United States Overland Travel 1784 to 1839, National Road, Old Federal Road, Chicago Road (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Overland Travel, 1784-1839
National Road (Cumberland Road)
While the National Road was created in the 19th century, it was conceived and encouraged by George Washington in the mid 1700s. He understood the importance of an easy travel route westward. Interest was further sparked by land agent Albert Gallatin in Washington’s time, and later involved in the funding as Thomas Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary.
Rapid growth in the new state of Ohio brought demands by its citizens to Congress for an improved highway. On April 16, 1811, Congress let the first contracts for what was first called the Cumberland Road. By 1825 it was referred to as the National Road because of its federal funding. The plan was to create an eighty-foot-wide paved highway, joining an already existing road from Baltimore to Cumberland, Maryland. It was to follow close to the old Braddock’s Road and pass through the Appalachians, cross the Ohio River at Wheeling, then move through the capitals of each state along the route.
By 1825 the first milestones were being planted along opening sections in Ohio. But by the time it reached Illinois, high costs and increasing competition from the emerging rail lines influenced federal legislators to cut funding. Bridges and grading operations were extended only halfway across the state to the capital at Vandalia; a hard surface was never laid, and the project terminated there.
More than four decades after Jefferson signed the legislation in 1806, the road was finally completed. It had traversed mountains in Pennsylvania, the thick forests of Ohio and Indiana, crossed the prairies of Illinois, and by an extended road, people could travel overland all the way to the Mississippi, opposite St. Louis, a city still more French than American (acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803). The total length of the National Road was 600 miles.
Those traveling west of the Alleghenies on the National Road considered Ohio the Frontier and Indiana and Illinois the West. In the early 1800s, thousands of movers and tons of merchandise moved across the National Road, despite its haphazard quality. They came from the Shenandoah Valley and down from rocky New England, pausing to rest briefly at Cumberland, then driving on toward Uniontown and Wheeling. Arriving Eastern goods could either be sent upriver from Wheeling to Pittsburgh or downstream to ports in Ohio, Indiana and on to Louisiana. Agricultural produce and materials from the South and West came upriver to be unloaded at Wheeling, then to be carried eastward to cities as far away as Baltimore.
A horde of emigrants hurried westward during the golden decades prior to the Civil War. Author P. D. Jordan described it this way, “Their covered wagons had been forming an endless procession ever since the Cumberland Road was opened. After they settled Pennsylvania, they filled Ohio. When Ohio land no longer was available, they clumped on into Indiana to erect their homes and plant their fields on the banks of the Wabash. They clung to the National Road like a mosquito to a denizen of the swampy American Bottoms. It was the people’s highway, and the people crowded it from rim to edge until their carts, wagons, stages and carriages challenged one another for the right of way. (Philip D. Jordan, The National Road, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1948.)
The South’s Old Federal Road
Planned at about the same time as the National Road, but far to the south, was a second government project called the Federal Road, begun in 1805. The Creeks by that time had given permission for the development of a horse path through the nation, its purpose being a more efficient mail delivery between Washington City and New Orleans.
The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806-1836, relates an outstanding account of the Federal Road and the early “Southwest,” which today we label the “Southeast.” (Henry deLeon Southerland Jr. and Jerry Elijah Brown, Tuscaloosa, Alabama: the University of Alabama Press, 1989.)
The Old Southwest had opened to settlement when the Mississippi Territory was created in 1798, but only a handful of pioneers settled there before 1810. Migration into the territory was slow in part due to the presence of the powerful Creek and Cherokee tribes in western Georgia and the Choctaw and Chickasaw in Alabama and Mississippi. It was easier to acquire cheap land in Georgia or Tennessee.
In 1811 when conflicts with the French had reached a point where it seemed necessary to move troops and supplies quickly across the Mississippi Territory, the Federal Road was widened and improved for that purpose. The Indians objected, and this led eventually to the Creek Indian War of 1813-14 and then to the removal of the Indians to the West, beginning in the 1820s. Under pressure from cotton planters eager to invade the Gulf Plains, the government sought land cessions as soon as war with the Creeks ended. Meanwhile the Treaty of Ghent in 1815 concluded the War of 1812, and the United States achieved navigational rights to the Mississippi River. Still another obstacle was removed when in 1813 the Spaniards left Mobile and later, in 1821, ceded the Floridas.
During the early 1820s the Federal Road was the prime route for Americans moving to the Mexican province of Texas. Entire communities of families would leave their homes and farms to travel to Texas via the Federal Road.
By 1820 two hundred and thirty thousand immigrants, both black and white were living in Alabama and Mississippi, raising cotton or erecting stores, warehouses, and homes. Some of these settlers had come by boat, but most had made the tedious trip over the Federal Road.
First to make the trek was the small farmer, driven from his eastern home by signs of soil exhaustion, loading his family and belongings on to a wagon or two and driving his livestock. But before long, plantation owners from Virginia, Georgia, and North and South Carolina headed into the old Creek nation lands. Once they purchased adequate land either from the small farmers or from the government, a planter would move his entire plantation, filling several wagons with household goods. Accompanying these wagons would be herds of livestock, a band of slaves marching together, and the planter’s family—usually in a horse-drawn buggy.
The major arteries of the East and North had connections that led to the newly acquired lands. Traders and light travelers from the North came down the Upper Road through the Piedmont into Georgia, then traveled over the postal horse path which had opened in 1806, through Athens, Watkinsville, and High Shoals, to meet the Federal Road at Columbus, Georgia. Many used the somewhat easier Fall Line Road and then met the Federal Road, traveling through Augusta, Warrenton, Sparta, Milledgeville, and Macon before reaching Columbus.
Crossing on through Alabama, the Federal Road ended at a crossroads known as St. Stephens. From there a person had three choices: go to Mobile, Alabama’s active seaport by boat or the parallel river road; continue west to Natchez, gateway to the fertile Mississippi bottomlands; or go southwest to New Orleans, the grandest city beyond the Appalachians.
New Orleans, the Crescent City, boasted a population of a hundred thousand persons in 1840. Her waterfront was packed with flatboats and steamers from the upper Mississippi and Ohio country. The Mississippi River made New Orleans an integral part of the trans-mountain area. As a commercial route, the river was more important than any roads heading East. For example, in 1825 the Old Northwest sent forty-five thousand tons of wheat by flatboat and steamboat to New Orleans while only forty thousand tons were freighted eastward by wagon over the National Road.
Chicago in the 1830s experienced the most astounding population surge ever experienced by a major American city. The Chicago Road was surveyed by the federal government the same year the Erie Canal was completed. By 1833, the first mud-splattered stagecoaches transported passengers from Detroit to Chicago In 1838, approximately four thousand persons arrived either over the Chicago Road or over the stormy Great Lakes route. Within seven years the population doubled, and Chicago was at the head of a newly emerging road system fanning out into the rich prairie land just beyond. The most important route, called the State Road, went west through Rockford to Galena near the Mississippi. Between 1835 and 1837 an estimated five hundred new farm towns were laid out among the awesome Illinois grasslands. By the 1840s, two hundred wagons a day or more made the State Road one of the most-traveled highways in the West, carrying farm harvest to Chicago with its Great Lakes steamer connection to the Eastern market.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.