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Popular Questions Answered by The Great Wagon Road Project

We often get questions about the Great Wagon Road Project. The goal is to determine the original route of the Great Wagon Road as it first appeared along the landscape. Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds. After 278 years, there are still clear indications in many areas of the original route today. Some of these are in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. For the most part, the original roadbed has long disappeared through time. One of the most popular questions is, “How do you determine and prove the road?”

Photo of the Great Wagon Road in Virginia (courtesy of Dowell Lester & Bill Collins)

The overall process is tedious and fun at the same time. Family historians understand this as they spend countless hours searching for proof of a relative’s life. To put the project in perspective, it contains endless hours in the field researching ground data and the same number of hours studying various documents. The material comes together for final analysis. If the proof is lacking, further work continues until that particular segment is complete. At the beginning stages of the project, the actual sections were large in scale, ranging in county size or equivalent to 500 square miles. We were calculating that local water, such as streams, and rivers, would absorb approximately 10 to 20 square miles in any specific area. We quickly realized the need to downsize the sections because of three factors. The first factor: landscape changes over the past 278 years have drastically affected the original roadbed and required more in-depth study. Second, proving every mile required provable documentation, and the road changed throughout its lifetime. Third, preserving the research became an issue due to the data we were retrieving. The project became a mini-museum after the first year. We had to invent security measures and proper storage space accommodations.

After going through the learning curve process of the early days, we narrowed our research areas to 5,000 feet or approximately one mile. This strategy has worked well during the past two years. The knowledge carried over from one section to another has allowed the road to come back to life in its original form. We also document and prove the shortcuts and other routes connecting to the Great Wagon Road at various periods. As stated earlier, the original roadbed changed course in several areas. Settlement development, current events, and population growth are the major factors in these changes. The project documents each of these by looking into the details. Why it occurred, who benefitted, how the actions moved forward, what signified the change, and where.

As you’ve probably guessed, the project contains a vast amount of documentation, and we are not at the halfway mark with our research yet. The next popular question asked of the project is, “Have you found anything that shocked you?” The answer to this is an overwhelming yes. A road such as this encompasses many shocking actions because it revolves around the people. Some are good, and some are bad. Legal disputes involving the road are numerous. These created many changes to the original route, especially in Virginia and North Carolina. At times, the project was shocked to witness the drastic measures taken to control the road. The Great Wagon Road was famous from the 1740 decade to the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War. While determining the original route, we found hidden heroes, greedy tyrants, and families who contributed much of their lives to the very existence of this historic road. We have also discovered locations of battles, ambushes, possible buried treasure, burial sites, Native tribe sites, road markers, family home sites, families who lost everything to robbers, disease, fires and groups of people who traveled the road together, became separated, became sick and in some cases died along the way.

The last popular question is, “Why go through the trouble if you don’t know what the outcome of national historic trail status will be?” The answer is simple. The Great Wagon Road is worth it. Millions of people today can link their families to this road. Tens of thousands of people migrated to a new home using this road. It was the most traveled road in the colonies. It was the first major highway in this nation’s history. The project will continue the long hours of research and will share what we can with you along the way. We will not stop our journey until the proof is complete and documented. The Great Wagon Road is significant to our history, essential to our family lineage, and crucial to our future generations. The Great Wagon Road is worthy of our time, effort, and recognition.

Visit the GWR Project page to learn more or email greatwagonroadproject@piedmonttrails.com

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