The Great Wagon Road: America’s First Interstate Highway Disappears

Daniel Boone declared, “The history of the western country has been my history.”  And for many native Appalachians and Southerners of Scotch-Irish, German-English descent, The Great Wagon Road is part of their family history–whether they’re aware of it or not.

The Great Wagon Road was America’s first interstate highway and the last muscle-powered freeway.  The road served as a gateway to land ownership and prosperity for many of our ancestors.  Scotch-Irish were among the first Europeans to settle the southern and Appalachian regions.  Many traditions that are celebrated in these areas today were brought here by way of The Great Wagon Road.

After months of crossing the ocean from lands abroad, immigrant settlers arrived in Philadelphia to establish farms in Pennsylvania and Maryland. As these lands became more populated and high priced, colonial settlers loaded their Conestoga covered wagons with all their possessions and moved down South where more farmland was available and affordable.

Conestoga Covered Wagon – Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum

In other countries where wealth was acquired through birth and family heritage, America made it possible for everyone to gain wealth.  In the colonial period, wealth was measured by how much land a man owned, and the Southern and Appalachian regions quickly became one of the most popular destinations for acquiring land ownership.

The Great Wagon Road began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and spanned more than 700 miles through Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina before ending in Augusta, Georgia.  Despite its name, The Great Wagon Road was a harsh and a dangerous journey to make by wagon, horseback or even by foot.  Hundreds of pioneers and settlers were vulnerable to Native American attacks, criminals, and robbers along the road.

Defensive log blockhouses, known as “stations,” were constructed alongside the road for protection against such attacks.  Large groups of families would travel together heavily armed to help defend each other against the dangers they faced along the way.

They also had to be self-sufficient enough to remove fallen timber and large rocks from the highway.  A small group wouldn’t have the strength to move roadblocks–or to bodily pull their wagons through swampy land and sludgy mud.  The road changed depending on the time of year, sometimes dry and dusty,  other times an obscured, narrow path through a thick forest of foliage. Occasionally, it was so narrow that travelers would have to disassemble their wagons and carry them piece by piece. It was best not to travel alone.

The most famous frontiersmen known to travel the road were Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. 

By horseback, travelers could cover twenty miles a day, but by wagon, a group was lucky to break a paltry five miles.  Pioneers traveled the road for months facing obstacles like flooded rivers, steep mountain passes, broken wagons, and sickness.  Winter was a popular season for travel, as the arrival to their new promised land would be just in time for the new planting season.  Even through such adversity and dangers, our ancestors forged forward with hopes of a better future, obtaining affordable land and gaining religious freedoms. They came here to escape religious persecution, devastating wars, and famine, with no intentions of returning to their homelands.

In the last sixteen years of the colonial era,” wrote historian Carl Bridenbaugh, “Southbound traffic along the Great Wagon Road was numbered in tens of thousands. It was the most heavily traveled road in all America and must have had more vehicles jolting along its rough and tortuous way than all the other main roads put together.”

For example, in the early 1700s, the population in North Carolina was approximately 36,000.  By the 1750s, over 15,000 immigrants flooded into the Piedmont and Western regions.  During the Revolutionary War, English General Lord Cornwallis utilized The Great Wagon Road to funnel supplies to the Western Loyalist troops as they battled the American colonists. And when the British invaded Philadelphia, it was also used as an escape route for the Continental Congress.

The Great Wagon Road served as the backbone to mold the history of the United States.  What began as a hunting trail used by Native Americans expanded into one of the most widely used colonial highways in the nation. Taverns were also built along the primitive road to serve as rest stops for weary travelers and to provide food and shelter from the exhausting trip. The Great Wagon Road played a major role in the economic development of southern states and the Appalachian region and paved the way for many modern towns and cities now known as Winston-Salem, Salisbury, & Charlotte.

Sadly, with the arrival of the railroad and modern paved highways, only remnants of The Great Wagon Road are left. 

History buffs and explorers can find some sections of the road still in use hidden and overlaid with asphalt.  Other segments of the road that are still left today are hidden away on undeveloped land and private property. Although this part of our country’s history has been barely acknowledged, The Great Wagon Road should be treasured and remembered as a major part of the American frontier history.

The remains of the backcountry Great Wagon roads have been long forgotten from our history and culture.  The Great Wagon Road needs more support from local and state government in preserving the rapidly fading portions of the road that still remain. Relics from the Colonial era can still be found today in some of these delicate areas.   This important road represents the last migration route and the adversities our ancestors had to endure to create a better future for themselves and future generations.  

By Hope Thompson

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