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Migration Routes

by HostGFSJim

GENTREK August 6, 2001


Settler migration is a pretty wide-open topic for Genealogy Researchers or historians and those of us who are just curious. There aren't a lot of books written that just focus on this topic so to get a good appreciation you have to dig in and read a lot of history. One of the things I've also been interested in, even before I delved into Settler migration was just plain geography and topography. Those interests have given me a good insight into the difficulties of any type of travel back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

When you think of just traveling in today's world, you just check the bank account, grab your credit card, gas up the car, pack your bag and go. We have paved interstates with 24-hour services on them coast to coast. So they only real factor in today's travel is when you get tired and need to stop and rest. You can hop in your car in Philadelphia and be in Seattle in four days, which is averaging around 700 miles a day totaling 2,800 miles between the two. That is not the way it happened when our ancestors across the Atlantic Ocean first came to this country. 

The entire eastern seaboard was a vast, limitless, and untouched wilderness with thick forests and tangled undergrowth for thousands of square miles. The only paths through this wilderness were Native American footpaths, game trails, and waterways. And the existing mode of transportation was by canoe on rivers, lakes and streams and "foot-power" walking or running. Although there are some prodigious stories about native running, that activity was primarily for early courier service or just plain communication. I recall stories of the early Aztec Indians running from the center of their culture in Mexico (current day Mexico City) up into current New Mexico in 7 or 8 days. That is awesome to believe but true. However that had nothing to do with migration. 

Prior to the arrival of European colonists and the Spanish, there were no horses to be found anywhere. They were not introduced to this continent yet until the Spanish brought and left them or the Europeans brought them over to breed. So it is good to remember that travel was by canoe or boat on water or by walking. Our Native Americans were widely traveled but they were used to using methods that aided them through wilderness footpaths or waterways.

Now a bit of history indicates that the original settlements in this country were established in bays or at the mouths of rivers or inlets or up large rivers toward the interior of the east coast wilderness. The early settlements of this country started with the French Huguenots at Charlesfort in South Carolina/Georgia area and the Spanish at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 both on river mouths or bays. Next came the English settlement on the Tidewater Peninsula of Virginia between the York and James Rivers. These were Raleigh's Lost Colony (1585-1587) and the Jamestown Colony in 1607. These were in the Chesapeake Bay and then up the James River. The later settlers to this region moved up the Chesapeake to the Potomac and Susquehanna Rivers. In 1615 the Dutch settled into the mouth of the Hudson River at the eastern end of Manhattan Island. Later in 1620 the New England colony sprang up in Plymouth. About the time the English settled Jamestown, the French had started down the St. Lawrence River and established Fort Tadoussac in 1600 and Quebec in 1608, and continued on inland to the Great Lakes regions.

These seedling settlements had started but it would be a generation or better before they would become self-supporting. Incredible stories of endurance are told of starvation and sickness almost wiping these souls off the face of the earth. All there sustenance came from across the sea. And that state they didn't travel much except up the rivers to try to spread out and become self-sustaining on their own land. Their first expansion was within the bays, which provided shelter from the fierce Atlantic storms and then up the rivers, which fed those bays. They just didn't venture as family groups into the wilderness very far away from their water roads in the early days.

As the colonies expanded up the rivers and bays and up and down the coasts they began to travel back and forth between colonies. This was primarily done by ship up and down the eastern seaboard in the beginning. As they expanded west in New York and Massachusetts the found their way to the origins of the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers and learned from Native Americans that they could travel the Delaware down to Philadelphia and Delaware Bay and the Susquehanna down through eastern Pennsylvania to the top of Chesapeake Bay which gave them access to all the colonial settlements in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. These were not easy journeys in the early to mid 1700s. But it was an opening for emigrants to begin to access land and opportunity between the colonies.

There were three primary reasons that would resist western migration for some until after the French and Indian Wars from 1754 to 1763. These were 1) the fact that Native American tribes were not all that keen for the white settlers to just take over land they had lived on for centuries; 2) the territorial claims of the French, English and Spanish all "scrabbling" for a foothold and dreams of empire on the Americas; and 3) the topography of the land. 

The Spanish held claim to all of Mexico, Florida, and the southern portions of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and then everything west of the Mississippi. The French pretty much claimed all the land north of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes and then everything west of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, leaving the English the land from the Appalachians east to the Atlantic coast line.

The Appalachians effectively blocked any serious western migration until after the French and Indian Wars in 1763, which allowed exploration to find routes west. Even then until the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783, there was not any major movements west. Once these major events were in the past, the eastern states began to fill up with people. As New York, Massachusetts, and the northeastern states began to fill, family groups began to flow through the main northeastern corridor called the Mohawk Gap in western New York. Initial migration along this route started up the Hudson River and then west along the Mohawk River toward Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. This opened routes via the Great Lakes to the northern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. This also started the building of a huge network of canals and the expansion of the Cumberland Road starting around 1783 and continuing to expand out until the 1850s.

As Pennsylvania began to fill, families began to flow south across the Virginia border into the Shenandoah Valley while the Virginian families moved west until they fetched up against the Blue Ridge Mountains, which was the eastern boundary of the Shenandoah Valley. With settler migration moving west and south, Virginia soon became crowed to many. From my reading of movement it seemed to me that the northeastern states began to fill up first and migration then moved west across the Appalachians and south along the eastern side of the Appalachians all the way down into the Carolinas eventually. So that put migration in two basic directions on the eastern seaboard, westward from the original settlements in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina and then southward by people drifting down from the northeastern states as land prices rose and the population grew. 

The next gap in the Appalachians was west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to the settlement of Pittsburgh where the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers converge. From this point people had access to the Ohio and a water route all the way to the Mississippi River. Hence this provided the migration route for settlement of the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and the northern portions of Kentucky. Starting on the east and moving west toward the Mississippi the great river settlements of Cincinnati and Louisville sprang up.

Once the Ohio River route was rolling, the next great route started up. With Virginia filling up, people began to hear about the route that Daniel Boone was taking to get to southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee, the Cumberland Gap. This was a land route and not all that easy to negotiate. However it saved a lot of time from going north to Pennsylvania, west over the Appalachians to the Ohio and then west and south. From here two great rivers provided them water travel or they could walk. The rivers were the Cumberland and the Tennessee, which would take them all the way to the Mississippi if that were their inclination.

The only western route left was to drop all the way south and go west once having dropped below the Appalachians, which put them around present day Atlanta, Georgia. The settler migration continued through these "gaps" in the Appalachian chain and gradually filled up the states west of the Mississippi.

Of course I've left one water route out of our discussion, thus far and that is up the Mississippi River straight from Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans. You can envision that the earliest settlements started in the English colonies along the eastern seaboard, the Spanish settlements in Florida, along the Gulf Coast and starting up the Mississippi River and finally the French posts established along the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, and then jumping over to the Illinois River down to the Mississippi. From these early settlements, people moved inward and filled up the land west of the Mississippi.

Thomas Jefferson, even before he became president in the early 1800s, was thinking of finding a passage to the Pacific Ocean. After his inauguration, he gave a proposition to Merewether Lewis and later George Rogers Clark to find a way west. And thence the "Lewis and Clark" expedition that began to open paths west of the Mississippi River. They came down the established route of the Ohio to the Mississippi then up the Mississippi to the Missouri to Independence and northwest.

Their exploration opened up the future migration routes to be used from the Mississippi to the Pacific in the mid to late 1800s.

I've concentrated mostly on the river routes west, but I would like to mention the great roads that eventually became the major pathways west from the eastern states. In the northeast the Great Genessee Road linked Albany, New York with Lake Erie. The Boston Post Road linked Plymouth with New York City. From Philadelphia, the Valley Road went south down the Shenandoah Valley to the Cumberland Gap. From there it pushed its way west but was now known as the Great Trading Path into Tennessee and then turned into the Nashville Road to the Mississippi. Branching off of the Valley Road just out of Philadelphia were two roads, the Pennsylvania Road and the Forbes Road that both wended separate ways westward and ended at Pittsburgh. From Pittsburgh came into being the great National Road all the way to the Mississippi River at Cahokia, Illinois with St. Louis just across the river. Branching south from the National Road was the Maysville Road down into Kentucky and joining the Great Wilderness Road coming north from the Cumberland Gap. In the middle of Tennessee branching off the Nashville Road was the Natchez Trace that ran southwest across the Tennessee River to Natchez "Under the Hill" on the Mississippi River. The only major trail east of Mississippi River that we haven't touched is the old Charles Town Path which started in Charleston and approximated the route of the Congaree River for the first half of it's route, northwest to the southern portion of the Appalachian Mountains somewhere in the vicinity of present day Greenville, South Carolina.

Now it's time to shift west of the Mississippi. There were numerous exploratory trips by individuals west that blazed the trails for the future migration routes. As I mentioned earlier, Lewis and Clark, John Colter, Dave McKenzie, John C. Fremont, Zebulon Pike, John Wilkinson, John Wesley Powell, Coronado, and the Yellowstone Expedition to mention a few of the more prominent journeys. From here I'll start south and work my way north.

At the end of the Natchez Trace at Natchez, Mississippi the El Camino Real ran across Louisiana and Texas to San Antonio and then on into Mexico. From San Antonio, the Upper Emigrant Trail ran west through Texas to El Paso. From El Paso the Overland Trail ran over to Fort Thorn on the Rio Grande River, over Apache Pass to Tucson, Arizona, on to Fort Yuma, across Walker Pass and down into the Los Angeles basin. Further up the Mississippi River, the Nashville Road continued across the river on to Fort Smith, Arkansas. From Fort Smith, the Fort Smith - Santa Fe Trail ran west to Santa Fe, New Mexico. From Santa Fe, the Old Spanish Trail ran northwest up through the Rockies to approximately the location of present day Grand Junction, Colorado, turned south again across southern Utah and Nevada, through Cajon Pass and on into the Los Angeles basin.

From here we'll move up to Kansas City, Missouri. The old Taos Trail went west to Dodge City, Kansas, on to old Bent's Fort near present day Walsenburg, Colorado and then into and down the Rocky Mountains to Taos, New Mexico and on to Santa Fe. The next trail out of Kansas City, was the Overland Stage & Pony Express routes. They ran together until just west of Ogallala, Nebraska on the North Platte River. The Overland Stage route then branched south and ran approximately along present day I-80 over to Fort Bridger and then on to Salt Lake City. From the Overland Stage wound over to Virginia City, then Carson City and down to San Francisco Bay. The Pony Express route went quite a ways north or the Overland Stage route but met again at Fort Bridger, continued along the same basic line only to Fort Crittenden, on to Virginia City, Carson City and down to San Francisco Bay.

The Mormon Trail started over on the Mississippi River in Illinois went west through Iowa and Nebraska and joined with the Overland Stage and Pony Express routes then continued further west, down through Devil's Gate Pass and south to Fort Crittenden.

Having run the same route as the Mormon Trail, the Oregon trail turned north around the Ogden, Utah vicinity and ran up to Fort Hall, then dropped back down and followed the Snake River across Idaho, turned north somewhere past Boise and wound northwest until it came to the Columbia River, then straight west over to Astoria.

I have crammed all I can into this short session for you. I hope it hasn't been too confusing. It's difficult to cover all that settler migration entails in this short a time frame, but I hope you have enjoyed it. For further research I'd recommend you set and pour through some of the excellent old map atlases that are throughout our libraries and just soak it in. If you desire an evening on Settler Migration that will astound you, then I would heartily suggest you find out the schedule of Dr. George Keene Schweitzer from the University of Tennessee, and give yourself a treat and attend one of his sessions on Migration Routes and Settlement Patterns (1607 - 1890). You will be thrilled and amazed.