DANIEL BOONE, 30 WOODSMEN BLAZED FAMED 200-MILE WILDERNESS ROAD IN SPRING, 1775
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
Residents of Campbell County are well aware of the historic site of Cumberland Gap. This is a widely known pass that allowed, in the late 1700's, some 200,000 pioneers to venture into Kentucky and further west.
During the spring of 1775, Daniel Boone and 30 expert woodsmen, in less than a month, marked a 200 mile trail which crossed the Appalachian Mountains at Cumberland Gap. This trail extended from Virginia to Kentucky and would later be called "The Wilderness Road."
Some two centuries later, a large work force constructed twin mile long tunnels beneath the rock of this historic pass. Digging of the tunnel was continued for years and in October of 1996 the project was finalized; total cost, $250 million. History states that Boone never received any pay for his road work.
The old trail through Cumberland gap began with a buffalo trace was later followed by the Indians. In the mid-1660's, white hunters began exploring the region and brought home news concerning the indentation through the mountain.
The first written record of the gap is attributed to Dr. Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician who later widened his scope and became an explorer. Walker's writings tell of his travels through the gap region in 1750 and how he came upon Cave Gap, named after a nearby cavern. He is also known for naming the river north of the pass Cumberland in honor of the Duke of Cumberland of England.
Some twenty-five years after Walker ventured through the gap, Richard Henderson, a former North Carolina judge and a land speculator, sent Daniel Boone and his fellow woodsmen to mark a tail through the gap for the purpose of settling Kentucky. Boone was already familiar with the gap as he had passed through it previously on hunting expeditions. He was for the most part aware of the dangers that lie ahead, especially that of Indian depredation. The Indians had for centuries deemed this their hunting ground and wanted no trespassing from the white man. On two previous incidents Boone happened upon Indians who took all the skins he had collected.
Boone's friend and brother-in-law, John Stewart, vanished in 1770 while he and Boone were on a hunting expedition into Kentucky. His fate had been sealed for five years until a worker on Boone's Wilderness Road construction found a skeleton with a powder horn inscribed with Stewart's initials.
Boone suffered another loss in 1773 when he undertook to establish a settlement in Kentucky. A group of marauding Indians attacked the expedition along Powell's River and killed several in the group, including his son, James.
Boone's employment with Henderson wasn't the first encounter with the latter. He had once sued the pioneer explorer for unpaid debts and had sworn out a warrant for his arrest. Apparently, after some time, the two reunited and Boone was hired for the venture.
Henderson had dealt for 20 million acres of land in Kentucky and Tennessee with the Cherokee Indians, essentially as a plan to create his own settlement of Transylvania, with its capital at the newly established settlement of Boonesborough. His plan ultimately failed basically because the legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina said the land belonged to them.
Henderson's plan failed. Boone was promised payment but Henderson reneged on his contract. However, Boone's work on the old Indian path was on the forward march. It would be named "The Wilderness Road" which would become the interstate of the period. Pioneers and travelers from eastern Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas made their way through the gap and onto lands west.
The old trail had much to be desired. It was wide enough only for packhorses and traveling folks. One source says that during the summer and fall of 1784, hostile Cherokee Indians killed more than 100 travelers on the Kentucky side of the gap. The result of this carnage was that travel in large groups was deemed most appropriate.
One group, numbering about 500, which included the entire Upper Spotslvania Baptist Church congregation from Fredricksburg, Virgina, passed through the gap in 1781. As was common custom, they had to abandon their wagons, loaded with personal items, and walk the mountain trail with only what they could carry or load on horses. The caravan, a three mile long convoy, finally crossed the gap in December, taking three weeks to cover a mere 30 miles through snow, mud and over-flowing streams.
In 1796, the Wilderness Road was widened enough to accommodate the many wagons, and by the early 1800's, the road had been improved to the extent that long lines of cattle and horses made their way into Kentucky.
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