Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road

October 1753, fifteen Moravians are traveling to North Carolina to begin a new settlement. The route they follow from Pennsylvania does not yet have its famous name: The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. The brothers often were required to cut down trees, improve and widen the road in order to pass.

During the early years, travelers walked, leading five or six pack animals laden with supplies: tools, seed, and fabric. In places, the famous path they trod was only three or four feet wide. The wilderness literally crept right up to their feet and brushed their faces as they walked. In later years they marched alongside oxen as these over sized beast pulled two-wheeled carts heaped to overflowing, crossing rivers that licked high about their animals flanks and often soaked every single individual piece of their worldly possessions. Finally, when the path had been worn clear by thousands and thousands of previous travelers, they rode in wagons as the path was widened into an honest to goodness road. These Pennsylvania German built wagons at their largest would be twenty-six feet long, eleven feet high and some could bear loads up to ten tons. It took five or six pairs of horses to pull them.

No matter if they walked or rode, in the mid afternoon, they stopped to take care of the animals, prepare food, and put up the defense for the night. The cries of wolves in the distance and the pop of twigs just outside of the firelight sounded danger. Bands of Indians in the early days, bands of thieves later, chased away deep sleep, no matter how tiring the day, how bone weary the traveler. The fastest loaded wagon could go about five miles a day. The trip took a minimum of two months. Wagons broke down, rivers flooded, supplies gave out, and there was sickness but no doctors. Wagons were repaired, floods ceded, the wilderness supplied their need, and the sick were buried or stumbled on.

Only a few trails cut through the vast forests, which covered the continent between the northernmost colonies and Georgia, the southern tip. The settlers, as they moved inland, usually followed the paths over which the Indians had hunted and traded. The Indians, in turn, had followed the prehistorical traces of animals. Who knows why the animals wandered where they did, but some of those early travelers on that road, the Scots-Irish Presbyterians, would have assured us it was certainly predetermined. Even so, few paths crossed the Appalachians, which formed a barrier between the Atlantic plateau and the unknown interior. Through this unknown, even then, there was a road. The Iroquois tribesmen of the North had long used the great warriors path to come south and trade or make war in Virginia and the Carolinas. This vital link between the native peoples led from the Iroquois Confederacy around the Great Lakes through what later became Lancaster and Bethlehem, Pa. through York to Gettysburg and into Western Maryland around what is now Hagerstown. It crossed the Potomac River at Evan Watkins Ferry, followed the narrow path across the back country to Winchester, through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to Harrisonburg, Staunton, Lexington, and Roanoke. On it went into Salem, NC, and on to Salisbury, where it was joined by the east-west Catawba and Cherokee Indian Trading Path at the Trading Ford across the Yadkin River. On to Charlotte and Rock Hill, SC where it branched to take two routes, one to Augusta and another to Savannah, Georgia. It was just a narrow line through the continuous forest.

Virginia's Gov. Col. Alexander Spotswood first discovered this Great Road in 1716 when his "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe," crossed the mountains, drank a toast to King George's health and buried a bottle claiming the vast valley for the King of England. In 1744, a treaty between the English colonists and the Indians gave the white men control of the road for the first time. By 1765 the Great Wagon Road was cleared enough to hold horse drawn vehicles and by 1775, the road stretched 700 miles. Boys and dogs, smelling like barnyards, drove tens of thousands of pigs to market along this road, which grew gradually worse the farther South you went. Inns and ordinaries, which spotted the road undoubtedly taught more than a few of them the ways of the world. But that was all later.

The majority of the folks who by the thousands would walk over Spotswood's buried bottle would have probably thought his whole 1716 ceremony a little preposterous and quite a bit pretentious. You see, they were plain folk trying to get away from Latin, from mottoes, and from knights with horseshoes no matter their element of manufacture, steel or gold. They were as different from Spotswood's cavaliers as a golden horseshoe is from an ox's hoof.

In the last sixteen years of the colonial era," wrote historian Carl Bridenbaugh, "Southbound traffic along The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road was numbered in tens of thousands. It was the most heavily traveled road in all America and must have had more vehicles jolting along its rough and tortuous way than all the other main roads put together."

When the British captured Philadelphia, the Continental Congress escaped down The Pennsylvania Wagon Road. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett traveled it. George Washington knew it as an Indian fighter. John Chisholm knew it as an Indian trader. Countless soldiers, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Pickens, Andrew Lewis, Francis Marion, Lighthorse Harry Lee, Daniel Morgan, and George Rogers Clark, among them, fought over it. Both the North and South would use it during the Civil War.

The Great Wagon Road: From Philadelphia to the SouthAnd down this road, this glorified overgrown footpath through the middle of nowhere leading to even greater depths of nowhere, came those people looking for a better life for themselves and their children, down it came those settlers, those hardworking stubborn Scots Irish and Germans: the preachers, the blacksmiths, and farmers.

Modified from the article: The Scots-Irish From Ulster and The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road
Information provided by Brenda E.McPherson Compton

First Map of the Wagon Road:

1751 Map by by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson
 The 1751 map by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's father) is in the collection of the Moravian Archives and is one of the many early treasures housed in Salem.This blogger is privileged to have a copy made directly from this map in his collection.

The map above, drawn by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father) in 1751, was the first to show “The Great Road from the Yadkin River thru Virginia to Philadelphia distant 455 Miles” — what would come to be known as The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road or just the Great Wagon Road. Fry and Jefferson based their map on firsthand surveys not, as was common at the time, on the word of other people who had traveled through the land. On their map, the road ends at Wachovia (Wachaw), the Moravian settlement. Later, it would be extended further south and west. Also marked is the “Trading Path leading to the Catawba & Cherokee Indian Nations,” the Indian trading path that predated European settlement.

Fry and Jefferson were commissioned to draw an accurate map of the most-inhabited (by whites, that is) parts of Virginia, and that was the only land they surveyed. As a result, they drew the border between Virginia and North Carolina only as far west as the Allegheny Mountains, although in theory that border still ran to the Pacific Ocean. Note that the western border of Pennsylvania is clearly drawn on the map; Virginia also claimed all the land that is now Ohio. Note also that the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania isn’t drawn! That boundary was in dispute at the time. Not until 1763 would Mason and Dixon set out from Philadelphia to survey the boundary between the two colonies and draw the line that would bear their names.

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