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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Colonial Roads and Trails
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Braddock’s Road and Forbes’ Road[edit | edit source]

Both the Braddock’s Road and the Forbes’ Road were military roads, by-products of the French and Indian War. Both roads led to the forks of the Ohio River where later pioneers used water transportation to go down the Ohio River and on to the Mississippi.

Colonial Roads and Trails.jpg

Braddock’s Road was the first road to cross the Appalachian mountain range. “In early 1755, the British General, Edward Braddock, began supervising the construction of a wagon road through the wilderness areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania following routes laid out by George Washington... The road was successfully completed. However, due to some poor military tactics, Braddock failed in his military mission.” (William Dollarhide, Map Guide to American Migration Routes, Bountiful, Utah: AGLL, Inc., 1997, 10.)

In 1758 while it was still necessary for the British to advance on Fort Duquesne, the British forces were commanded by General John Forbes. Instead of using Braddock’s Road again, Forbes chose to build a new road further north and sweep down on the French by surprise. But once the road was completed and Forbes arrived with his troops, he discovered that the French had abandoned the fort. (William Dollarhide, Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 11.) Finding it deserted, he renamed it Fort Pitt after his commanding officer; it became known soon as Pittsburgh.

Great Wagon Road[edit | edit source]

Great Wagon Road-Philadelphia.jpg

“The Philadelphia or Great Wagon Road began its history as the Warriors’ Path, an ancient Indian highway that was used by Iroquois tribesmen of the north to go south to trade, hunt, and make war. When the colonists took over, it extended 800 miles from Philadelphia in the north down through South Carolina in the south, and was the only route of travel at that time.” (Merlin C. and Eva M. Finnell, Migration Trails of the Eastern United States, 55.)

Tens of thousands used this road, beginning in colonial times and continuing long after. It carried more traffic than all the other early American roads put together.

The first section of the road was the Lancaster Road connecting Philadelphia to York and Lancaster. Immigrants from the Palatinate region of Germany who came between 1710 and 1730 were forced to the frontier along the Lancaster Road to provide a buffer against the Indian tribes. The lands there being infertile, many turned south into the more fertile Virginia Valley, with the first settlement beginning at Winchester in 1731.

After 1717 thousands of Scots-Irish followed the German Palatine pioneers, settling beyond them, closest to the Indians. Land title disputes in Maryland and Pennsylvania sent them south into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Even before the French and Indian War, Conestoga wagons carried pioneers out of Philadelphia, passing through Lancaster and Harrisburg, then turning to funnel through the fertile Shenandoah Valley that stretched five hundred miles southward between the mountains, a route which was later taken by Interstate 81. The Shenandoah Valley runs due west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, stretching from northern New York to central Georgia. It was a natural travel route between the Blue Ridge and the more formidable Appalachian Mountains on the western side of the valley.

The Conestogas rumbled through Winchester, founded in 1744, and continued south by southwest—with the impenetrable Appalachians looming on the right and the haze-drenched Blue Ridge on the left... Year after year the procession of new settlers moved farther down the Great Valley. A majority were Scots-Irish who, renouncing the rocky soil of their adopted Northern Ireland as well as family ties with their native Scotland, outnumbered even the Germans in this backwoods paradise. And for a while at least, the long trail to their settlements was alternately known as the Irish Road. Soon a village called Big Lick (later renamed the more dignified Roanoke) was laid out on an intermountain tableland around a large salt deposit long favored by buffalo and other animals. From there the pioneer tide moved on, by packhorse now, around the crumpled foothills of Walker Mountain, which protruded far into the Great Valley, to fill the rolling basin of the Holston. (Douglas Waitley, Roads of Destiny . . ., 258-259.)

After about 1750 one branch of the Great Valley Road followed the old Indian trails through North Carolina, and on into South Carolina, and Georgia. Between 1761 and the Revolutionary War, the population of North Carolina doubled and then doubled again. The second branch of the Great Valley Road led to eastern Kentucky and Tennessee via the Cumberland Gap and the Wilderness Road.

Fort Chiswell guarded the crossroads where a trunk route crossed over the New River and the Blue Ridge beyond, to Winston-Salem and the Upper Road. The Richmond Roa, ran from Richmond, Virginia, southwest to Fort Chiswell, providing travelers access to the Wilderness Road into Kentucky or north through the Shenandoah Valley.

Cumberland Gap and the Wilderness Road[edit | edit source]

Cumberland Gap and Wilderness Road.jpg

The Cumberland Gap is a natural break in the Appalachian Mountain range (through the Allegheny Mountains), first used by hunting and war parties of rival Indian tribes north of the Ohio River and south of the mountains. In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker discovered this gap, first called Cave Gap but later named Cumberland Gap. During that same year, Christopher Gist crossed the whole of Kentucky to the Miami River. In 1769 Daniel Boone reached the Cumberland Gap and passed into the Blue Grass hunting ground of both the northern and southern Indian tribes. Reports of this fertile region attracted land-hungry pioneers.

Although illegal under the terms of the Proclamation of 1763, Judge Richard Henderson of North Carolina in 1775 organized the Transylvania Company to buy land from the Indians to sell to white settlers. Next, the Transylvania Company sent Daniel Boone and thirty woodsmen to mark off a trail from the eastern settlements through the Cumberland Gap and down the Kentucky River to the Ohio, a route which later took the name Wilderness Road. Boone established Boonesborough, a small fort on the Kentucky River, near the present city of Lexington.

Some historians suggest that the origin of the Wilderness Road was at Fort Chiswell on the Great Valley Road where roads converged from Philadelphia and Richmond. Others claim the Wilderness Road actually began at Sapling Grove (now Bristol, Virginia) which lay at the extreme southern end of the Great Valley Road because it was at that point that the road narrowed, forcing travelers to abandon their wagons. The Wilderness Road moved through the Allegheny Mountains at Cumberland Gap, at what is now the junction of the state boundaries of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Heading northwest, it splits at Hazel Patch, with one route to Boonesborough, the other to Frankfort.

In the early years, the Wilderness Road was simply a crude trail. Only pack teams could cross the mountains. Pioneers coming from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas before 1796 found it necessary to unload their Conestoga wagons at Sapling Grove and pack their belongings on horses. They lashed huge baskets and bundles of clothing, bed furnishings and household articles upon packhorses. Children perched on top, or rode in front and behind their mothers. The older boys and men who did not have mounts had to trudge along on foot. A caravan of pack horses and people on foot sometimes stretched out as far as three miles along the trail. Professional packhorse men made it a business to hire out to settlers or merchants for transporting supplies through the wilderness. They objected to road improvements, saying it would drive them out of business. Nevertheless, changes came about and swarms of people crossed through the Gap into Kentucky and beyond.

Other Roads/Trails[edit | edit source]

Roads forked off from one another, connected with one another, paralleled one another, and not infrequently carried alternative names. This adds to the confusion but also points to a fact of major importance: migration paths are not totally predictable! Look for maps showing early American roads, some of which were no more than footpaths, others improved and used for many years.

Major Indian trails in the East generally followed much older game trails made by the buffalo. These Indian trails included the Old Connecticut Path, the Iroquois Trail, the Lake Trail, the Kittanning Path, Nemacolin’s Path, the Great Trail, the Seneca Trail, the Warrior’s Path, the Falls of Ohio Trail, and the Scioto Trail. These trails created a highway system of foot paths made for single file travel and were then developed into pioneer routes.

The Old Connecticut Path followed the Boston Post Road to Springfield at which point it turned north to Albany.

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, formed in 1727, was settled as a result of the Lancaster Road. It was the first overland road from Philadelphia to Lancaster and on to Harrisburg. Those wishing to use the Susquehanna River to go further west into Pennsylvania didn’t have to first go south to pick up the mouth of the river in Maryland.

The first direct overland route through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia went from Alexandria to Winchester. Completed in 1746, it was called the Pioneer’s Road. Winchester which was the most western town in Virginia at the time became the northern access point of the Great Valley Road. And at the other end of the Pioneer’s Road, Alexandria became a more popular port than Philadelphia for the many Scots-Irish immigrants in the last half of the 18th century.

At Salisbury and Rowan County in North Carolina, the East-West Trading Path intersected with the Great Wagon Road, bringing settlers to western North Carolina and Tennessee even before the Great Wilderness Road was opened.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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