The wagon wheels are slowly turning as the eyes are focused on the wilderness ahead. The weary are anxious for the trip to be over but the adventurous are eager for the next excitement in the road. The skies are open for all to see as the party succumbs to mother nature and her surroundings. It’s the hope and dreams that thrive within the hearts of so many. The longing of a home; security for the future, prosperity for the hard at work. All of this and more are promised along this road. One step at a time, no matter the obstacle, the road leads onward. The Great Wagon Road, resembling freedom, demanding strength and endurance, while remaining historic for generations of today and all tomorrows.
Welcome to Segment 2, A Detailed Route of The Great Wagon Road. When the settlers reached present day Winchester, Virginia, they were able to rest before arriving to the wilderness of colonial Virginia. Winchester was then known as Frederick Town and this area was thriving with activity. The three main roads leading from Pennsylvania to Virginia all met at this point. A tavern and several inns were located in the area. Depending on the timeline of your ancestor, the traffic along the road was quickly multiplying as the travelers reached this community. US Highway 11 resides closely to the route our ancestors had taken many years ago. 14 miles from Frederick Town was the crossing of Cedar Creek located at the Shenandoah County line. A bridge is now located near the original ford crossing. Trees blocking the road were a constant battle facing the travelers. This area was deeply wooded with little to no civilians located nearby. This of course depends on the time range in which your ancestor traveled the road. For instance, in 1740, this area was a complete wilderness with nearly zero inhabitants. By 1765, several pioneers had settled along the road, but the area was still considered very much a frontier. The trees were time consuming to remove and created one of many dangerous atmospheres that the settlers were constantly facing.
Cedar Creek, Virginia Postcard
Once the pioneers crossed Cedar Creek, they traveled 3 miles to Strasburg. This community was established in 1761 but was considered a small village as early as 1749. The Great Wagon Road is still basically following US Highway 11 as several small streams and creeks are forded. 24 miles from Strasburg, Stoney Creek is crossed and the elevation during this area is 804 ft. The trail is rugged and filled with huge rocks and steep hillsides. 8 long miles allows the travelers to reach the Shenandoah River. Along the banks of the river, the Great Lakes Indian tribes would use this very route as a southern trading trail. Shenandoah named for the daughter of the stars. John Fontaine recorded in his diary after reaching the river dated 9/5/1716, “We had a good dinner and after it we got the men together and loaded all of their arms and we drank the King’s health.” By 1785, John Fontaine would not have recognized the area as mills were located all along the river and several families were settled within the valley.
Many settlers decided to stay in this particular region and they began settlements along the Shenandoah River. Christian Konrad, John Miller and John Ziegler organized the building of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church as early as 1733. John Stover, a Swiss land agent, sold land to George Boone in 1735. George, the uncle of Daniel Boone, lived near St. Peter’s Church and Bear Lithia Springs. Surnames of Price, Gibbons, Smith, Meadows, Blakemore and Bear were living near Chainey Hollow as early as 1740.
The next 58 miles took the travelers through present day Rockingham County and Augusta County, Virginia. The mountain laurel, chestnut and red oak trees would overwhelm the landscape. Thick forests would line the hill sides with ash, maple and basswood. During the summer months, blackberries, huckleberries and raspberries ripen along the river banks. Wild game would have been plentiful through the valley such as deer, bear, fox and much more.
Shenandoah River Valley date 1890
The travelers adjust to their surroundings as they make camp each night and make any repairs needed on their gear. They are traveling in parties numbering as low as 5 wagons up to 25 or more. Many have paid guides with them leading the way. It was important to maintain a continuous trend daily, but if a family member became sick or hurt, this could halt the travelers and many would separate from their original party.
Augusta County, Virginia is reached after traveling 58 miles from the crossing of the Shenandoah River. This area was first settled as early as 1732 by John Lewis. Other early surnames are Beverley, Coalter, Rommel, Bingham and Sheppard. The settlement was named Augusta after the county name and later changed to Staunton. From this point, the road is currently residing present day US Highway 11 and turns on State Highway 613 for 14 miles. The pioneers would then cross Folly Mills Creek and South River which brings present day road back to US Highway 11 in Greenville. 6 miles lies the Rockbridge County line as the road continues to stay within the valley basin as the settlers peer upwards to the steep mountain sides of Shenandoah National Park. The county, established in 1777, is marked by the boundary of Marl Creek, a bridge today.
The Natural Bridge is now 14 miles away. The area was viewed upon with awe by the travelers. Everyone would know of the bridge that stands 215 feet from the waters of Cedar Creek and spans a total of 90 feet in length. Many would camp along the creek and hold church services. The early Monacan Indians worshipped the area they called, “Bridge of God” and were inspired by it’s natural beauty.
The James River crossing is located 14 miles from the Natural Bridge. A ferry was available to the travelers by owner, Robert Looney. The Looney family lived in Cherry Tree Bottom near present day Buchanan. The family owned and operated a mill and an inn for travelers. The biggest obstacle for the travelers would be getting the horses to load the ferry for the crossing. Also, during the winter months, the river would freeze over preventing the ferry to cross. The ice would not be thick enough for the settlers to cross safely due to the weight of the wagons. The local inhabitants regarded the road as “The Great Valley Road” and many businesses would be established along the James River and Buchanan, Virginia. Surnames during 1740, Buchanan, Boyd, Anderson, Looney and Smith.
James River Bridge in Buchanan, Virginia
Traveling from Looney’s Ferry, the trails follows rough and rugged terrain. During rainstorms, the road would be almost impassable, causing the pioneers to stop and wait until the storms passed. Wagons were loaded with supplies and personal items which allowed the vessels to be extremely heavy. The muddy road would often absorb the wheels waist deep which could damage the wheel or axle and prevent the family from traveling further until repaired. During the hot dry summer season, dust was a constant battle. The dust would cover everything in sight. It was difficult to keep food supplies covered and free from the elements. Approximately 14 miles from Looney’s ferry lies a small community named Amsterdam. During the early 19th century, this community was a normal stop during the stagecoach line. But, during the mid 18th century, a few settlers would have been located in this region. Joseph McDonald is found on records as early as 1769. McDonald is living in a log cabin and visited by the Moravians passing through the area in October of 1753. The original log home can be seen fully restored in Trinity, Virginia.
The travelers are now 4 miles from present day Roanoke County and the famous stone house. This stone structure once stood at present day Read Mountain Road. It was mentioned in several diaries by pioneers who traveled the Great Wagon Road. However, by the early 19th century, the structure is no longer standing and was not regarded as a landmark for travelers within the region. Remnants of the old Black Horse Tavern can be seen along Old Mountain Road which is the actual route of the Great Wagon Road through this area. To read more about the tavern and the Buford family, click here. The road leading into present day Roanoke, which has turned from Old Mountain Road to US Highway 11, was very difficult for the pioneers. Elevation along the road provided very steep hillsides. Diaries noted that several wagons unloaded half of their contents and took the wagons down hill or up hill. Once the hill was accomplished, these contents were unloaded and the empty wagon returned to load the half left behind. Numerous large rocks and deep holes filled the road space and travel at times were slowed to crawl.
Roanoke was first known as Old Buffalo Salt Lick. The road was a hunting trail of the Indians and this area was a gathering place for the animals, namely buffalo. Huge herds of buffalo would arrive at the salt marshes before the onset of the 18th century and this was considered as prime land for the Indians up to 1722. The Moravians describe several sightings of buffalo through Virginia and into North Carolina. But as of date, no documentation has been located that describes the huge herds that once migrated this area. Click here to learn more about Big Lick Junction. Early surnames in this area are Campbell, Newman, Preston, Osborn, Fulkerson, Carter and Rainey.
The settlers would have enjoyed a rest in this area while anticipation grew from thoughts of crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains into the frontier of Carolina. Segment 3 will cover the road as it winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Virginia. The road is continuously changing through the seasons and as the travelers move southward, the road becomes more narrow. At times, the road is noted to be only a few feet wide.
Thank You all so much for your support and your interest in history and genealogy. If you missed previous articles pertaining to the Great Wagon Road, you can find each one listed below.
Our ancestors left an amazing trail to follow. Documents and records allow us to visit the past and share their adventures. As we all search through the paper trail, the journeys of long ago become intertwined with the journeys of today. Wishing you all great discoveries and treasures along your own personal journey.