Now, a study of the development of a road system in the New World is really quite fascinating!
When Europeans arrived on the continent, indigenous peoples and animals (especially the great buffalo) had well-established trails through the eastern mountains and wilderness. These trails were used for trading, hunting and even paths to war with other tribes. The buffalo trails had been used for centuries and were often six feet wide and three feet deep. The buffalo wanted nothing more than a straight line between feeding grounds. The paths they made could almost have been laid out by a surveyor's transit. Many of the trails, first chosen by buffalo, would become the same routes selected for the interstate highway system of the Twentieth Century. An early engineer is said to have remarked that the buffalo was noted for usually choosing the easiest grades, the most direct courses, thus affording the most feasible road possible through the region.
I'll briefly mention the main Indian paths so the reader can have an idea of how well the native inhabitants could traverse the eastern part of North America before the influx of Europeans arrived on the scene.
Old Connecticut Path
This path ran from Boston to Wayland, Massachusetts, then north along the Connecticut River crossing to the Hudson River at Albany, New York; the Trail portaged to Lake George and Lake Champlain and onto the St. Lawrence River. A major route to Canada in the Revolution.
The Iroquois Trail
About 1700 , before white men made their way into western Pennsylvania, a terrible Indian war left thousands dead. The Iroquois Federation of Tribes gained control of the area from the Hudson River to the Ohio. Their Trail ascended the Hudson River Valley crossed over the watershed to Lake Erie streams and from there southward across the watershed onto Susquehanna and Allegheny Rivers thus gaining access to the Ohio River Valley. The trail followed the watershed ridges and joined the Lake Trail.
The Lake Trail
Following the high moraine line or the watershed, this trail was the major route beside the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes with a terminus at the crossing named by the French, Detroit.
The Kittanning Path
This Path connected the Delaware River (Philadelphia) with the Susquehanna, going up that river to the junction of the Juanita then west through Kittanning Gorge, over the watershed to the Allegheny River and down that river to join the Ohio. Lying on the southern edge of the Iroquois territory. This trail lead many settlers through western Pennsylvania.
A path which connected Chesapeake Bay with the forks of the Ohio. From Alexandria to Winchester to the Potomac River across to the Youghiogheny and west, it was Virginia's main route to Pittsburgh.
The Great Trail
The Great Trail lead from the forks of the Ohio (Pittsburgh) through northeast Ohio joining the Lake Trail and on to Detroit.
The Seneca Trail
Beginning at the Seneca homeland in Northern New York, this trail lead to the forks of the Ohio an south on the west side of the mountains, to the mouth of the Savannah River where the Indians made salt.
The Warrior's Trail (The Seminole Trail)
The most infamous Indian Trail was used by the Iroquois to reach their enemies in the south. It was also a major trading path connecting the Great Lakes to the south Atlantic, Gulf coasts and Kentucky hunting grounds. The Warrior's Trail itself, extended from northern New York to the Atlantic Ocean in the far away Carolinas. In fact, it ran through the Great Valley, the "trough" between the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains. This Warrior's Trail through the Great Valley became known to the migrating pioneers as "The Great Wagon Road".
Read more about The Great Wagon Road/The Warrior's Trail through Kentucky:
The Great Wagon Road
Falls of Ohio Trail
Connecting the Warrior's Path by way of Cumberland Gap, this trail lead to the great hunting grounds of Kentucky and on to the Ohio River.
The Wilderness Road
By the time Kentucky became a state in 1792, some 70,000 settlers had entered the area through the Cumberland Gap. By 1796, the heavy influx of pioneers resulted in the road through the Cumberland Gap being widened enough to permit Conestoga Wagons. It was about this time that the road became known as "the Wilderness Road". The Cumberland Gap was first called Cave Gap by the man who discovered it in 1750--Dr. Thomas Walker.
Daniel Boone, whose name is always associated with the Gap, reached it in 1769, passing through it into the Blue Grass region, a hunting ground of Indian tribes. He returned in 1775 with about 30 woodsmen with rifles and axes to mark out a road through the Cumberland Gap, hired for the job by the Transylvania Company. Boone's men completed the blazing of this first trail through the Cumberland Mountains that same year, and established Boonesborough on the Kentucky River. The Wilderness Road connected to the Great Valley Road which came through the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania. Some suggest the origin of the Wilderness Road was at Fort Chiswell (Ft. Chissel) on the Great Valley Road where roads converged from Philadelphia and Richmond. Others claimed the beginning of the road to be at Sapling Grove (today's Bristol, VA) which lay at the extreme southern end of the Great Valley Road since it was at that point that the road narrowed, forcing travelers to abandon their wagons.
"I cannot say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days"
"The aspect of these cliffs is so wild and horrid, that it is impossible to behold them without terror."
~Col. Daniel Boone
The Scioto Trail
Chillicothe was the main Indian encampment in Ohio. The Scioto Trail joined the Lake Trail south along the Scioto across the Ohio River to great salt licks of Kentucky then through Cumberland Gap into the valley of Virginia. It was a major connection to the Warrior's Trail.
All the trails connected, creating a highway system that covered all of the area soon to be settled by Europeans. The Indian trails were foot paths made for single file travel and, unless they joined a buffalo trail, often difficult to locate. The trails proved the best routes for the pioneer.
1) Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion : A History of the American Frontier (Prentice Hall, 1982)
2) Carrie Eldridge, Appalachian Trails to the Ohio River (CDM Printing, 1998)
3) Beverly Whitaker: Early American Roads and Trails Accessed online October 25, 2004