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Genealogy & The Early Roads of Kentucky

Piedmont Trails shares the early roads of Kentucky during December 2021 using several different formats. Today’s article focuses on naming and identifying the Kentucky routes dating from the 1750s to the 1790s. The upcoming Piedmont Trails podcast show will highlight these same routes by identifying the settlements near them and the early family surnames who settled along the early roads. Finally, the Live Stream from The Attic of Piedmont Trails will focus further on the actual origins of these routes and how their destinations changed through present-day Kentucky during the 18th-century. One of the best methods to research our ancestors is to learn how they traveled and what roads they used during their lifetime.

Kentucky Map by Elihu Barker and Matthew Carey created in 1793 and published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania courtesy of the Library of Congress. Note the various routes extending from Lexington during this period.

Before Findley or Boone, roads did exist in the area known as Kentucky. Some of these early routes were mere walking paths. No wider than 3ft, the trails followed the ridgelines in eastern Kentucky. As hunters and explorers traveled the area, these first paths naturally widened over time. Many of these early travelers departed from Virginia and North Carolina. Still, others traveled from Pennsylvania and other middle colonies. April 13th, 1749, dates from Dr. Thomas Walker’s journal as he follows an “old Indian road” into the Kentucky frontier. Following the ridgeline, Walker gives an accurate description of the north slope of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. His journal describes the “steep ridge” to the north known as the Kentucky side. This evidence proves that Walker and his party traveled an established and existing path in 1749. Later this same path would transform into one of the most popular extensions of the Great Wagon Road in Virginia. The trail’s name holds the same rank as nearly all early Native American routes. It appears that naming these routes as “warrior paths” was the popular thing to do during that time, and this early road is no exception. The fact remains clear on these earlier walking paths, and their histories are fascinating as the French and Spaniards explored the lands of Kentucky many years before Walker and his party. Piedmont Trails will have more about the tribes and the people who created these early trails.

Photo of the Cumberland Mountain ridgeline. Tennessee is on the left of the ridge and Kentucky is on the right. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The British colonies were settled from east to west as the families migrated from the seaports after sailing the Atlantic. Years before the American Revolutionary War, lands in present-day Tennessee and Kentucky were not open for settlement. The rules did not hamper the decisions of many families who decided to migrate to these lands. As word spread throughout the countryside, men, women, and children embarked on the trip of a lifetime. Eastern Tennessee witnessed settlement before 1750, and eastern Kentucky received families during the same timeline. Kentucky experiences a different settlement pattern that completely changes the theories of family migrations during the colonial period. Due to the Boone expedition and the beginnings of Boone’s Trail, the area known as Kentucky witnessed settlements further west before the eastern sections received the same population. The natural landscape played a primary factor with this theory. The fertile soils of the bluegrass were widely known and massively pursued. This same theory also explains the early roads and their use regarding popularity and maintenance.

Kentucky Map by John Filson, Henry Pursell, and Ternon Rook created in 1784, published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by Henry Pursell in 1784. This is a portion of the map found in the Library of Congress. The highlighted shades demonstrate the location of the Warrior’s Path and the Kentucky Road from Virginia. The road extending from Rockcastle River is also highlighted as Filson marks the location of the Wilderness Road.

Tracing your ancestors to Kentucky during the mid-18th-century to the early years of the 19th-century means you have to pinpoint the timeline of their travels to identify the roads your ancestor may have used. Without the timeline, you will be guessing since the early routes changed so much. During the peak years of migration, namely 1785 through 1795, the roads changed and linked into other new trails. Believe it or not, the final destination is not as important as the actual timeline. With the correct timeline, you can follow the roads and research the early records to determine and locate your ancestor’s final destination.

Learning the main waterways and the names of natural landmarks are vital elements when tracing our ancestor’s trips. The first rule of standard colonial migration research is knowing that families settled near water and roads. These early roads were their connection to forts and neighbors. The routes also connected to other colonies, to trade and supplies and loved ones left behind. Roads were just as essential as water to these early families. The roads were key to survival.

Kentucky Map by John Patten created prior to 1755. This portion of the map shows the Ohio River and a description of the Warrior’s Path crossing into present-day Kentucky. The path continues by crossing Salt Lick Creek and traveling in a south to southwest direction. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Map by Lewis Evans, Thomas Pownall, John Almon, and James Turner. The original survey was created in 1755 and published in London by John Almon in 1776. The Warrior’s Path is highlighted here to demonstrate the location in comparison to John Patten’s map listed before. The Salt Lick River is clear as the trail crosses and travels in a southwest direction. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Boone’s Trail links to the original “warrior’s path” mentioned earlier, and it also connected with Skagg’s Trace. Did Boone already know of these routes? It is most likely that he was very familiar with them. But since Boone’s documents are missing his previous knowledge of the area, one can only assume this theory. Filson’s map of 1784 clearly shows the locations of both the “warrior’s path” and Skagg’s Trace through Crab Orchard. Two brothers, known as long hunters in the area, are credited with Skagg’s Trace. Early surveys pinpoint and mention Skagg’s Trace in 1769. History proclaims that it was 1769 when Boone first traveled to Kentucky with a hunting party. Other roads dating to 1770 are Haggin’s Trace, Nickajack Trail, Chickasaw Trail, and one of the most popular, Big Sandy Trail.

Lewis Evan’s map of 1776 shows the area’s roads, as does Thomas Hutchin’s map of 1778. The Dry Ridge Trace and the Shawnee Trail with the Limestone Trace, Buffalo Trace, and Wabash Trail are just a few of the earliest roads. The famous Kentucky Trail traveled from the Tennessee Valley and entered east of the South Fork of the Cumberland River. Natural landmarks guided many families, such as “Indian Rock” presently in Franklin County today. Remnants of earlier forts and burials also dotted the routes, such as the old cemetery located in Laurel County. Bullitt’s Lick and Hazel Patch are other landmark locations along the early roads.

Learn more about these fascinating trails as Piedmont Trails expands on the history and genealogy of early Kentucky. The best way to stay up to date with the upcoming events is to subscribe to the website. It’s free to do, and subscribers are the first to know of all things new on Piedmont Trails.

SPECIAL NOTE: Before publishing this article today, breaking news from Kentucky began sharing the devastation and loss of life from the storms overnight. Our prayers are with the families today. May GOD’s healing power lift your burdens and empower you all with united love and support. GOD Bless.

Sources:

  • Journal of Thomas Walker, First Explorations of Kentucky published Louisville, Kentucky 1898
  • Early Roads In Kentucky by Neil Owen Hammond published by Kentucky Historical Society April 1970
  • Journal of William Brown courtesy of Library of Congress
  • History of Pioneer Kentucky by R.S. Cotterill published by Johnson & Hardin in Cincinnati, Ohio 1917 p. 14, 86, 91, 158, 234-235
  • History of Kentucky by Lewis Collins published by Richard H Collins Louisville, Kentucky 1877 (original publication date is 1847) p. 19, 189, 347, 466, 601.
  • Kentucky In The Nation’s History by Robert McNutt McElroy published by Moffat, Yard and Company New York, New York 1909 pp. 50-62, 112, 123, 174, 187, 433, 603-617.

4 replies »

  1. I love maps……you do such a wonderful job in presenting not only the maps but great explanation of who, what and why they exist….

    Many thanks,

    Rich

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome article, Carol, and thanks so much for the information, maps and links to the maps. This really helps me get a better understanding of 3 families who came into KY in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank You Rick for your kind words. I will have more on the early roads in Kentucky all throughout the month of December. So, hang on, we are just getting started. Merry Christmas to you and your family !!

      Like

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