Wilderness Road

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United States  Gotoarrow.png  Migration  Gotoarrow.png  Trails and Roads  Gotoarrow.png  Wilderness Road

Daniel Boone and 35 axmen blazed a trail called the Wilderness Road from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap and into central Kentucky for the Transylvania Company. When the trail opened in 1775 it became the route of 70,000 settlers who came to Kentucky on foot or horseback before the trail was upgraded to wagon road in 1796.[1]Wilderness Road Map.png
The Cumberland Gap in Winter.

Historical Background

In 1774 Judge Richard Henderson, a land speculator of North Carolina, hired Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. The Wilderness Road started at Bristol, Virginia (splitting off the Great Valley Road) and headed west along the Virginia-Tennessee border to the Cumberland Gap, across the nearby Cumberland River, and then went northwest to Boonesborough, Kentucky. Eventually, a western spur of the road would reach Harrodsburg, and then Louisville, Kentucky on the Falls of the Ohio River.

The road crossed difficult mountains, rushing rivers, and ran through Indian lands. Both hostile Indians and white robbers were problems, so many people chose to travel the road in large groups. But the risks were worth taking for the rewards of bountiful hunting grounds, rich farmland, and good salt licks.[1] Until the 1794 Shawnee Indian defeat at Fallen Timbers, the Wilderness Road was the preferred route to Kentucky. It also served as an important passage for cattle, pigs, and sheep drives into and out of Kentucky to market.[2]

The Kentucky legislature paid for the footpath to be upgraded to a wagon road starting in 1792. The wagon road was finished in 1796.[1]

The opening of the National Road in 1818 provided an easier, more level route to the Ohio Valley and Kentucky. With the introduction of steamboats at about the same time, traffic on the Wilderness Road declined until it was nearly abandoned in the 1840s. However, it was used by both Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War.[1]


  • Bristol, Washington, Virginia
  • Cumberland Gap at the juncture of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky
  • Boonesborough, Madison, Kentucky

Later west fork:

  • Harrodsburg, Mercer, Kentucky
  • Louisville, Jefferson, Kentucky

Settlers and Records

Scots-Irish and Germans were the first to use the Wilderness Road in large numbers. For partial list of settlers who used the Wilderness Road, see:

Internet Sites

Wikipedia has more about this subject: Wilderness Road



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Wikipedia contributors, "Wilderness Road" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilderness_Road (accessed August 4, 2010).
  2. William W. Luckett, "Cumberland Gap National Historic Park," Tennessee Historical Quaterly 23 (December 1964). Digitized online at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/cuga/luckett/index.htm (accessed 3 August 2010).