Trails to the West

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The earliest Americans traveled on trails blazed by generations of animals moving across the landscape in search of water and better grazing. From the explorers of the sixteenth century to the settlers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European immigrants and their descendants followed paths established by their Indian predecessors.

The Wilderness Road, the most important land route from western Virginia through the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky, is said to have followed a route established by migrating herds of American bison. In 1750 Dr. Thomas Walker traveled through the Cumberland Gap and into the country beyond. Before 1770, "long hunters" like Daniel Boone were following the trail to the rich hunting grounds of Kentucky. Branches of the Wilderness Trail led south to the country occupied by the Cherokee and Creek peoples. Over the next decade, the old trail blazed by animals and Indians would become the primary overland route for settlers moving west.

Originally known as the Warrior's Path, the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road also began as a game trail. Wagons driven by German and Scots-Irish immigrants rumbled south out of the Pennsylvania settlements on their way to new homes in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and the backcountry of the Carolinas and Georgia.

Nemacolin, a Delaware chief, and Maryland frontiersman Thomas Cresap established a path connecting the Potomac and Monongahela Rivers in 1749–1750. The young George Washington followed the same route on a 1754 journey to a skirmish that marked the beginning of the French and Indian War (1754–1760). The following year British general Edward Braddock transformed that trail into a wagon road in his unsuccessful attempt to capture the French Fort Duquesne at the present site of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Work began on a federally funded National Road in 1815. The first section, originally called the Cumberland Road, followed the path that Nemacolin, Washington, and Braddock had traveled through the Allegheny Mountains. With the support of Kentuckian Henry Clay and other western congressmen, work continued on the National Road during the years from 1825 to 1833. From Wheeling in Virginia (later West Virginia), the road followed part of Zane's Trace, named for pioneer Ebenezer Zane, who had established a crude wagon trail through the forest of eastern Ohio in the late eighteenth century, following an existing Indian path. The National Road continued across Ohio and Indiana to Vandalia, Illinois. In the age of the automobile it became Route 40, an important roadway to the West.

Rivers were the most important early pathways leading to the frontier. Far more settlers traveled down the Ohio River and up and down its tributaries than ever traveled overland into the Ohio watershed. Early western commerce also moved by water. Farmers in the Ohio watershed sought to move beyond the local market by floating their products down the local tributary to the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans aboard locally constructed flatboats. The crew of local men or boys would sell the boat at their destination and return home on foot along the famous Natchez Trace or another land route, risking an encounter with such notorious outlaws and "land pirates" as John Murrell and the brothers Micajah and Wiley Harpe.

Those who traveled to the Far West also took advantage of the rivers. Alexander Mackenzie, the first man to cross the North American continent from Atlantic to Pacific, traveled the Canadian waterways. Likewise, the Corps of Discovery (1803–1806), the first American transcontinental expedition, headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, traveled down the Ohio, up the Mississippi, and northwest on the Missouri River to its headwaters in what became the state of Montana. They crossed the Rocky Mountains on foot and descended the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean.

Commerce, and the American flag, traveled southwest from Missouri on what became known as the Santa Fe Trail. Spain had jealously guarded the borders of its provinces in northern Mexico. In 1821, the year in which Mexico threw off Spanish rule, William Becknell salvaged a failing business career with the profits from the first pack trip from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe. Stretching nine hundred miles across the Great Plains, the trail quickly emerged as an important economic link between the United States and Mexico.

With the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, the U.S. Army moved down the Santa Fe Trail to seize control of New Mexico and California. With American victory in 1848, the United States constructed a series of five forts to protect travelers from Indian raiding parties. In 1862 Confederate forces attempting to capture one of those posts, Fort Union, battled Union troops at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico. Union victory in this most decisive of all western Civil War battles enabled the government to retain control of the trail.

No route to the West was better known than the Oregon Trail. Between 1841 and 1861, an estimated 300,000 emigrants traveled the 2,170-mile-long trail from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. Robert Stuart, a member of a group of fur traders who established Fort Astoria on Oregon's Columbia River, followed a Crow Indian trail through South Pass in 1812. A twenty-mile-wide valley through the Rocky Mountains, the pass was the key to locating the trail to Oregon and California.

Other immigrants would travel slightly different paths. Some followed branches of the Oregon Trail that carried them to California. Between 1846 and 1869 more than seventy thousand converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traveled the Mormon Trail from a jumping-off point in Iowa to the Great Salt Lake Valley of Utah. In contrast to the hopes of overland immigrants for a better life in the West, the U.S. government in 1838 forced over fifteen thousand citizens of the Cherokee Nation to travel a Trail of Tears from their ancestral homeland in North Carolina and Tennessee to resettlement areas in the Indian Territory, later Oklahoma.

Some early trails established the route for later roads and highways. Other historic pathways simply vanished, leaving nothing more than the grooves cut by decades of wagons passing through a rocky area. The hardships suffered by those who braved an overland journey by foot, handcart, or wagon have been largely forgotten. What remains is the romantic vision of Americans moving west as portrayed in popular culture, from traditional songs like "Sweet Betsy from Pike" to novels, films, and television shows.

See alsoExploration and Explorers; Lewis and Clark Expedition; Pioneering; Transportation: Roads and Turnpikes; West .


Daniels, Jonathan. The Devil's Backbone: The Story of the Natchez Trace. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.

Jordan, Phillip D. The National Road. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948.

Parkman, Francis. The Oregon Trail. 1849. New York: Gramercy, 1995.

Unruh, John D., Jr. The Plains Across: The Overland Immigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Tom Crouch