Wagon Roads Article


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Thought it might be interesting to share with you the hazards and mode and direction of travel taken by families from New York to Ohio. I am researching the HULL family and found this in a Genealogy Bulletin (#23) of the American Genealogical Lending Library which describes in excellent detail modes and direction of travel from several areas to Ohio.

From: "Glenys J. Rasmussen"
Organization: Living Trees Research
Wagon Roads to Ohio 1787-1820

The Ohio Company Rufus Putnam's Great Idea Gateway To The West The Boatmen
Wheeling Rivals Pittsburgh Zane's Trace Appeal Of The Ohio Country Enter The Turnpike

The Ohio Company

The role of the Ohio Company, a private fur trading company which had its roots in Virginia, was in maintaining British control of the Forks of the Ohio River. These goals were accomplished in 1763 when France relinquished its claims to the great Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. After the French-Indian War these areas belonged solely to the British and the Mississippi River became the undisputed boundary between British and Spanish Territory. Britain surprised its American colonies with the Proclamation Line of 1763 which took away from the colonies the right to grant lands in the western areas; in fact, the King's proclamation prohibited colonials from crossing the line at all.
A revolution took care of that antagonism, and soon after the creation of an American government, the expansion into the western regions became a matter of national policy. By their act of ratifying the Constitution of the United States, some of the thirteen states were not only agreeing to the creation of a new Federal Government, they were giving up their claims to their western lands.
The states of Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut ceded their western lands to the US government and in 1787 a new "Territory Northwest of the Ohio River" was stablished by the Continental Congress. Why were the thirteen states ready to give up these lands so easily? They gave them up for a very simple reason, as a landowner, the Federal Government would have a source of revenue by selling off land and the states could stop subsidizing this new federal monster they had created. "An an orderly plan for the sale of land emerged, a plan for the creation of new territories and states was developed by Congress.
Since the primary source of revenue would be from the sale of land, migrations West of the Appalachian Mountains became a matter of national policy. "Any new territories created were to have a Governor appointed, and provisions were made for a militia to maintain order and protect immigrants moving into the new lands. Congress determined that a territory could petition to become a state if there were at least 20,000 people living there. As the first territory established in 1787, the Territory Northwest of the Ohio River became a proving ground for various methods of dividing land, meanwhile some private land speculators got into the act.

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Rufas Putnam's Great Idea

In 1785, a Boston businessman named Rufas Putnam had a great idea for making lots of money. As a former Rev. War General, he knew that the new US was filled with thousands of former Rev. soldiers, all of whom had been paid a suit of clothes and a promise of land "out west somewhere" in the form of a certificate called a Bounty Land Warrant. These certificates had a set value of $1.25 per acre of land, but a soldier would have to travel to the great western wilderness and claim his parcel of land. The certificates could be legally "assigned" and the buyer of the certificate would then gain the claim to wilderness land.
Rufas devised a plan to buy certificates from former Rev. soldiers and for a fraction of their face value. He then figured out a way to combine these certs for obtaining large tracts of land in the west. Rufas was to become a land speculator and he formed a company called the "New Ohio Company". By early 1787 the company was able to obtain warrants representing thousands of acres of land.
The New Ohio Company did not have trouble buying these certs. Going west was dangerous. It was estimated that 90% of all Rev. War Land Warrants were sold in this way. The New Ohio Company set up shop in New York City, on Wall Street (and it is how the NY Stock Exchange got started). Based on his assignments of bounty-land warrants, plus purchases on credit, the company's land grant was drawn on a map (north of the Ohio River, including all of present-day Washington County, Ohio), and exempted from the lands to be sold by the Federal Govt. Rufas also managed to gain much more land by agreeing to honor any soldier's bounty land warrants in the area granted to the company. All in all, Rufas' company managed to purchase seven million acres of land in the NorthWest Territory for an average price of eight cents per acre. Rufas said he was willing to manage his company's large tract of land, sell to private buyers, and act as an agent for the Fed. Govt. Congress voted for it, mainly because they had no method for selling the land themselves. The New Ohio Company was selling land in the new Northwest Territory well before the Federal Government began selling land there. Putnam told Congress he would pay for the land as soon as he sold it. The amazing part of the story is that he pulled it off! He moved to the Ohio River and founded the town of Marietta, Ohio where he began fulfilling his promise to Americans wanting to buy cheap farm land in the Ohio country. As a result, the earliest wagon roads into the Ohio were developed to get people to Rufas Putnam's land.

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Gateway to the West

The first census of 1790 revealed that the US had a population of 3,900,000 people. There was no enumeration for the Northwest Territory, but the entire white population was estimated to be about 4,300 people. Along with the settlements at Cincinnati and a few other Ohio River sites, there were already over a thousand families living near Rufas Putnam's Marietta land office on the Ohio River in 1790.
Many of the earliest settlers came to the ohio River settlements by way of Forbes' Road or Braddock's Road, both leading to Pittsburgh, which was becoming known as "the gateway to the west". Pittsburgh in 1790 had nearly 400 houses, mostly brick, and was already an industrial center, where sawmills provided finished lumber, and where a small iron works was in operation. Pittsburgh had the basic necessities and the manufacturing capability for wagon wheels, barrels, horseshoes, and virtually any accessor a migrating family would need to continue a journey west. Upon reaching Pittsburgh, the migrating families would buy or build their own flatboats for floating down the Ohio River to the new settlements. A flatboat was essentially a large rectangular wooden box and was built to hold all of the family's possessions as well as livestock. A flatboat was built for a one-way trip down river. The boat itself would be disassembled at the end of the journey to provide some of the materials and nails needed for building a shelter.
Someone reminded me of the movie "How the West was Won" - there is a flatboat scene shown that gives a very good idea of what river travel would have been like, including the hazards and tragedies.

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The Boatmen

Commercial flatboats carried goods from Pittsburgh to the fledgling settlements as well. Produce and grains were loaded at various river ports to be floated down to Natchez or New Orleans. These boats were often elaborate rafts with small cabins on them, including a stove for heat and cooking. But even the commercial flatboats were built to make a one-way trip, which might take two months from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.
The specialized occupation of a boatman was filled by rough-and-ready characters. These men worked and lived on the flatboats during an era that lasted only about 30 years and is nearly forgotten in American history. They were mostly illiterate, and there are few written records of their trips or exploits, except by a few visiting European travelers. The boatmen were seen as absolutely essential to the navigation of boats down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. They had to be ready to fight off attacks, as well as expertly navigate their boats through the obstacles of the river. Migrating families might hire a boatman, recruited from Pittsburgh or Wheeling. The boatman would help design and build the flatboat the family would use and would be the navigator during the trip. Upon reaching the destination, the boatman would walk back up river to the nearest settlement.

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Wheeling Rivals Pittsburgh

During parts of the year, the lower water levels and obstructions of the loop of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Wheeling made navigation difficult for the flatboats. Once Wheeling had been reached, it was relatively free floating all the way to New Orleans. In the early 1790s, a cut-off trail below Pittsburgh leading to Wheeling was developed. A family could leave Braddock's Road at Union-town, Pennsylvania, then head Northwest to Brownsville. After crossing the Monongahela River, the trail led to the present-day town of Washington, and finally to Wheeling. (Today this is route US Highway 40). At first, this cut-off was no more than a path, suitable for pack teams only but an important overland route to the Ohio River. But by 1796, the pack trail was improved to allow wagon traffic to pass. As a result of its location on the Ohio River and with this overland road access, Wheeling began to rival Pittsburgh as the "Gateway to the West". From Wheeling, the journey down river to Marietta and Rufas Putnam's land office was only a three to four day boat ride.

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Zane's Trace

One of the first land grants on the Ohio River went to a man named Ebenezer Zane, considered the founder of Wheeling, Virginia (now WV). Zane had control of the land on both sides of the river and operated a ferry. With a virtual monopoly on ferry traffic at that point, he became a very prosperous man. Crossing the Ohio River from Wheeling gave access to an Indian trail into the interior of the Ohio country.
Rufas Putnam's land holdings were nearby and the creation of the new US Military District, the Fed. Govt. saw the need for upgrading the trail to provide access to these newly opened lands. In 1796 Ebenezer Zane contracted with the Fed. Govt. to construct the first wagon road into the Ohio country. The road began at the Ohio River opposite wheeling, then moved West on the same route today as US Highway 40 (and Interstate 70) to the settlement at Zanesville, then southwest to Chillicothe, and south to the Ohio River again. A ferry ride across the Ohio River landed at Limestone, Kentucky (now Maysville), where a road connnection from Lexington to the Ohio River was already well-traveled in the 1790's. When Zanes Trace was first blazed, the dense forests of Ohio meant that road construction consisted of cutting the trees, leaving the stumps, and clearing out any underbrush to creat a "trace" of a road. The passing wagons tended to form two rows of ruts, which were often the only visible evidence of a road surface. Grading or leveling improvements were made only at places where is was impossible to pass by wagon.
On Zane's Trace, travelers referred to a "stumped" wagon as one that had been highcentered on a stump or stuck between stumps and the word is still used today (when we are "Stumped" over something) (maybe like lost families ??:)))- my note, sorry
Southern routes to the Ohio River, ca 1800: Head your wagon towards Lexington, Kentucky. From Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, take the Great Valley Road to the Cumberland Gap and the Wilderness Road to Lexington. From the Mississippi River, take the Natchez Trace to Nashville. From Knoxville, take the Nashville Road, then north to Lexington. From Lexington, go north to the Ohio River at Maysville and connect with Zane's Trace into the Ohio Country, or build a flatboar and float down the Ohio River.
From NJ or PA begin at Philadelphia, head west to Lancaster thence to Hagerstown in MD keep pointed west to Cumberland thence to Wheeling and on to the Zanes Trail. Get to Zanesville and decide where to go from there. (Looks pretty much to me like your choice was Chillicothe, OH then Limestone, KY where you could divert to Cincinnati or continue southwest to Lexington then Nashville).

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Appeal of the Ohio Country

For twenty-five years after the Revolutionary War, the Ohio River was the primary destination of virtually all western migrations in the U.S. This is where the first public land sales were opened, unlike the South. Georgia did not cede its western lands until 1802, and these new public lands were encompassed into a new Mississippi Territory. Extensive Indian control of western Georgia delayed settlements there and migrations from the Atlantic regions into the Southwest did not happen until well after the Northwest Territory had opened for settlement.
For example, the first land sales in Mississippi Territory did not begin until 1810. before that, the only real settlements in the South were located near the gulf seaports and the Mississippi River towns. As the first area opened for settlement, the appeal of the Ohio Country was for fresh farm land. The Ohio River was the main highway leading to settlements on the principal tributaries, such as the Muskingum, Scioto, Miami or Wabash Rivers. By floating downstream on a flatboat, the Ohio River provided access to fresh lands to be cleared for crop farming and where corn would grow so fast you could almost watch it rise. In addition, the soils between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River were well suited for wheat and other grains besides corn.
Except for some open areas within the interior parts of the Northwest Territory, the river areas were densely covered with huge trees, some over a hundred feet in height. Due to the wide branches and closeness of the trees, little sunlight penetrated to the ground below. Visibility was limited to a couple of hundred feet in any direction, and there was an aura of darkness everywhere. However, with sparse underbrush below the towering trees, the trails were not nearly as difficult to follow as one would imagine. the improvement of older roads was to have an impact on migrations to the Ohio Country.
Travel on the Great Valley Road through the interior of Virginia continued the migration pattern established before the Rev. War. As an extension of the Great Valley Road, at Sapling Grove, VA (now Bristol) a wagon could head west through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, or continue south to Knoxville, Tennessee. Back in 1788 the Nashville Road had been built by the Militia, linking Knoxville to Nashville, a distance of some 180 miles west. (Tenn was not a state yet, and still part of North Carolina).
The Nashville Road quickly became the primary route for East-West traffic through the interior of Tenn. Earlier travelers had found the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers as their main highways. With this link from Virginia to Knoxville, then on to Nashville, an important circle was completed. Nashville was the northern end of the Natchez Trace, an old Indian trail. By 1796, a road leading from Nashville connected settlements further north, all the way to Lexington, Kentucky. From there, a wagon road to the Ohio River linked overland travelers to Zane's Trace. It became possible to take a wagon from Natchez to Philadelphia - a trip that had prveiously been almost exclusively the opposite direction and mostly with the help of rivers.
The Natchez Trace was first used as a return route for boatmen who had floated down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on flatboats to the ports of Natchez or New Orleans. (New Orleans was controlled by the French until 1803 - making Natchez the southern most U.S. river port). The children of the first settlers of Kentucky and Tenn. became attracted to the lands of the Ohio River as well. Settled well before the Rev. War, the green valleys of KY and TN were very rewarding for farmers. For the first few years, a farmer could watch his corn stalks jump out of the ground in great abundance. But the soil began to lose its fertility within seven or eight seasons. The crops would begin to decrease in size and consistency. Crop rotation and contour plowing for soil retention were techniques not used yet, and the application of fertilizer to the soil was only practiced by a few enlightened German farmers in Eastern Pennsylvania before 1790.
Those with large tracts of land learned they had to constantly clear and plant new fields and leave older ones fallow for a number of years before .. a good crop again. But many farmers gave up on their depleting soil - it was easier for some of the next generation to relocate, and find virgin land to start anew. A young man with only a small farm and a growing family to support believed he had everything to gain by moving to the Ohio Country. The opening of roads to the Ohio River from several different starting points was also an incentive. The lure of the Ohio River settlements was for cheap land and once the land was cleared, farming could be easy again. There were only a couple of 'minor' problems: a few Indians resented the invasion into their hunting grounds, and it was not necessarily easy traveling to the Ohio River from anywhere.

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Enter the Turnpike

The wagon roads to the Ohio River from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia all converged on the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, then up to the Ohio River. Using state money, the new state of KY upgraded the road through the Cumberland Gap to twelve feet wide in 1796. Other states were taking a different interest in their roads as well, particularly those roads which were being used for interstate travel. the concept of a state-owned "turnpike" came during this period, because the building and maintenance of a heavily traveled roadway was an expensive undertaking. And to pay for the roads, the states decided that "user fees" were in order.
In the 1790's, the direct route across PA via Forbes' Road saw many Easterners moving west to Pittsburgh or Wheeling to reach the Ohio River. As the start of the main route to the west over Forbes' Road, beginning at Philadelphia, the Lancaster Pike was the name given to the first road built using some road building techniques borrowed from England. the route was virtually the same as the old "Lancaster Road" dating back to the 1720's; but the Lancaster Pike was significant not for the route, but for the quality of construction. Completed in 1796, the new road was financed under a right-of-way franchise granted by the State of PA to a private company.
For a distance of some 70 miles, a three foot deep trench was dug, then filled with several layers of progressively smaller sizes of crushed rock, each layer tamped and packed solid. The inventor of this road was a Scotsman named Macadam, and the result was a "macadamized road". The Lancaster Pike was the first such road in America. The process is still being used. It has a final application of melted tar mixed with gravel to provide a paved surface. ... Water actually ran off the roadway, an unheard of event on any American road to that date. The Lancaster Pike was a huge success and became a profitable enterprise for the operators.
Comfortable wayside inns soon catered to travelers all along the Pike, and regularly scheduled stagecoach service ran from Philadelphia to points West. Of course, travelers resented having to pay tolls for passage across the roadway, which was collected 'per head', including animals. But the speed and comfort one could travel on the Lancaster Pike by stagecoach or wagon was amazing and the all-weather surface was the showplace of highways. Stagecoaches pulled by six draft horses could maintain a consistent speed of 10-12 mph. This was a giant step forward in transportation, because the best travel time possible before this road was about 20 miles per day (walking speed). To trace the line of the old Lancaster Pike today, start as Philadelphia on US Hwy 30 and then take PA Hwy 340 into Lancaster.
Further north the route of the old Gesee Trail was to become the Mohawk Turnpike, the most important road for migrations across the state of New York. Following the valley formed by the Mohawk River, this road was continually improved due to the heavy demand of western migrations. By 1796, toll were collected at several points along the way from Albany to Utica and later all the way to Buffalo. This is the same path which in 1825 became the route of the famous Erie Canal and by 1850, the route of the New York Central Railroad. today it is the same general route as the NY Thruway (I-90).

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