A Detailed Route of The Great Wagon Road

Lancaster to Winchester

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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.

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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

 

Wagons, Horses & Stagecoaches

Adventures Along The Great Wagon Road

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.