The Great Wagon Road

The Great Wagon Road provided a route for inland trade and settlers heading West. The Road stretched 700 miles beginning in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and running through Lancaster and Bethlehem to York, then on to Gettysburg, and into the western Maryland to the important trade center of Frederick. Turning southwest, the road crossed the Potomac River at the Evan Watkins Ferry and follows the Shenandoah River across the "back country" or "up country" to enter the Shenandoah Valley at Winchester, Virginia. The Shenandoah Valley lies between the Blue Ridge Mountains on the East and the Appalachian Mountains on the West. The word Shenandoah was derived from a Native American expression meaning "Beautiful Daughter of the Stars." Continuing down the 200 mile length of the Shenandoah Valley the Great Wagon Road followed the route of the earlier Great Warrior's Trail through Harrisburg, Staunton, Lexington. South of Shenandoah Valley, the road reached the Roanoke River at the town of Big Lick--present day Roanoke, Virginia. There the Road passed through the Roanoke River Gap to the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and continued south through the Piedmont region and the present-day North Carolina town of Winston-Salem, to Salisbury, where it was joined by the east–west Catawba and Cherokee Indian Trading Path to at the Trading Ford across the Yadkin River, in Rowan, North Carolina, thence to Charlotte and on to Rock Hill, South Carolina where it branches to take two routes to Augusta, and Savannah, Georgia.

In the Shenandoah Valley, the road was known as the Valley Pike. The Wilderness Road branched off from the Great Wagon Road at present-day Roanoke, Virginia crossed through the Cumberland Gap and led into Kentucky and Tennessee, especially the fertile Bluegrass region and Nashville Basin. The Cumberland Gap is a pass through the Cumberland Mountain region of the Appalachian Mountains. This natural opening served as the first Gateway to the West. Another branch at Roanoke, called the Carolina Road, led into the Piedmont regions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Towns began forming along the Great Wagon Road in the late 1790s. Easy east-west access off the Road turned some towns into crossroads; Winchester, New Market, and Harrisonburg are three examples. Most of the towns are around 5 miles apart providing convenient stopping points for services in a horse-drawn era.

At first, packhorse trains transported goods along the Indian trail that was to become The Great Wagon Road. A man on horseback led as many as ten to twelve horses in procession, the belled bridle of each being attached to the saddle, of the preceding horse, each horse carried a pack weighing up to six hundred pounds. By 1765, the trail had become a Wagon Road after trees were cut back to allow the passage of horse drawn vehicles along a road of packed earth that had been expanded to a width of ten feet. Large freight wagons known as Conestoga wagons carried manufactured goods like axes and traps to the frontier and returned loaded with trade goods like animal pelts. For many years, an ax, a pick, and a shovel were absolutely necessary tools for anyone traveling the road. The road would frequently be washed out by rains or be blocked by fallen limbs or trees. When surveying the Road as Postmaster, Benjamin Franklin injured his arm when he fell from a wagon when it bounced through a series of deep ruts. Even in 1825, when Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, traveled the Road by stage he complained of the uncomfortable vehicles and the rugged road. To maintain the road, County Courts appointed overseers and viewers, who were responsible for the keeping up with the various segments of the Road at the County expense. Besides wagoners and packhorses drivers, the Great Wagon Road was swamped in the summer with drovers leading and driving livestock to market, aided by shepherd dogs. Entire families road horseback leading pack animals along the road to settle land in the wilderness.

The Great Wagon Road overlaid earlier trails blazed by American Native peoples that traversed a natural way along the front of the Appalachian Mountains. Travel on the Road though slow and arduous provided an important inland route between the frontier and the various trade centers.

Pertinent Outside Links

The Journey Through Hallowed Ground    The Cumberland Gap

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