was not uncommon for armed guards to join them for extra security. Once they arrived at their destination, frontier militias were organized to protect early settlements, giving rise to an innovative community structure known as a station—a fortified village designed for defense against Indian attacks.
Regardless of their destination, pioneers were interested in one thing: good agricultural land. The earliest settlers established subsistence-level farms, but commercial agriculture eventually blossomed
throughout the Trans-Appalachian frontier. This was particularly the case in the South, where Eli Whitney's cotton gin gave rise to an empire of commercial cotton growers following its introduction in the 1790s. Once a location was chosen, settlers set about the arduous task of turning a forest into a field. The first step was the removal of trees, stumps, and other impediments. Burning the new opening often followed, which both cleared away brush and provided a nutrient-rich base of ash and soil. The first crop planted was typically corn, as it grew well with minimal care. Wheat and other vegetable crops rounded out early pioneer farms. In addition to feeding and clothing themselves, pioneers drew on the cultural hearths of their Eastern origins to establish laws, schools, churches, and a structured social order in the West.
Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. New York: Holt, 1992.
Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Bradley J. Gills