The Wilderness Road

Historical Timeline of the Wilderness Road – An Overview

1600s – The Great Warpath – Beginning as an animal path, this trail connected major Native American kingdoms, the Delaware in Pennsylvania, The Shawnee in the central valley of Virginia, and the Yuchi in southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee prior to their extermination by the Cherokee.

1654 – Abraham Wood made his first trip into the Southwest region of Virginia from Fort Henry, traveling 120 miles to the chief town of the Occaneechi at the junction of the Roanoke and Dan Rivers.

1669-70 – Dr. John Lederer, a German physician journeyed to the top of the Blue Ridge chain at Front Royal.

1671 – Abraham Wood sent an expedition led by Captain Thomas Batts and assistant Robert Fallam. This is first report of explorers reaching the Appalachian divide and finding the Indian trail known as the Great Warpath. The Totero people of the Cherokee nation were encountered on this journey.

1673 – Abraham Wood sent James Needham and his assistant Gabriel Arthur to the Cherokee capital at Chota (Tennessee). They followed the “Path of the Armed Ones”. Arthur was left with the Cherokee to learn the language and customs while Needham returned to report at Fort Henry.

1674 – Gabriel Arthur was captured by the Shawnee but was released in hopes of promoting trade with the English. He traveled along the trail from Ohio through the Cumberland Gap on the Warriors’ Path of Kentucky.

1681-1698 – Colonel Cadwallader Jones established trade with Indians beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains even though such contact was discouraged by the Crown (of England) at that time.

1706 – Franz Ludwig Michel of Bern, Switzerland undertook an early exploration of the Shenandoah Valley coming as far as present day Edinburg.

1716 – Governor Alexander Spotswood led his Knights of the Golden Horseshoe to the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley.

1738 – European incursions and settlements precipitated the formation of Augusta County, the westernmost colonial territory at the time.

1739 – A British Crown land grant of 92 thousand acres was given to Benjamin Borden to bring settlers into the area that is now Rockbridge County.

1742-1745 – Colonel James Patton received two large land grants of 100 thousand acres each to encourage settlement in the Roanoke River and New River valleys.

1744 – The Treaty of Lancaster with the Iroquois Confederacy affirmed the use of the Warriors’ Path and allowed English settlements west of the “Great Mountains”.

1745 – The first settlement west of the New River was called Dunkards Bottom due to the practice of full immersion baptism by the religious community.

1749 – Augusta Academy was founded in Lexington eventually becoming Washington and Lee University. The institution continues to receive dividends on stock donated by George Washington.

1750– Dr. Thomas Walker partnered with Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas) and others to form the Loyal Land Company and find 800 thousand acres in far southwest Virginia. Walker kept a detailed journal of rivers, salt licks, Indian trails, mountains and valleys. He and his men traveled through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky where they built a small cabin.

1751– Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson published a map listing several names for the route, including “Indian Road by Treaty of Lancaster” and the “Great Road” thro Virginia to Philadelphia.” The map indicates the Carolina Road splitting off the Wilderness Road at the town of Amsterdam near Fincastle and traversing toward North Carolina.

1754 – French and Indian War began. Many inhabitants fled eastward to escape Indian raids. Others “forted up.”

1755 – Draper’s Meadow in present day Blacksburg was attacked by Shawnee who captured Mary Draper Ingles and killed Colonel James Patton.

1755-1756 – Fort Vause was established near Shawsville along the route in response to Indian attacks and the return of Mary Draper Ingles from captivity. Fort Vause was then captured and burned by the Indians and French.

1756 – Colonel George Washington oversaw the reconstruction of Fort Vause, near Shawsville and was almost captured and killed by Shawnee warriors traveling northward on the Wilderness Trail.

1758 – The road became known as the Valley Road in the Shenandoah region, also the Pennsylvania Road or the Irish Road.

1758 – Fort Chiswell (near Wytheville) was built by Colonel William Byrd, III as a staging point for the “Cherokee Wars.” The fort was then managed by Colonel John Chiswell who founded the lead mines in the area.

1758 – Three companies under Major Andrew Lewis improved and widened the route into a wagon road from the crossing on the New River to present day Abingdon. He continued on to the Holston River by another route.

1758-1765 – During the French and Indian War, George Washington commanded the Virginia regiments from his headquarters in Winchester.

1761 – Elisha Walden and a party of long hunters departed Fort Chiswell (near Wytheville) to explore and establish hunting camps in the area west of the Cumberland Gap. Even though they got no further than Wallen’s Creek, their success stimulated more hunting parties to travel to the far reaches of Virginia’s “caintuck” (Kentucky) region.

1761 – William Ingles received license to operate a ferry “over the New River to the opposite shore” to aid travelers. This ferry operation continued for many years.

1763 – French and Indian War peace treaty was concluded and the British got most of the French land in North America. Because of the expense of the conflict, the British began taxing the colonists to pay for the war.

1769 – Joseph Martin was recruited to settle Powell Valley. He explored an area within a few miles of Cumberland Gap.

1769 – Daniel Boone with a group of long hunters bound for the Kentucky hunting grounds encountered Joseph Martin in Powell Valley. Boone followed the hunting path into Kentucky where he established a hunting camp and continued exploring for nearly two years. His father and brothers made trips back to their homes in North Carolina.

1773 – Daniel Boone and William Russell attempted to move their families to Kentucky. Boone’s son James and Russell’s son Henry along with seven other men were about 2 miles behind the main party when they were attacked by a mixed band of Shawnee, Delaware and Cherokee. James and Henry were both killed along with others. Boone and Russell abandoned their attempt to move to Kentucky.

1773-1774 – Daniel Boone and his family wintered at Castle Wood on the Clinch River following the aborted attempt to move to Kentucky.

1774 – Natural Bridge, a geologic wonder, was purchased by Thomas Jefferson to be preserved as a mountain retreat.

1774 – Smithfield Plantation was founded by Colonel William Preston in present day Blacksburg. He served as a member of the House of Burgesses and held the offices of County Lieutenant, Sheriff, and County Surveyor for Fincastle County.

1774 – Lord Dunmore ordered the building of forts along the Clinch River, later to become the Fincastle/Cumberland Gap Turnpike route. Local militia determined the number and location of forts to be built

1774 – During Lord Dunmore’s War, Colonel Andrew Lewis led officers and troops at the battle of Point Pleasant in present day West Virginia. This conflict effectively ended war with the Shawnee Indians (for a time) and paved the way for the settlement of Kentucky.

1775 – Colonel Richard Henderson of the Transylvania Land Company sought to obtain a large portion of Kentucky from the Cherokee Indians through a questionable land purchase at Sycamore Shoals (Elizabethton, TN). He employed Daniel Boone to blaze a path through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.

1775 – William Preston and William Christian gathered a group near Fort Chiswell to write and sign the “Fincastle Resolutions,” a document calling for freedom, liberty and popular sovereignty (a precursor to the Declaration of Independence).

1775-1810 – An estimated 200 to 300 thousand people passed through Virginia on their way to Cumberland Gap and Kentucky.

1776 – The American Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain.

1779 – Thomas Harrison deeded land for public buildings for a community known as Rocktown which became a refuge for Brethren and Mennonites. The town later became the city of Harrisonburg.

1780 – The Overmountain Men mustered at several points along the route including Abingdon, with the grand muster at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga, and then marched to Kings Mountain. The battle that followed was one of the turning points of the American Revolution.

1783 – Great Britain and three other countries recognized the independence of the 13 United States at the Treaty of Paris.

1784 – Teacher and explorer John Filson wrote about the Wilderness Road and the exploits of Daniel Boone in his book The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke published in Philadelphia. The book inspired many to pack up and head to Kentucky along the Wilderness Road.

1795-1796 – The Kentucky portion of the Wilderness Road was improved and opened to wagon travel.

1804-1808 – Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) courted local women near Fincastle before setting out as leaders of the Corps of Discovery. Both men traveled the Wilderness Road on their return to Virginia. Clark married his fiancée, Julia Hancock, after naming a river for her on the epic journey.

1831 – Cyrus McCormick demonstrated the first successful mechanical reaper near his farm at Steeles Tavern, thus beginning the age of farm mechanization.

1834 – The Virginia Assembly passed legislation allowing the incorporation of the Valley Turnpike Company to improve the road from Winchester to Harrisonburg. Legislation was also passed to develop the Fincastle – Cumberland Gap Turnpike.

1838 – The Valley Turnpike charter was expanded to include the road from Harrisonburg to Staunton.

1840-1850 – With the opening of the National Road and other avenues westward, the route through western Virginia declined in importance. It was partially abandoned and later absorbed into the national highway system.

1850 – The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad edged ever closer to the far reaches of Southwest Virginia, eventually reaching Roanoke two years later.


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