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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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