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The Wilderness Road

The 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.

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. 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.

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.

In 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.

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.


"All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream." - T.K. Whipple

"And no man knew better how to make the best of a crisis, nor could any carry the most awful terror in one hand and the olive branch in the other, more successfully than he could. Few men better understood the secret spring of the human heart." - Wm Martin

"Martin's Fort was on Martin's Creek. The fort was located on the north side of the creek. There were some five or six cabins; these built some 20 feet apart with strong stockades between. In these stockades there were port holes. The station contained about half an acre of ground. The shape was a parallelogram. There were two fine springs near the station on its north side." - John Redd