Through the Cumberland Gap

[“Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap,” George Caleb Bingham, 1852]

For a few generations, English colonists continued to think of themselves in relation to the ocean, with all its connections to home. But with time, the settlers of western Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and North Carolina, increasingly looked not east, but west. For decades, pioneering families settled the long Shenandoah valley, moving from the Pennsylvania Dutch country down through Maryland and Virginia as far as North Carolina. (In this way, North Carolina, a state with few good natural harbors, was actually settled as much west to east as east to west.)

The settlers wanted to stay in the latitudes they were used to, but the mountain chain kept funneling them southward. The way westward was blocked by the Appalachians, far too high and too rugged for the technology of the day to run roads through. For that, you’d need to find a chink in the wall, an interruption in the mountain chain.

Surely there was such a way over the Appalachians. There had to be!

There was, and it became the gateway to the West. Located more or less where the modern-day states of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee come together, the Cumberland Gap was found in 1750 by a Virginia doctor named Thomas Walker, who gave it the name by which we still call it.

Walker found the gap, but the man who did more than anyone else to open the way to Kentucky was Daniel Boone.

He was born of Quaker parents on the edge of the Pennsylvania frontier in 1734, two years after George Washington. The Pennsylvania Quaker had good relations with the Indians, and the Lenape Indians taught young Boone as much about woodcraft as did the local white settlers. (He was given his first rifle at the age of 12 to provide food for the family.) In 1750, when Daniel was 16, his father moved the family to western North Carolina.

Like Abraham Lincoln two generations later, Boone grew up on the frontier and so had little formal education. Like Lincoln, he became a lifelong reader. (In later years, he would bring books with him on his long hunting expeditions, sometimes entertaining his companions by reading to them around the evening campfire.) But unlike Lincoln, Boone never had much to do with cities or even towns. Instead, he became an unexcelled master of the woods. (Late in life someone asked him if, in his extensive solitary travels,  he had ever gotten lost. He said, no, he wasn’t ever lost, “but I was bewildered once for three days.”)

In 1755, during the French and Indian War, Boone was a wagon driver with the same expedition that Washington narrowly saved from total disaster. (We’ll come to that.) Oddly enough, one of the most important results of that failed expedition was that a wagon driver’s imagination was caught another driver’s tales of his travels across the mountains, trading with the Indians in a place they called Kentucky.

Nothing happened just then. Boone went home and the following year married. But the seed had been planted. For years, he supported his family as a commercial hunter, going alone or with a few others into the wilderness, hunting and trapping for weeks or months along what were called the Medicine Trails (buffalo migration trails), then returning to sell the hides and pelts. But by the mid-1760s, colonial immigration into the Yadkin valley area had made it harder for a hunter to find enough game to make ends meet. Time to move.

Dniel Boone thought about moving to the Pensacola, Florida area, and actually bought some land there, but his wife refused to move so far from everything she knew. Not Florida? Well, where? And then fate stepped in, and here again was John Finley, still with his tales of Kentucky.

Boone first reached Kentucky in the fall of 1767 while on a long hunt with his brother. After he learned that the feared Iroquois Indians had signed the Fort Stanwix treaty, ceding Kentucky to the British, he Boone began a two-year hunting expedition in Kentucky, but in December, 1769, he was captured by Shawnees, who had not signed the Fort Stanwix treaty, and regarded Kentucky as their hunting ground. They confiscated the skins and told Boone and his companion to leave and never return.

But Boone continued hunting and exploring Kentucky. In September, 1773, he led a group of about 50 would-be emigrants to establish a settlement in Kentucky. But the attempt was abandoned after one of Boone’s sons, and another man, were captured by a band of Delaware, Shawnees, and Cherokee Indians, and tortured to death.

That massacre led to what was called Dunmore’s War between Virginia and the Shawnees, which ended in the Shawnees relinquishing their claims to Kentucky. And in 1775, a North Carolina judge named Richard Henderson hired Boone to blaze what became known as the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap. Boone led a party of 30 into central Kentucky, marking a path to the Kentucky River and founding Boonesborough. He brought his family there on September 8, 1775. He was 49 years old.

The road he marked, and the settlements he founded and protected, are the reason that Kentucky had enough inhabitants in 1792 to be admitted to the Union as the first state west of the Appalachians, eleven years prior to the admission of Ohio.

He had a lot more life to live, but the story is too long to tell here. He served as an officer of militia in the Revolutionary War, fighting in the 1782 Battle of Blue Licks, fought after the surrender at Yorktown. He continued pioneering, and became a legend in his own lifetime, famous not only in America but in Europe. Daniel Boone died of natural causes on September 26, 1820, nearly 86 years old. By the time he died, the wilderness road had enabled an estimated 300,000 men, women and children to get past the mountain barrier.


Map from Wikipedia



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