The Wilderness Road Controversy

by Fess Green
Author of Wilderness Road Odyssey

Speculation about the location of the original Wilderness Road continues. Mary Kegley argues that this historic trail did not pass through Montgomery, Pulaski, and Wythe Counties. Her article in the 2004 Journal of the New River Valley Historical Society (Vol. 17, No. 1) states on page 1 that “it began in far southwest Virginia at the Block House which was located in present Scott County.” From that point it passed westward across the Cumberland Gap and through eastern Kentucky.

If she is correct in this assertion, then how did the Wilderness Road become associated with Christiansburg, Radford, Newbern, Fort Chiswell, Wytheville, and even Roanoke and Salem? Some sources agree and place the start of the Wilderness Road in Virginia at or near Weber City close to the Tennessee border. But curiously, some say the start was in Bristol; others say Fort Chiswell; and still others claim Roanoke or Buchanan. William O. Steele’s book, The Old Wilderness Road: An American Journey (1968), places the start at the Blockhouse near Weber City where Daniel Boone set out with his group of axmen to cut and blaze the trail in 1775. Yet neither of the authors cited in the journal article, Robert Kincaid and Thomas Speed, limited their descriptions of the Wilderness Road solely to the section blazed by Boone and company. In fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Kincaid, for instance, made specific reference to the Wilderness Road in the Roanoke Valley on page 144 of his book, The Wilderness Road (1955).

There are numerous references to the Wilderness Road in various parts of Virginia that go back decades, even centuries. They are not, as suggested, mere ploys for marketing purposes. In pioneer times, these trails or paths had no road signs. There were no route markers like we see on today’s interstate highways. Sometimes, the name given to a road depended on the direction in which one was headed. Travelers going northeast to major cities would refer to the path as the Philadelphia Road or the Baltimore Road. When heading southwest, they would say that they were on the road to the wilderness or the road to Kentuck. In time, it was easier simply to refer to the entire stretch as the Wilderness Road.

Park Rouse Jr. in his book, The Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to the South (1992), has the Wilderness Road breaking off from the great Philadelphia Wagon Road at present-day Roanoke, with the wagon road going south into the Carolinas and the Wilderness Road continuing west.
Gene Crotty’s book, The Visits of Lewis and Clark to Fincastle Virginia (2003), refer to the post expedition journey of these famous explorers in the fall of 1806 as traveling the “Wilderness Trail from the Cumberland Gap through Southwest Virginia. The route led to Amsterdam [near present-day Buchanan] before joining the Great Valley Road to Philadelphia.”

Nearly fifty years ago, Charles Crush writing the history of Montgomery County referred to the historic path through Christiansburg when he described the paving or McAdamizing of the “old Wilderness Road” in 1850. Daniel Howe wrote the history of Lovely Mount Tavern, formerly located in present-day Radford, and described the well-traveled turnpike nearby as the only means of travel from the Valley of Virginia and the north through southwest Virginia. He goes on to say that “oxcarts and covered wagons developed it further and it became the Wilderness Road.”

In my book, Wilderness Road Odyssey (2003), I begin the first chapter by acknowledging some of the various names that have been applied to portions of this historic route: “the Great Road, the Philadelphia Wagon Road, the Valley Pike, the Long Grey Road, and the Wilderness Trail. My  total interest at the time was to follow as closely as possible the original route described by John Filson in his book, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of  Kentucke (1784). This manuscript is now long out of print, but Thomas Speed describes the Filson route on pages 16 and 17 of his book, The Wilderness Road (1971), as going “from Philadelphia through the valley of Virginia and Cumberland Gap, and… the interior parts of Kentucky to the Falls of the Ohio.” a total distance of 826 miles. Filson’s itinerary specifically mentions identifiable places in Virginia including Winchester, Woodstock, Staunton, Roanoke, New River, Fort Chissel [Chiswell], and other points west including the Blockhouse and Cumberland Mountain.

More important than the name of this traveled way is the fact that it became, in the latter half of the 1700’s, the primary migration route westward for tens of thousands of settlers seeking that faire land of Kentucke. It preceded the trade routes and migration paths well known in the west, namely the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, and the Mormon Trail. It’s important to preserve that history and give it an identity exemplified by the Wilderness Road Regional Museum in Newbern, the Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, and several restored forts and traces in Kentucky.

In Virginia, there is currently an effort underway to gain state recognition of the Wilderness Road migration route and have it become a designated historic trail on state maps and tourist brochures. Some may see this as exploitation and a means of attracting visitors for economic gain. That’s exactly what it is and it makes perfect sense. When travelers come into the region, as many no doubt will during Virginia’s Jamestown Quadra-centennial, communities along this historic path will have an opportunity to interpret, educate, and entertain in a most positive way.