Daniel Boone and the Blockhouse’s Beginnings
Contributed by William L. Anderson
January 2007 How did the Wilderness Blockhouse end up playing such a vital role in the Wilderness Trail to Kentucky? The answer lies in the location chosen by its builder, John Anderson, and when he built it – right at the critical point when Kentucky opened up for settlement. And Daniel Boone probably played a part as well.
In 1775 the land that would become the state of Kentucky belonged to the Cherokee and Shawnee as a sort of demilitarized hunting ground between the two tribes. Kentucky was off limits to whites due to a royal proclamation of the British government. The proclamation, however, did not stop Richard Henderson, an aggressive land speculator, from negotiating with the Cherokee to purchase a large portion of Kentucky for his own private resale and settlement.
The legality of Henderson’s purchase was questionable, and ultimately he lost his right to most of the land. He is nevertheless credited with opening the door of Kentucky, for better or worse, to white settlement.
After his purchase, Henderson immediately hired Daniel Boone to blaze a “waggon road” from Long Island, near today’s Kingsport, Tennessee, all the way to the proposed settlement area in Kentucky. In March 1775 Boone put a party of about 30 men together, and they marched north from Long Island. Boone’s team “blazed” their way over an already existing trail through two key gaps in the mountains – Big Mocassin Gap near present Gate City, Virginia, and Cumberland Gap on the Kentucky-Virginia border – and from there to the new settlement of Boonesborough. In reality, Boone’s party covered ground so fast they probably did little more than mark the trail. Nevertheless, this trail quickly became famous as “Boone’s Trace” or what we know today as the Kentucky Wilderness Trail. Henderson and a larger party of settlers followed right behind Boone to organize the Kentucky adventure and solidify Henderson’s control over it.
At the very point Boone organized his trail blazing party, John Anderson, a young newcomer to the Holston region, was looking to start a home with his new wife, Rebecca, whom he had married in January of that year. For reasons unknown to us, Anderson decided to put down roots at the end of Carter’s Valley, in what was then the remote edges of the new Holston settlement. This area was nearly a complete wilderness only a few years before, and it was still very isolated and exposed to attack
The land Anderson selected was a mile or so north of the current Virginia/North Carolina border and only five miles from Big Moccasin Gap. The Blockhouse he built at this site was the last habitation before the gap, essentially marking the end of white civilization and beginning of the treacherous wilderness. The primary reason the Blockhouse became so critical to the Wilderness Road was its location at the start of what would be the only realistic overland route to Kentucky and the west for the next twenty years or more. Travelers headed to Kentucky (or later to Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, or Missouri) would have to travel to the Long Island area by one of two roads, one of them the Great Wagon Road that carried travelers south from Pennslyvania to Long Island, and the second the road coming up through North Carolina that also converged on Long Island. Boone’s new Kentucky trail to Big Moccasin Gap traveled north from this Long Island intersection and passed right by the Blockhouse location. Thus, for a quarter of a century, almost every overland traveler to Kentucky went right by the front door of the Blockhouse. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people made this journey, including 80,000 in 1784 alone – a rate of over eighty people a day. Because of its location, the Blockhouse also came to play a serendipitous role as the gathering point for parties going over the Wilderness Trail. The trail crossed some very dangerous territory, particularly the sixty miles between the two gaps. Apart from the bears, wolves, wild creeks, and impassable mountains, bands of Cherokee, Shawnee, and other tribes routinely attacked and killed travelers on this stretch in a futile attempt to save their hunting grounds. As early as 1782, journals from this period record how travelers camped near the Blockhouse until enough armed men showed up to lead a party safely over the trail. The site was so well known that these journals refer to it simply as “the Blockhouse” or “the Blockhouse on the Holston.” Apart from its location, the other reason the Blockhouse became so critical to the Wilderness Trail was the timing of its construction. The Blockhouse likely already existed, or at least was under construction, by the time Boone’s and Henderson’s parties passed by in March 1775 to open the Kentucky settlements. This evidence comes from the journal of a man named James Nourse, who returned from Kentucky shortly after Boone and Henderson arrived there. During his overland return by way of the new Boone path, Nourse tried to stop at “the block-house” (he missed it by one valley). Nourse could only have known the Blockhouse existed, and how to find it, if one of the earlier parties going to Kentucky knew about it and told Nourse where to look for it The very earliest travelers following Boone’s trail were thus aware of the Blockhouse and spread word of it as the best stopping point either before entering the wilderness, or as the welcoming landmark of safety and civilization for those returning from Kentucky. Every traveler after that knew to look for the Blockhouse, and many of them wrote about it in their journals. One enduring and unanswerable question is whether the Blockhouse, and especially its location and role as a point of protection for Wilderness Road travelers, was the result of chance or design. Perhaps Anderson simply wanted a quiet home for his family and settled at the next available piece of unclaimed land in Carter’s Valley. If so, he may have come to regret his choice of location when he had to cope with hordes of unwanted strangers on his doorstep for the next twenty-five years. On the other hand, Anderson may have actually cooperated with Boone’s plans in building the Blockhouse where he did. Even before Henderson’s purchase, Boone had already tried several times to take settlers to Kentucky, the last time (in 1773 when he lost his oldest son James to a Shawnee ambush. Boone and Anderson also knew each other from serving together in the Virgnia militia during the fall of 1774 in the recent Dunmore’s War. Boone likely spoke of his Kentucky plans around Anderson, since Boone was obsessed with opening the land and constantly promoted it. It is certainly a possibility that they discussed the need for a fort or blockhouse near the start of the trail Boone planned to mark. Such a plan might explain why Anderson chose the much more difficult blockhouse design, rather than a simple one-story log cabin like almost every other settler. It may also explain in part why Anderson put the Blockhouse up around March 1775, at the very point Boone blazed his trail and settlers began pouring across the new trail. Regardless of Anderson’s intent, the Wilderness Blockhouse could well have been just one more home in the wilderness but for the convergence of the Blockhouse’s location and timing of its construction. Those factors instead transformed it into a major landmark in the late 1770s, a role we are rediscovering today through the efforts of the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail Society.