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Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Wilderness Trail and the Role of Wilkes County Frontiersmen

Not only is Daniel Boone a national hero, but he was also a Wilkes Countian.  Boone’s parents, Squire and Sarah Boone, migrated from peaceful Oley, Pennsylvania, to the lesser civilized area of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  When they left Pennsylvania about 1750, they likely took the Great Wagon Road to where they settled in Linnville Creek, Virginia.  In the fall of 1751, the Boone family moved to a 640 acre claim on Grants Creek near the Yadkin River.  At that time in history, the Yadkin River Valley in Wilkes County was one of the least civilized areas on the western frontier and has been dubbed “the wild west!”

In 1755 Daniel Boone assembled a group of hardy men, predominately from North Carolina, to help him blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.  Some of these men were friends and neighbors of the Boone family living in the Yadkin River Valley of Wilkes County, North Carolina.  Among this group of axmen, as they are called, were Squire Boone (Daniel’s brother), Benjamin Cutbirth who was the husband of Daniel’s niece, Elizabeth Wilcoxson (my husband’s 4th great grandparents), Michael Stoner, David Gass, Colonel Richard Callaway and his female Negro servant, William Bush, Edmund Jennings, John Kennedy, John Vardemen, James Hall, William Hayes and his wife Susannah Boone (Daniel’s daughter), and several others from Rutherford County, North Carolina.
Much controversy surrounds the route of the Wilderness Trail cut by Boone and his axmen.  Many confuse the Great Wagon Road with the Wilderness Trail.  The Great Wagon Road, known by various names such as the Great Road and the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, began in Philadelphia and followed the Great Appalachian Valley between the Blue Ridge range and the Allegheny and Cumberland ranges of the Appalachian Mountains.  The road eventually extended into South Carolina.  Today Interstate 81 approximates the route of this great road as it meanders from Philadelphia through the Virginia countryside.
Various authors disagree on where the Wilderness Trail began.  However, most sources agree that the rendezvous point for Daniel Boone and his axmen was at Fort Robinson, which later became the site of Fort Patrick Henry.  For protection from Indian attacks, Fort Robinson was constructed near the famous Indian ceremonial land, known as the Long Island of the Holston.  Long Island of the Holston is located in present-day Kingsport, Tennessee.  From this site Daniel and his axmen traveled to Moccasin Gap in present-day Scott County, Virginia, and began their trail.  The trail, covering a distance of 120 miles, was completed on what is now the Kentucky side of Cumberland Gap.
View from Cumberland Gap's Pinnacle Point
The trail was no more than 2 or 3 feet wide, wide enough to permit only riders and packhorses to pass through the dense woods and rough countryside.  More than twenty years passed before wagons could be brought through the Cumberland Gap.  Originally, the trail was called Boone’s Trace, Boone’s Road, or Road to the Old Settlements.  The name, Wilderness Road, was first used about 1796.  Today, US25 approximates the route of the trail.

Why was this road important?  The answer lies simply in the fact that it became a door to the land west of the Appalachian Mountains—a door to the new frontier, that of Kentucky and the lands beyond—which had previously been extremely inaccessible to settlers seeking better land and greater opportunities.

·         Kegley, Mary B. Finding Their Way from the Great Road to the Wilderness Road, 1745-1796. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sheridan Books, Inc. for Kegley Books, 2009.
·         Morgan, Robert. Boone, A Biography. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2008.
·         Rouse, Parke, Jr. The Great Wagon Road: from Philadelphia to the South. Richmond, Virginia: The Dietz Press, 2001.