The Great Wagon Road (1731 to 1800)

This map project on the Roads and Trails of Colonial America started  by questioning what routes the immigrant ancestors used during their southern and western migrations. The assumption was that our earliest immigrant ancestors were limited to the waterways which accessed the coast and an occasional Indian path. And for the most part, that was true, However, further research proves that the Native population used trails and routes extensively to travel and trade throughout the hinterland and even to the coast. The challenge was for our early ancestors to identify the many routes and survive the journey.

-Starting at Philadelphia
-West across the Schuylkill River
-West down the Conestoga Road to Lancaster
-Crossing the Susquehanna River at Columbia
-Southwest to York
-southwest to Gettysburg
(crosses the Cumberland Road)
-Southwest through the Blue Ridge, crossing the Maryland line

-South through Hagerstown
-Across the Potomac River at Opequon Creek

-South past Winchester
(the Pioneer Road from Alexandria joined here)
-South past Harrisonburg
-South past Staunton
-South past Lexington
-South to Roanoke
(the trail forks toward Knoxville TN and Ft. Augusta GA)

Western Fork:
[Valley Road]
-Southwest to Bristol VA (start of the Wilderness Road to Boonesborough KY)
-Southwest to Knoxville TN, (connects with Avery's Trace to Nashville TN, and the Georgia Road to Athens.

Southern Fork:
-South past Rocky Mount
-Across the North Carolina line

North Carolina:
-South past the Moravian Colonies
-South past Salem
-South past Salisbury
-South past Charlotte
-Across the South Carolina line

South Carolina:
[Alternate route]

South to Chester
-Southeast to Kershaw
(the Fall Line Road joins here)
-South to Camden 
-Southwest to Ft. Augusta GA

South Carolina:
[Primary Route]

-South to Newberry
-South to the Savannah River

-Across the Savannah River to Ft. Augusta 

Key to the understanding of migration patterns in Colonial America is knowledge of the geography and topography of the regions. Human nature dictates that early settlers took the path of least resistance as they spread civilization. After establishing initial settlements along the Atlantic Coast, our early ancestors pushed up the local rivers in ever expanding arcs. For the first hundred years of colonial history (1609 to 1715), settlement was restricted to those coastal lowlands. It wasn't until 1716 that Governor Spotswood's Order of the Golden Horseshoe crossed the Blue Ridge and gazed on the verdant fields of the Shenandoah Valley.

In 1734 we find the first citation for the "Wagon Road" which was described as opened from Conestoga above Lancaster on the western boundary of Pennsylvania to Opequon Creek, the primary waterway moving south, up the Shenandoah Valley, to Winchester VA. But, Jost Hite and the earliest settlers of the Shenandoah Valley were using the road as early as 1731.

Geography dictates that most early roads to the West actually ran more north-south. The Appalachian Mountains formed a solid boundary from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. In North Carolina, where the Appalachian's were an easier barrier to overcome, the Cumberland Plateau just beyond those mountains, formed an additional barrier. The main route of migration was up the Valley of Virginia (southwest), along parts of the Holston River, and into North and South Carolina east of the mountains. It was called "The Great Wagon Road" and began in Philadelphia, ran west through the middle of Pennsylvania and the towns of Lancaster, York, and Gettysburg. It then turned southwest through Maryland and into the Valley of Virginia, passing through Wincester [sic], Staunton, Lexington, and Fincastle. At Fincastle, it turned south into North Carolina, passing the Moravian villages of Bethania, Bethabara and Salem, and the towns of Salisbury and Charlotte. It then continued on through South Carolina and ended at Augusta, Georgia.

. . .[N]ear present-day Roanoke, the Wilderness Road branched southwest toward the Tennessee Valley and Cumberland Gap. Dr. Thomas Walker of Albemarle County, Virginia, had discovered the Cumberland Gap in 1750, but its use was delayed for many years because of the ferocity of the Shawnee Indians and to a lesser extent, the Cherokee Indians. Traffic through the Cumberland Gap had increased substantially after treaties with the Cherokee and Shawnee Indians and the Gap saw considerable traffic by 1780. Traffic along a more southerly branch of that road to Nashville, Tennessee, also increased after the first settlement in 1780. [Avery's Trace]

These were not the only paths to the West. A few went west over the Alleghenies near Pittsburgh, some traveled the Kanawha River in Virginia, some moved along the valleys in North and South Carolina. But, by far, the greatest movement was along the Great Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road well into the early 1800s.

    Ferguson, Bob. "Flintlocks and Rifles." Personal Web Page. No Date. <> 22 February 2004.

Great Valley Road
also called in various parts the "Great Wagon Road," "Great Warriors' Path," "Valley Pike," "Carolina Road," or "Trading Path," was the most important Colonial American route for settlers of the mountainous backcountry of the southern British colonies. It went from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania over to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, forking into the Tennessee Valley and Knoxville. The other fork went more south into the Piedmont Region of North Carolina and then to its terminus on the Savannah River at Augusta, Georgia. From Philadelphia to Augusta was 735 miles (1183 km).

Several other important early pathways merged with, or split off from the Great Valley Road. The American Indians developed a network of eastern trade and warrior trails stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. One of these trails, the Great Warrior Path from New York to the Carolinas, also served as the western boundary of British settlement until 1744. In that year a new treaty gave control of the east side of the trail to European colonists in Virginia. This opened the way for the trail to evolve into one of the most important roads for settlers in Colonial America.

By 1765 the road was cleared for use by horse drawn wagons. After 1744, the Great Valley Road was most heavily used by Ulster-Irish immigrants called Scots-Irish in America to spread through most of Appalachia bringing their Presbyterian religion. Pennsylvania Germans also used the trail to spread into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The Moravians of Pennsylvania followed the road to settle the Wachovia region of North Carolina starting in 1753. The first settlements of Virginians in Tennessee were associated with the end of the trail in that region in the 1760s.

In 1746 the Pioneer Road first crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains from Alexandria to Winchester, Virginia, where it fed into the Great Valley Road. The Wilderness Road, opened in 1775 into central Kentucky, and branched off the Great Valley Road in southwest Virginia at Bristol (Sapling Grove). Starting in the late 1770s explorers and pioneers at Staunton, Virginia started using the Kanawha Trail which followed the New River/Kanawha River into West Virginia. From the terminus of the Great Valley Road at Knoxville, Avery's Trace to Nashville opened in 1788, and the Georgia Road to Athens opened in 1805.

    "Great Valley Road," Family Search <> 12 November 2014.


This site is provided for reference only. Except where specifically cited, information contained is conjecture and should not be considered as fact.
Home Index About Me