The first white colonist to use the road may have been Gabriel Arthur who was captured by the Shawnee in 1673. Arthur was released and finished his journey through the wilderness, arriving at his destination of Petersburg, Virginia.
In 1750 the Loyal Land Company commissioned Dr. Thomas Walker to lead an expedition through the wilderness in search of lands to settle. The expedition did not reach the lands that we now call the Blue Grass, but Walker is credited with naming the now famous pass called the Cumberland Gap.
Daniel Boone, the famous frontiersman, led an expedition through the Cumberland Gap in 1769. This proved to be an important milestone in the early settlement of Kentucky. In 1775, Boone was employed by the Transylvania Land Company to carve a road to lands recently purchased from the Cherokee.
There is some disagreement about details of the route that the road took; some have the road starting at The Great Valley Road near Fort Chiswell, Virginia. While others have it beginning at present day Bristol, Virginia. The road moved onward through the Cumberland Gap, which lies at the convergence of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, and headed northwest. The road split at Hazel Patch, one branch leading to Boonesborough the other to Frankfort.
Travel along the road was often difficult. Some areas of the road were impassable in certain seasons. Disappointed travelers often had to leave wagons and belongings behind and travel further on pack horses or on foot. It was not until after 1796 that the trail was widened to accommodate Conestoga Wagons. Indian attacks and other hazards to life were not uncommon.
In 1790, the population of Kentucky was estimated at 75,000 and it is estimated that 90 percent of those people had arrived by way of the Wilderness Road. The road was a vital piece of American history opening up the frontier for westward expansion and providing a means for economic trade. Today an estimated 43 million Americans can trace their lineage to pioneers who migrated along the Wilderness Road.
Understanding the paths that our ancestors took can be a valuable tool in research. This understanding can help us trace the lives of our ancestors and provide missing pieces to the puzzle. The next time you are faced with a disappearing ancestor, stop and consider the road he or she may have traveled.