The Great Wagon Road

The heavily traveled Great Wagon Road was the primary route for the early settlement of the Southern United States, particularly the “backcountry”. Although a wide variety of settlers traveled southward on the road, two dominant cultures emerged. The German Palatines and Scotch-Irish American immigrants arrived in huge numbers because of unendurable conditions in Europe. The Germans (also known as Pennsylvania Dutch) tended to find rich farmland and work it zealously to become stable and prosperous. The other group (known also as Presbyterian or Ulster Scots) tended to be restless, clannish, and fiercely independent; they formed what became known as the Appalachian Culture. Partly because of the language difference, the two groups tended to keep to themselves.

The Conestoga wagons were first designed and built by German settlers in Pennsylvania. Photo: Library of Congress

Beginning at the port of Philadelphia, where many immigrants entered the colonies, the Great Wagon Road passed through the towns of Lancaster and York in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Turning southwest, the road crossed the Potomac River and entered the Shenandoah Valley near present-day Martinsburg, West Virginia. It continued south in the valley via the Great Warriors’ Trail (also called the Indian Road), which was established by centuries of Indian travel over ancient trails created by migrating buffalo herds. The Shenandoah portion of the road is also known as the Valley Pike. The Treaty of Lancaster in 1744 had established colonists’ rights to settle along the Indian Road. Although traffic on the road increased dramatically after 1744, it was reduced to a trickle during the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War) from 1756 to 1763. But after the war ended, it was said to be the most heavily traveled main road in America.

South of the Shenandoah Valley, the road reached the Roanoke River at the town of Big Lick (today, Roanoke). South of Roanoke, the Great Wagon Road was also called the Carolina Road. At Roanoke, a road forked southwest, leading into the upper New River Valley and on to the Holston River in the upper Tennessee Valley. From there, the Wilderness Road led into Kentucky, ending at the Ohio River where flatboats were available for further travel into the Midwest and even to New Orleans.

Carolina Road Historic Marker
Virginia state historic marker for the route of the Carolina Road, which passed through present-day Franklin County, Virginia. (Wikipedia)

From Big Lick/Roanoke, after 1748, the Great Wagon Road passed through the Maggoty Gap (also called Maggodee) to the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Continuing south through the Piedmont region, it passed through the present-day North Carolina towns of Winston-Salem, Salisbury, and Charlotte, and sites of earlier Indian settlements on the historic Indian Trading Path. The Great Wagon Road ultimately reached Augusta, Georgia, on the Savannah River, a distance of more than 800 miles (1,300 km) from Philadelphia.

Despite its current name, the southern part of this road was by no means passable by wagons until later colonial times. The 1751 Fry-Jefferson map on this page notes the term “Waggon” only north of Winchester, Virginia. In 1753, a group of wagon travelers reported that “the good road ended at Augusta” (now Staunton, Virginia), although they did keep going all the way to Winston-Salem. By all accounts, it was never a comfortable route. The lines of settlers’ covered wagons moving south were matched by a line of wagons full of agricultural produce heading north to urban markets; these were interspersed with enormous herds of cattle, hogs, and other livestock being driven north to market. Although there surely would have been pleasant areas for travel, road conditions also could vary from deep mud to thick dust, mixed with animal waste. In general, travelers preferred high and dry roads, but they also needed regularly spaced water sources for their horses (and for themselves). Inns were generally built near flowing springs, but provided only the most basic food and a space to sleep.

Article Source: Wikipedia – Main Image: Detail of the 1751 Fry-Jefferson Map showing the trail through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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