The old wagon road entered southern Virginia over 250 years ago. Filled with rocks, mud, and broken trees, the road passed the boundary line along the banks of the Mayo. Steep ravines bear witness to the remnants of a nearby Native American village appearing on the landscape. The fog clears upon the open meadows as the squeaking wheels roll south. The surrounding wilderness suddenly overpowers the high peaks of the mountain ridges as deeper into thick woodlands the road goes. Abundant deer watch from the thickets as the road approaches the foothills of present-day Stokes County, North Carolina. After crossing smaller creeks and streams, the Dan River appears with its winding curves and flowing water. The water is not so deep here as previous others before it. Located just south of Danbury, the old ford bears witness to thousands and thousands of river crossings over the years. Standing along the bank, a robin lands on a nearby tree limb and gazes upon the sight. A monumental moment while paying homage to all the ones who crossed here, McAnally Ford.
Before the road was an actual road, it was a walking trail or path. One would assume that the Native American inhabitants from the village or town located just north of the crossing would have used this trail. Bearskin, one of the Saponi guides for William Byrd in 1728, most likely would have shared some history about the area. But, maybe not nevertheless, Byrd named the south branch of the Roanoke River as the Dan without any explanation for the name. The labels or tags to identify these waterways would often change through the years. People traveling over two hundred years ago were not so concerned about the name as determining the area properly. This common factor stands true with roads too. Travelers were paying more attention to the direction they were traveling.
While Byrd was determining the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia, he mentions numerous trees and rocks bearing the initials of previous travelers. Sometimes even dates would appear on a tree as with fur trapper Henry Hatcher in 1673. These noted initials and names prove that the path was used years before Byrd and his party of men arrived.
As the water flows along the Dan River, the years roll swiftly by to the 1750s decade. A steady flow of families crossed the Dan River during this time. Charles McAnally was among them, crossing into North Carolina at the age of twenty-three. McAnally worked as a wheelwright for areas surrounding the Moravian villages of Bethabara and Bethania. He served people in the Town Fork area when he became a member of the Virginia County militia during the French and Indian War. During the outbreak of the American Revolution, McAnally was a member of the North Carolina militia and served as Captain. To learn more about McAnally and his family, visit the article, “18th Century Pioneers of Stokes County, North Carolina”, dated May 2018.
Only one road during the mid 18th century from the Mayo River to the North Carolina boundary existed. The road follows the natural topography of the land, explaining the only logical explanation for the road. This one road reached the crossing at the Dan River. Thousands upon thousands of families, individuals, people from all walks of life crossed these waters along this one road. This particular route was actually a shortcut from the main path, which trimmed the distance into the piedmont area. The road extended from Hickey Road, located in the Martinsville, Virginia area, and provided a shorter distance and fewer miles for the weary travelers to North Carolina. The water crossings contributed to the origin of this road, allowing wagons to cross over creeks and streams with underlying rock beds, which kept the wagons afloat with their heavyweight of cargo.
One of these underlying rock beds appears at the Dan River crossing. McAnally built his home just beyond the ford and is buried there near the banks of the Dan. As the travelers made their way into the foothills of North Carolina, they used different waterways during specific times of the year. The Moravians quickly learned this lesson during their trip in late 1753 while attempting to cross the Dan. Water crossings would damage the wagons. McAnally solved these problems by using his skills and his location. Hubs would come loose, metal would break, and water allowed the wood to swell. It is hard to imagine how many wagons McAnally viewed crossing the Dan River.
Follow present-day roads in Stokes County to Dodgetown Road. Cross the bridge, and you are near the original ford. It stands to reason why McAnally Ford was so popular. With a wheelwright near the area and James Davis supplying various equipment and supplies, it’s obvious the crossing at the Dan stayed busy daily. Numerous wagon parts and artifacts found on the old roadbed date to the early and mid 18th century. Soapstone vessels, broken pipes and, jasper for flint making still appear at the location of the Native American village to this day. In several areas along the road, forty to fifty feet steep cuts make themselves known to everyone that this was a major road. Indeed it was and still is; the Great Wagon Road.
Special Thanks must be given to Dowell Lester and Bill Collins for their in-depth research in this area for the past fifty years. If you would like to learn more about the Great Wagon Road Project, visit the website page here on Piedmont Trails. If you have information to share about researching this historic road, contact the research team. If you would like to volunteer, let us know. Enjoy Your Journey !!
Sources for maps are listed under each photo with links to online data for more research.