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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Founders and Frontiersmen
Historical Background

Toward the Setting Sun—The Westward Movement, 1783-1828 (continued)


In the 1780's the journey westward was difficult. New England, the Middle States, and the South each had a road system that carried settlers and goods across the Appalachian Mountains on the first leg of the journey to the interior. The major route from New England crossed New York from Albany to Utica over the Mohawk Turnpike and on to Avon over the Great Genesee Road. This was the least mountainous route. In the Middle States, Forbes' Road from Philadelphia and Braddock's Road from Baltimore converged at Pittsburgh and the Forks of the Ohio. In the South, the Great Valley Road, from Philadelphia, and the Richmond Road converged at Cumberland Gap, and the Jonesboro Road provided a way for Carolinians to reach the transmontane country. Further south, numerous traces served the pioneer.

Natural waterways could not carry pioneers across the mountains, but they could often be used for the second leg of the journey. Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to form the Ohio, was the starting point for thousands of settlers traveling downriver to the Northwest Territory or Kentucky.

Between the 1780's and the 1830's the road system improved considerably. A turnpike boom began in the 1790's that transformed the main east-west routes from stump-filled dirt paths that forded streams into graveled or paved roads replete with bridges and toll stations. The most impressive of the new roads was the Government-built National (Cumberland) Road, which followed in part the route of Braddock's Road. Macadamized pavement on some sections and sturdy bridges made it the best road of its time. Begun in 1811 at Cumberland, Md., it was projected to join the East and the Mississippi River. Technical and financial difficulties delayed its construction, however, and it was completed only to Vandalia, Ill., in 1852. After the War of 1812 it was the most popular and heavily traveled road. Pack trains, Conestoga wagons, and a variety of colorful stagecoaches crowded the right-of-way. Inns for freighters and stagehouses for travelers sprang up to provide hospitality and entertainment.

Erie Canal
The Erie Canal, crossing nearly the entire State of New York, was a major 19th-century engineering accomplishment and provided a new outlet for Western goods. The passengers not only included westward-bound emigrants but also gentry living along the route, who sometimes took sightseeing trips. From a diorama-painting, probably prepared by the Public Roads Administration. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

As time went on, water transportation to the West also improved. The Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 from Albany to Buffalo, N.Y., provided a connection that linked the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The Erie proved so popular and successful that it created a canal-building "fever" that by 1850 had produced more than 4,000 miles of canals. Canals offered cheap and smooth two-way transportation—an improvement over one-way river transportation.

Traveling together for protection, or risking danger alone, individuals, families, and occasionally whole communities moved into the wilderness. They carried their possessions in Conestoga wagons or on packhorses. They often drove livestock, perhaps a cow and some swine. Women and children sometimes rode, but often they walked. The journey itself was only the beginning of hardship. Living in isolation on uncleared land, the settler's work was backbreaking, and loneliness the bane of his womenfolk. Using gun, ax, and hoe, the frontiersman had to hunt for meat, clear the land, and plant crops. His first crop was most probably corn. It would feed both man and beast; in liquid form it could take the chill off the night or fetch profit in distant markets. As soon as the settler was able, he would plant fruit trees and flax, add chickens and sheep to his livestock, and if all went well become prosperous.

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Last Updated: 29-Aug-2005