The Beginning Journey West

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After the American Revolutionary War, vast amounts of new land became available for settlement. Families could now travel west, past the Appalachian Mountain chain and explore new opportunities. You can imagine the conversations around the evening meals as considerations were discussed. The prospect of leaving the current family home and settling elsewhere would entice excitement and anxiety. Many of these families held memories of traveling the Great Wagon Road to the southern colonies. These families were experienced with traveling long distances and the dangerous situations that would imply. War veterans were weary after struggling through battles of war, sickness and loss. Many veterans and their families longed for new beginnings in a new area with peace. Veterans received land grants in these new locations to reimburse them for their services that were carried out through the war. The new land was the hot topic of conversation after the war. It brought excitement to many communities in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina and all of the remaining northern states. Local meetings were held in homes, churches and taverns. The majority of the population that were most interested in these meetings and conversations were farmers, wealthy entrepreneurs and young males between the ages of 21 and 30.

The 1783 map above can be used as an excellent reference point for distinguishing which state submitted land warrants, surveyed and operated land purchases, etc. As you can see, originally, the entire upper northwestern territory was once operated and claimed by the state of Virginia. For genealogists, this information is vital to research data and proof of lineage. For the early pioneers pondering on traveling to these areas, it was of little significance on statehood operations. Good road conditions, rich soil and open opportunities were much more important to the 18th century citizen. Regardless of the state, location or area, the farmer families suffered the most economically. Acquiring large land tracts were essential for any farmer to prosper within his community. Next seasons crops were planned for growth which provided the family with more. For instance, the money would provide for additional schooling for the children, visits to relatives who lived elsewhere, updates to the family home, etc. If a family suffered from several failing crops over a short span of a few years, this would greatly impact the family. Overtime, many of these families believed that the opportunities within the new western frontier would allow them to finally prosper. Farming families were close to their neighbors, especially the smaller farms. They relied on one another during harvesting, plowing the fields for spring planting and so much more. If one member of the community decided to leave, this would also greatly impact the remaining neighbors living in the vicinity.

Photo of 18th Century home and farm landscape.

Pioneers Traveled in Organized Groups

A few people knew someone personally who traveled to the new area and sent word back that they made it and the area was promising. Many families were encouraged to move based on the words and letters of others. All of these items did not hold truths about the area such as pamphlets, wagon guides, etc. The dangers however; were numerous. In addition to these dangers, the needed supplies to ensure survival were also numerous. It was unheard of for families to travel alone to areas west of the Appalachians. Even scouts and mountain men preferred to have a travel companion. With this being said, if you have a family ancestor who migrated during this time period to the northwestern territory, you may be able to locate their former neighbors as well. Many genealogists have been able to locate their own families by following the trails of their ancestor’s neighbors. Groups of pioneers traveled west. These groups usually consisted of at least one or more of the following: a guide, farmers, storekeepers, physicians and a pastor.

Once the decision was made to travel west, the family would prepare for the journey. The group would organize itself and combine materials to ensure safety and survival along the trail. A good reference for this would be local early church records. Documents have been discovered within church records that hold data of church members leaving the congregation to travel west. Personal information such as departure date and the names of the members who left the area. Depending on what the family owned, greatly depended on what the family took with them as far as personal items. During this time period, very little furniture items were placed on the wagon due to the weight and available space for it. Tools, cooking utensils, food and money were the essentials that would ensure the family’s survival on the journey and settling the new area. A weighted down wagon on good open roads with a good team pulling it could travel 25 miles a day. This will give you an idea on the length of the trip for your ancestor if you know both the departure and arrival locations. Of course, factors did hamper with the scheduling and the day to day routines of the journey. These factors were weather, sickness, lame horses or steers, wagon failures and more. Some of these could delay a family for days and/or even weeks.

The essentials for any journey west would have included a wagon, horses or steers, harnesses, saddles, tools and provisions. The tools would have been an axe, handsaw, chisels, hammer, shotgun and a knife. Also, wrought nails, coil of wire, 4 yards of rope or strap, hoop iron, cooking utensils and buckets for water. Fishing hooks, line and horseshoes would have been added to the list. Provisions would have included soap for washing garments and personal hygiene. Pickled foods as well as dried fruits, vegetables and meats. Cured ham and bacon as well as jerky. Flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt and various spices. Coffee and tea were also loaded. The wagons were packed basically the same with each family and over the years this method became the normal procedure for loading a wagon. The food provisions as well as the garments and linens were laid upon the centered flooring section of the wagon. This was the area where the family would sleep if necessary in the wagon. Other items were strapped to the interior or placed along the sides of the wagon walls.

The Genealogy Journey of the Western Territories can be Discovered Using Local Resources

If you are researching your ancestors along the western trail of the late 18th century and the early 19th century, several surprising resources are available for you. The number one source that comes to mind is early church records. These records are historical documents that can reveal vast amounts of details regarding church members and their lives. Departures to the western frontier engulfed a community. As stated earlier in this segment, pioneer families traveled in organized groups to the western territory. Many genealogists have used church records to not only prove lineage, but to bring to light the details of their ancestor’s lives. The second top source would be the local historical/genealogical societies. These organized groups can range greatly with the amount of documents on hand. Journals, personal letters, ledgers and community news have been located from the time period mentioned in this article. Ledgers located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina have been able to provide exact details on the last purchases from the local businesses prior to a citizen’s departure for the west. The state archives would be a great resource as well. These archives can provide you with veteran service, land grants and the property’s history such as sale date, etc.

Never limit your resources for genealogy or history. Understanding the western migration is one of the most extraordinary subjects of our history. The opening of the northwestern territory affected so many families in so many different ways. To learn more about early wagon trails and research links, please visit the Migrations Page and the United States Genealogy Links Page. If you are having difficulty finding a local resource for your research, let Piedmont Trails know on the contact page. I wish you well on your research and hope you find fascinating treasures along your trails. Enjoy Your Journey !!

A Detailed Route of The Great Wagon Road

Lancaster to Winchester

The Great Wagon Road consisted of more than one route from Pennsylvania to the southern colonies. In fact, 12 different routes are known to exist between Philadelphia to Augusta, Georgia. The most popular route during the years of 1741-1770 originated from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and ended at the Yadkin River in North Carolina. This particular route consisted of approx. 430 miles and began at the Conestoga River Ford in Pennsylvania. The actual river crossing location can be found along present day Old Philadelphia Pike and/or State Highway 340. A bridge crosses the river near the original location. In 1795, this portion of the road was actually paved with stones and ended at the Susquehanna River ferry crossing which is now a bridge on State Highway 462.

From Columbia, Pennsylvania, the road traveled to Wrightsville, known as Wright’s Ferry during the 18th century.  The road continued until York, Pennsylvania and the crossing of Cordorus Creek. This crossing is also a bridge today on State Highway 462. From York, the pioneers traveled approx. 5 miles to reach the “junction”. This crossroad was widely known with the travelers. It joined present day road following State Highway 116. This section was considered the older path after 1747 when the new trail was constructed. The new section of the road follows present day US Highway 30. The old route would take the settlers to Winchester, Virginia and consisted of approx. 117 miles.  The new route would take the settlers to the same location, Winchester and consisted of approx. 114 miles. In 1754, another route was also available to the settlers that took them from York to Winchester, Virginia through Black Gap. Estimated mileage for this route is 112 miles.

These alternate routes were roughly the same mileage but depending upon the season of the year, the resources that the family carried with them and the guide who was accompanying the party weighed heavily on which route was taken. During a ten year span, studies reveal that the most popular route for many was the oldest route due to the inns, taverns and business resources that were established along the way. This route held physicians, more churches for worship, blacksmiths and more.

group page picture

Once a party left Lancaster, Pennsylvania, they traveled down the road headed for Columbia, Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna River ferry. The wagon would hold supplies to last through the trip. Large furniture items would not accompany most families. In fact, very few personal items would have been on board. If the family owned a spinning wheel, this was a necessity and was placed on the wagon. Bedding and bed framing were also essential. Clothing, cooking utensils such as pots, bowls, a chest with small personal items, money and most importantly, food to endure the trip were also added to the load. The road located in Columbia (established in 1726) was in good to fair shape during this time period and was often traveled with suppliers on their way to Philadelphia and elsewhere. Upon leaving Columbia, the road led to York, Pennsylvania which was approx. 14 miles away. On a good day of travel, 14 miles was achieved by the settlers, but on many days, less than 5 miles a day were made.

York, Pennsylvania was a thriving community during the time when the settlers would travel the Great Wagon Road. York was established in 1741 and was known as the first town west of Susquehanna River.  The Schutlz brothers built the first stone homes in the area circa 1733/34. An inn operated by Schnell was well known to the area. From York, the famous junction was just 5 miles down the road. Majority of travelers would camp at the junction site. Final discussions would be held on the route taken and chores such as washing, cooking, etc. would be completed. Repairs and equipment check would be finalized. The settlers would start at sunup to begin the next phase of their journey.

camp fire

14 miles from the junction, Hanover, Pennsylvania is located in Adams County. This is a new township to the settlers with limited resources available to them. The settlers are mainly Irish and Scottish. The community has met with frequent Indian raids during the past several years. The road here maintains a fair condition dependent upon the season and the current weather.  Traveling at night was extremely dangerous and majority of families refused to do this. They would camp each night and rise with the sun each morning.

From Hanover, the Great Wagon Road held 9 miles of wilderness to the state line of Maryland.  6 additional miles were required in order to reach the small village of Taneytown, Maryland. This was a very small community established in 1754 and as late as 1791 still consisted of only 1 road through the village. The next destination is Big Pipe Creek which is 4 miles from Taneytown and then the crossing of Monocacy River. The present day location for this crossing can be located on Maryland State Highway 194 in Frederick County.

Monocacy River

Monocacy River, Frederick County, Maryland

From the river crossing, the wagons would travel 20 miles to Frederick, Maryland. This community was filled with German settlers and the families would be welcomed to stay the night in homes all throughout the area. Hospitality was well known for this area along the road. Leaving Frederick, it was 12 miles to Turner’s Gap. This ranged in elevation of 1,100 feet, located at the Blue Ridge Mountain chain. 12 miles from this location was the crossing of the Potomac River in West Virginia. This was a ferry crossing that Samuel Taylor operated from 1734-1754 and Thomas Swearingen began operations in 1755. “Packhorse Ford” was located nearby for those families who either did not want to cross on the ferry or could not afford the money required for the crossing. Once the families crossed the Potomac River, they could rest in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This small community was growing steadily every year due to it’s close proximity of the Great Wagon Road. Wagons could be repaired, supplies could be purchased or traded and the families could camp along the banks of the river.

potomac river

Potomac River

From the river crossing, it was 18 miles to the state line of Virginia. Once the wagons reached this point, the road quickly deteriorated to large rocks, fallen trees and steep inclines. Heavy loads became more difficult to control and animals became fatigued and weary. They would travel through Vestal’s Gap (known today as Key’s Gap) and through William’s Gap (known today as Snicker’s Gap). This was a long 15 mile trail until they reached Opequon Creek. Once they crossed the creek, they were 5 miles from Frederick Town (known today as Winchester, Virginia). The settlers were anxious upon reaching this community. It allowed them to rest and make any needed repairs on the wagons. Many would become concerned about their loads for the remaining of the trip. Items were discarded or traded for more supplies or money. They all knew that a vast wilderness laid before them. Many were second guessing their decision to travel the road, but they knew what laid behind them, they would travel further to see what laid before them.

The next segment will detail the journey from Winchester, Virginia to the Yadkin River in North Carolina. Surnames of families traveling the Great Wagon Road are currently discussed and researched by Piedmont Trails, followers, group members and forum members on Piedmont Trails FB Group Page and at Piedmont Trails Forum. Everyone is welcome to join us. I hope you all are enjoying this series as much as I am. The research involved with this project has been so rewarding. The Great Wagon Road is a treasure in it’s own right and the history associated with it’s journey throughout the years can not be ignored. The ancestors who traveled this road were just as special as the road itself. Although we may never know all of the details this road and it’s passengers endured, we have a better understanding of the conditions they experienced and a deep respect for the footprints that were left behind. To read more articles about The Great Wagon on Piedmont Trails, please click on the following links.

The Great Wagon Road-1st Article

From Pennsylvania To New Lands-2nd Article

Wagon Road To North Carolina-3rd Article

Remembering The Great Wagon Road-4th Article

Wagons, Horses & Stagecoaches-5th Article

Thank You all so much for your support of Piedmont Trails. It is your dedication to history and genealogy that breathes life into the words upon this page. Thank You !! May I wish you all well with your research and hope you have great treasures to discover while walking in the footsteps of your ancestors.

mums and log cabin

Special Thanks to the following sources:

York Historical Society of York, Pennsylvania

Map records of Pennsylvania State Archives

The American Frontier by Babcock

The Present State of Virginia by Beverly

Germans in Maryland by Nead