The travelers along the Great Wagon Road were able to experience many different adventures. Experiences ranging from weather related storms to musical entertainment and everything in between. This article will concentrate on the wagons, horses and stagecoaches that the early pioneers used on the road. The traffic along the road depended upon the season. During the harsh winter months, travelers would almost cease while other seasons would encounter the moving dirt and dust from the wheels moving south. At it’s beginning, the Great Wagon Road was a small hunting trail for local area Indians. Locals named the trail, The Warrior’s Path and this path measured a mere few feet at it’s widest point.
Once the Carolina frontier was opened for settlement, many northern settlers began planning the trip southward. Packhorses were led to Carolina beginning circa 1722. The path began to widen but as late as 1750, areas of the road were still only a few feet wide with narrow steep cliffs bordering it’s side. The road changed over the years in order to allow larger wagons to pass through safely. Several side roads were made to accommodate the larger wagons. Some of these roads would completely separate the traveling parties into two or three separate groups for days. The majority of the farming families made their carts and wagons. Due to the construction of these early vehicles, many did not make it to the new destination. The wagons that broke down along the road were either repaired or discarded where they fell. Many travelers set out on the journey by foot and packed what they carried in bundles strapped to their backs and small sleds that they would drag behind them. Families who owned only 1 horse usually traveled with the father on horseback and a child riding with him, while other family members walked behind. A mother would take care of the little children by either carrying them or holding their hands while walking along the road. By 1740, trains of packhorses could be seen along the road. Each animal capable of carrying 600 pounds each. These horses would usually carry a bridle bell as was the custom of the day. Other travelers could hear the bells in the distance and knew that a train of packhorses were near by.
By 1750, large wagons were seen along the road. These were given the name of Conestoga. Manufactured in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, these wagons were capable of carrying up to 6 tons of weight. The wagons were built from hickory, white oak and poplar. The hubs were made from black gum or sour gum trees surrounded by a ring of iron used as the “tire” of the wheel. The weight of the wagon ranged from 3,000 to 3,500 pounds when construction was complete. A hinged tailgate dropped downward at the rear for easy loading and unloading. The wagons were arched with several iron hoops which were covered with an awning of canvas or homespun cloth. The covering was called a “poke bonnet”. These wagons were expensive ranging in price of $175 to $250 between the years of 1760-1790. Wagon Drivers could be hired to transport families and their possessions to their new homes. This practice was very popular as the families could trade for the travel expenses and have someone within their party that was very familiar with the territory. Wagon Drivers would advertise their departure on court day when everyone was in town. Families would make their deals and set the date for departure. These wagons were led by a team of 4 or 5 horses and required constant attention while on the road. The driver held his hand firmly on the “jerk line” which connected with the bit of the left wheel horse or team leader. Because of this, the driver would always sit on the left side just as we do today while driving our automobiles. While holding steady on the “jerk line”, the driver was able to control his team verbally. “Haw” meant to turn left while “Gee” meant to turn right. “Whoa” meant to stop. The horses set their own pace and provided braking power with their strong hindquarters. On steep grades, a chain would be installed from the wheels to the coupling poles to provide a brake. Wagons owned by a company were called “line teams” while independent drivers were called “regulars”.
Many pioneers built their own wagons. One of the most important features of the wagons were the rims. The rims would have 2 pieces of iron that measured at least 1/2 inch thick. They were bent to the shape of the wheel and welded at both joints. The iron was hammered into place and immersed in cold water to shrink the iron to a firm and tight fit. Other features that were common are feed boxes attached to the side boards, a tool box equipped with horse hardware and various other tools essential for 18th century transportation. The settlers also stocked their wagons with crude iron utensils and “spider” pots used for cooking. Spider pots were large iron pots resting on 3 legs. Straw mattresses were common along with food supplies to endure the family while traveling. The personal possessions were also loaded. These items would vary from one family to another. Furniture items would rarely make the trip along the road. More common were the trunks that were originally brought from the settlers homeland. These trunks would vary in size and would hold clothing, money, a Bible or prayer book and anything that was highly valued by the individual pioneer.
Once the piedmont area of North Carolina was opened for new settlers, the daily traffic along the Great Wagon Road quickly accelerated to the point that wagons met other wagons and livestock drives constantly. This allowed the road to naturally widen from wagons pulling over to allow others by. Settlers who resided in Virginia would often drive their herds of livestock to market in Pennsylvania. It was a common sight to see these herds along the road during the mid 18th century and stampedes were just as common. The attraction of new settlers, trains of packhorses traveling back and forth and herds heading to market brought with it a great many accidents and thefts. An English traveler, Nicholas Cresswell, stated that, “The frontier draws both the very good and the very worst.” This statement would prove to be correct many times. Driving herds along the road required skill and concentration. Stampedes easily trampled over anything in the path. Devastation and loss were felt by many as well as thankfulness and blessings to a new hero.
The frontier draws both the very good and the very worst
The fast paced stagecoaches began traveling the Great Wagon Road after 1750. Eventually, these coaches would replace the express riders and “for hire” wagons which carried the mail and passengers. The stagecoach line began in New York and Philadelphia and soon they became a familiar site along the road. John Butler advertised his stagecoach services in 1751 and by 1780, a stagecoach could easily carry 5 passengers and the mail. The mail coaches would carry the reputation of faster service, but the passengers soon realized that services pertaining to their traveling conditions were very few. The passengers were exposed to the weather elements while only a leather cloth would shield them. The jolt and bumps felt on the road magnified greatly as the pace of the horses never waivered. The horses were exchanged at strategic locations throughout the road. Some of these locations were inns, taverns, mills and meeting houses.
The pioneers learned quickly to watch the skies for any signs of inclement weather. Many wagons and carts would get stuck in thick mud by day and frozen hard to the land by night. The temperatures may hover just below freezing for days refusing any removal efforts of the wagon. The pioneers had to face the weather conditions openly. Heavy downpours, strong thunderstorms are just a few of the elements endured by them. Swollen rivers would allow some wagons to drift downstream in rough currents and break apart with a thunderous crash upon the heavy rocks. Family members would drown during many river crossings. If a ferry was present, the livestock was treated carefully as many would loose their footing and slip overboard.
Between 1730-1750, the road was a wilderness in southern Virginia and North Carolina. The pioneers were exposed to the wild animals in the night. Usually a watchman would guard the party and keep a watchful eye for bears, panthers, Indians and thieves. Robbers were especially common in Virginia and their numbers grew from 1750. The next segment will include more details on this subject and will demonstrate life while traveling the Great Wagon Road. These early pioneers left a trail of strength, courage and a dream for tomorrow. They were willing to travel far to a new wilderness, a frontier named Carolina. They had no knowledge of what awaited them and their loved ones. They dreamed of a new life with new opportunities for them and their offspring.
Present Day Highway 81, Virginia
History reveals the timeline and the details; our hearts relive the passion our ancestors felt as they were traveling this old Indian trail of long ago. Thank you so much for your support of Piedmont Trails. The next segment on this great adventure will be arriving soon. Until then, best wishes are sent to you as you travel along your journey to the past.