The History of the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail
On September 9, 2000 Gov. Don Sundquist, state of Tennessee, Congressman Rick Boucher - Virginia, Congressman Bill Jenkins -Tennessee, and Delegate Terry Kilgore - Virginia signed the following proclamation during a ceremony at Netherland Inn in Kingsport:
“Whereas, on March 10, 1775, Daniel Boone led his band of trailblazers from Long Island of the Holston near this spot through 200 miles of wilderness to the Cumberland Gap of Virginia; And Whereas, the trail he established allowed hundreds of thousands of pioneers to settle the American frontier and help build this great nation; And Whereas, the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Association, Inc. has undertaken to identify, preserve and promote the Wilderness Trail from it’s origin in Kingsport, TN to the Cumberland Gap of Virginia; Now, Therefore, We, the undersigned, on this 9th day of September, in the year of our Lord, 2000, do hereby rededicate the Wilderness Trail as a catalyst for growth and development in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee.”
Long before the first white man came to the Holston, Watauga, Clinch, Powell and Cumberland valleys a network of trails had been developed by the eastern Indians of the North American continent. The Indians called the trail system Athawominee. Settlers translated that term as The Great Warrior’s Path and later applied the term Wilderness Trail. Two of the most important of the trails in the system were the Path from the upper Ohio Valley through Kentucky and the Cumberland Gap into Georgia and the Path from the Northeast Six Nation Confederacy through Virginia and the Holston valley into Tennessee. These two great trails came together at Chota, the major Cherokee town, on the Little Tennessee River. The Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia presented a major barrier to movement from the Ohio Valley in the west to the Hudson Valley in the East. However, in the south, the Indians, following the buffalo, had discovered three great gaps in the Appalachians and the trail that joined them. The Cumberland Gap lay on the western leg of The Great Warrior’s Path and Moccasin Gap, the only water level gap, lay near to The Great Warrior’s Path in the East. In between was Kane Gap in Powell Mountain. These three gaps in the Appalachian Mountains defined the most direct route from the Ohio Valley to the Holston and Watauga Valleys. Thus the trail from Cumberland Gap across Southwest Virginia through Kane Gap and Moccasin Gap became a primary route of The Great Warrior’s Path leading to the Holston and Watauga valleys.
Gabriel Arthur, young indentured servant, was the first white man of record to travel through Cumberland Gap. Arthur was sent along the trail in 1674 by the Shawnee Indians to secure a trade agreement with settlers.
In the early 1750’s Dr. Thomas Walker led a scouting expedition into the area and although he eventually passed through Cumberland Gap (he gave the gap the name Cumberland in honor of the Duke of Cumberland) he failed to recognize the trail connecting the Cumberland Gap and the Holston Valley. Further exploration of the area was sharply curtailed because the wars with the Indians and the French kept the frontier closed. Relative peace came in 1761 with pacification of the Cherokee following the bloody uprising during which Fort Loudoun was taken and it’s occupants massacred. That same year
long hunter Elisha Wallen led a group of hunters into Southwest Virginia and they roamed the area for eighteen months. Wallen’s group crisscrossed the Indian trail in Southwest Virginia several times and named various streams and ridges for members of the party – Wallen’s Ridge, Wallen’s Creek, Newman’s Ridge. They also probably changed “Beargrass River” to “Powell River”, the former name given by the Dr. Thomas Walker expedition in 1751.
News of Wallen’s adventure spread and other wandering long hunters followed. In 1767 Daniel Boone came from the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina and got as far as the Big Sandy River before turning back. In 1769 John Finley, with whom Boone had served in Braddock’s army during the French & Indian War, visited Boone’s home and told Boone of “a big gap in the mountains that the Indians use”. Boone was familiar with the trail in Southwest Virginia and thus knew the route to take to get through Moccasin Gap, Kane Gap and on to “the Big Gap”. In March of that year Boone, Finley and four others made their way along the Wilderness Trail to Kentucky. Just before reaching Cumberland Gap, much to their surprise, Boone’s party came upon a group of 20 men busily building a settlement, in what is now western Lee County, Virginia, under the direction of Joseph Martin. Moving on, Boone spent two years hunting and trapping in eastern Kentucky. When he returned home in March 1771 Boone probably knew more about eastern Kentucky than any other white man and he knew the most direct route to get there from the Holston Valley.
In February 1775 Col. Richard Henderson of North Carolina arrived at Sycamore Shoals, the ancient treaty grounds of the Cherokee. On behalf of the Transylvania Company, a group of land speculators, he purchased 20,000,000 acres from the Cherokee tribes for a price of 10,000 pounds worth of trade goods. (The purchase was later nullified by Virginia’s Governor.) The purchase included most of Eastern Kentucky and a portion of Middle Tennessee. In order to settle the land and sell land parcels there needed to be a clearly marked trail so travelers would not get hopelessly lost in the wilderness. For this task Henderson hired Daniel Boone. Boone was to select the most direct route from existing trails and “blaze” that trail from the Holston Valley to the Kentucky River. Boone chose to follow The Great Warrior’s Path from the Holston Valley through Southwest Virginia to Cumberland Gap.
Boone assembled 30 axemen at the John Anderson Blockhouse which was located on The Great Warrior’s Path about 4 miles north of Fort Patrick Henry. On March 19, 1775 Boone led his party toward Moccasin Gap to follow The Great Warrior’s Path to the Cumberland Gap and Kentucky. Crossing the north fork of the Holston River near the Anderson Blockhouse he followed Little Moccasin Creek through Moccasin Gap. Boone’s party crossed a low divide to Troublesome creek and followed it due west. Just before reaching the Clinch the trail turned south and away from the narrow valley of Troublesome Creek. Crossing the Clinch River at a point where Speer’s Ferry was later established Boone followed the Clinch to a ford on Stock Creek. The group followed Stock Creek past Natural Tunnel, across Horton’s Summit and into the Little Flat Lick valley (Duffield). From here the Boone party crossed over Powell Mountain through Kane Gap and down to Wallen’s creek. They followed Wallen’s Creek valley past present Stickleyville and moved on toward Powell River. After crossing Powell River the group passed through Glade Spring, present Jonesville, and on deeper into Powell Valley. About 20 miles before reaching the Cumberland Gap Boone once again encountered Capt. Joseph Martin who was rebuilding the settlement, near present Rose Hill, he had been forced to abandon in 1769. From this point on to Boone’s selected settlement site on the Kentucky River the going would be easier for they were now on a more frequently used portion of the Warrior’s Path.
The Boone party did not record the exact location of the trail as they blazed it. We are forced to rely on later documentation to define the location of the route. The route outlined above is the oldest version of the trail that can be documented after Boone blazed it.
In 1784 John Filson’s The Discovery and Present State of Kentucke was published. Part IV of the book’s appendix listed the stages and distances on the ROAD from Philadelpia to the Falls of the Ohio by land. Distances along the Wilderness Trail portion of the ROAD in Southwest Virginia are given as follows: Blockhouse to Powell Mountain – 33; to Wallen’s Ridge – 3; to Valley Station – 4; to Martin’s cabins – 25; to Cumberland Mountain – 20.
British attempts to use the Shawnee as allies during the Revolutionary War did little to deter the flow of pioneers moving along Boone’s Wilderness Trail to Kentucky and by the end of the war over 10,000 had passed through. Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 and by then more than 100,000 persons had used the Wilderness Trail to gain access to the Bluegrass. Traffic steadily increased and by 1810 as many as 300,000 hardy pioneers had passed through Moccasin, Kane and Cumberland Gaps. As the population in Kentucky grew so did the eastern movement of farm production along the Trail headed from Kentucky homesteads back to seaboard markets. By 1840 the use of the Trail had fallen into decline. Engineering technology had brought forth improvements in waterway travel such as the Erie Canal and the great riverboats that made the Ohio Valley more accessible, but the Trail had opened the West.
Today the network of trails used by early eastern Indians is a major eastern transportation network. Interstate 81 follows the eastern leg of The Great Warrior’s Path. Interstate 75 and US 25E follow the western leg of The Great Warrior’s Path. US 58, laid down on top of the Wilderness Trail portion of The Great Warrior’s Path from Moccasin Gap across Powell Mountain near Kane Gap to Cumberland Gap, is a major thoroughfare between the I-81 corridor and the I-75 corridor. In 1995 a twin bore tunnel was completed under the Cumberland Gap to handle the flow of traffic. A major highway interchange is planned for Moccasin Gap to handle the high traffic volume there. The Great Warrior’s Path – Wilderness Trail continues to play a vital role in the ongoing saga of the Appalachian Mountains and Southwest Virginia.