Great Wagon Road Project

From Footsteps To Wagon Wheels

Who were these people who traveled The Great Wagon Road? Why did their numbers grow so significantly during the mid 18th century? What were their reasons for moving to unknown lands? These are just a few of the questions that are asked by so many who are eager to learn more about this historic trail. After the Lancaster Treaty of 1744, families continued to pour into the ports of Philadelphia, Boston and New York. The numbers swelled to new heights from 1709 to 1765 which created different opinions from the families who were already settled in the New World. The towns and early communities were overwhelmed by the vast amount of immigrants arriving almost daily. Many of these families left lands that were brutal and provided little opportunity from the Old World. They were comprised mainly of Germans, Swiss, Scots and Irish. Arriving with only the clothes on their back and few possessions, they sought a New World filled with a priceless treasure, freedom. This article will explore these early families and their roots. To have a detailed understanding of who they were and why, after arriving to the New World, they chose to embark on another adventure, The Great Wagon Road.

During the years of 1708 and 1709, agent William Penn visited the Palatines and promoted each of them to set their destinations for the New World. Penn would give descriptions of religious freedoms, vast land and a friendly atmosphere with neighbors. During the month of June, 1709, several ships arrived in London filled with German families anticipating the voyage across the Atlantic. By autumn of 1709, Queen Anne ordered 1,000 tents to be set up in an open field near the Tower of London to house the Germans who were embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. Food was also provided for the families living temporarily on the grounds. Although, the total number is not known, at least 14,000 individuals were awaiting the departure date for the New World during the year of 1709. Over the next fifty years, the numbers grew at an alarming and remarkable rate. Pennsylvania’s Governor, Sir William Keith, demanded that each ship provide the names of each and every passenger by 1717. Secretary James Logan reported to the son of William Penn in England, the following statement dated March, 25, 1727, “We have many thousands of foreigners, most Palatines, so-called, already in ye Country, of whom near 1500 came in this last summer; many of them are a surly people, divers Papists amongst them, and ye men generally well arm’d.”

During this same time period, families from Scotland traveled to Ireland in previous years in order to establish their linen trade. However; due to heavy English taxes, these families joined the Germans to the New World. Due to these families arriving by 1720, the resentment of the newly arrived immigrants grew at a rapid pace. Benjamin Franklin remarked several times about the Germans and Scots stating the following in 1751, “Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlement?” Franklin also wrote, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglicifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs any more than they can acquire our complexion?” So, history is telling us that the German and Scots were not as welcomed as old school text books might have revealed in years past. In fact, resentment was well known all through out Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts. During the year of 1732, Pennsylvania was encouraging the new arrivals to travel westward and southward in order to obtain lands and settle.

Lord Baltimore of Maryland sent a proclamation northward to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to lure families to travel south, “Being Desireous to Increase the Number of Honest people” . Maryland was offering any family 200 acres between the Potomac and Susquehanna. Any payments would not be requested until after three years of settlement and then, only four shillings sterling per hundred acres. Single persons were offered 100 acres with the same terms. Now, we have discovered that not only could land be located further south, but at an amazing price. With hostilities rising among the communities through out the northern colonies, it stands to reason why the newly arrived families would travel The Great Wagon Road. These early groups would depart from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and travel the route known then as the Great Warrior’s Path, to arrive in Maryland between 1733 and 1749. The population of Maryland grew from 40,000 to over 150,000 during these years. But, the cheap availability of land was not the only reason why these Germans, Scots and Irish left the northern colonies.

Religious freedom was another major deciding factor for these families. The Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia wrote a letter addressed to the Governor of Virginia, William Gooch in May of 1738. “always been inclined to favour the people who have lately removed from other provinces, to settle on the western side of our great mountains, no interruption shall be given to any minister of your profession(denomination) who shall come among them, so long as they conform themselves to the rules prescribed by the act of tolerance in England.” This meant that the Anglican Virginia was no more and religions were respected for all groups arriving into the area. This was vital to our ancestors as this alone was the main reason why many of them left their original homes in the Old World. They wanted to exercise their civil and religious liberties. Beginning in 1738 along the Virginia frontier, these early families were allowed to do just that.

Another reason for the departure of the Germans and Scots were Indian attacks. Many of these families traveled westward and southward at first to escape resentments that were shown in the larger communities such as Philadelphia, Lancaster, Boston and New York. The problem with these smaller settlements such as Colebrook Valley, were Iroquois attacks. Many believe that the English who settled along the coast line forced the Germans and Scots to settle west and south in order to act as a buffer between the Indians and themselves. Often times, attacks were organized and carried out especially prior to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744. Even years after the Treaty was signed, several lone Indians organized attacks against the smaller communities. The reasons were sporadic and included lack of food, hostile personal feelings against the settlers and much more.

Majority of these families began the trip along the Great Wagon Road by walking and leading a packhorse. The road, at the beginning, was a foot path measuring no more than a few feet wide in many sections. As the years went by, small carts could be handled by the route, but few possessions were carried through these first years. Farming tools, furniture, additional cookware, yardage for clothing and more were all made or traded once the family arrived to their destinations. Jacob Stover led a group of Germans during the year of 1726 to the frontier lands of Virginia. They traveled by foot through the autumn air and Stover would lead many more families through the following years. Another early guide was Joist Hite who began traveling the route in 1732. Camping overnight in the open was common during this time period and many nights were spent without fire to eliminate their location by Indians who may have been near by. Wild game was abundant for the travelers and buffalo still traveled the path with recorded sightings as late as 1759. Wagons would later be able to travel the route easily by 1753 as well as herds of cattle, sheep and pigs.

In summary, the growth of Pennsylvania added to the jolt upwards with land prices and availability. But, as discussed earlier in the article, several reasons contributed to the “why” of these families traveling south along the Great Warrior’s Path. Beyond the waters of the Potomac was wilderness filled with dangers at every turn. Groups would depart together and any family setting out along the path alone was considered certain death for many. During these early years, moving from one location to another was treacherous and required great courage and skills. Families were willing to take up the task and travel a well-known Indian hunting trail in order to find land and create a home. They were willing to relocate in order to be known for who they were as an individual rather than a far away province. They were driven to act upon their beliefs and preserve their customs from one generation to the next. As researching the road continues, it stands to reason why The Great Wagon Road is a remarkable national historic treasure.

The Great Wagon Road Project continues by researching documents, viewing old maps and examining the relics of the past. Be sure to visit the project again as new articles are presented, information regarding historical and genealogical data and new updates with the progress of our goal. Thank You All So Much For Your Support.

Enjoy Your Journey To The Past !!

1 reply »

  1. Great summary on the significance of “The Great Wagon Road”, that was the main thoroughfare for the European immigrant’s movements & development of the western parts of the original colonies in the south. Both my Moravian & Quaker ancestors took this road in the mid-18th century, along with many of their Maryland & Pennsylvania friends who helped settle the Piedmont of North Carolina.

    Liked by 1 person

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