Covering almost 32 square miles in the three states – Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia – the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park commemorates a vital early phase in the westward movement and the indomitable courage of the first overland emigrants. Through Cumberland Gap, a natural passage through the forbidding Allegheny Mountains, passed the Wilderness Road. Hacked out in 1775 into Kentucky by a party led by Daniel Boone, this road was one of the main arteries used by the settlers who occupied the region between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.
Long before white men entered “Ken-ta-ke,” a magic word among the Indians, the Cherokee and the Shawnee traveled through the Cumberland Gap along a game trail later called the “Warriors’ Path” by white emigrants.
Though neither tribe lived in Kentucky, both would travel the path in and out of the area, which was used as hunting grounds. Its fertile grazing lands teemed with vast herds of buffalo, deer, and smaller game. Cherokee hunters from the south, and other tribes from north of the Ohio River, also visited the region to vie for its rich prizes. Bloody clashes frequently occurred between the tribes as they competed for the area game.
In the 1700’s the vast majority of the population of the United States was found east of the Appalachian Mountains. However, that would begin to change in 1750, when Dr. Thomas Walker, a surveyor and physician, discovered the gap, which crossed the mountain barrier into present southeastern Kentucky. Leading an exploring expedition, which had set out from Albemarle County, in Virginia, Walker named it “Cave Gap.” The Loyal Land Co., which sponsored the expedition, was seeking an 800,000-acre land grant in the region.
After discovering the gap, Walker followed the “Warriors’ Path” for about ten miles northwest to the Cumberland River, which he also discovered and named. Near the river, the party built a log cabin, one of the first in Kentucky. After spending two months vainly exploring the hills of eastern Kentucky in search of the storied Bluegrass region of central Kentucky, the party crossed the mountains north of Cumberland Gap and returned home.
The French and Indian War (1754-63) and Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763-65) prevented, for awhile, any attempt by other explorers to follow Walker’s lead. When peace returned, however, small parties of hunters began passing through Cumberland Gap. The trail through the mountains was soon called the “Warrior’s Path” by early settlers for good reason. Not only were attacks between the Indian tribes common, but, the natives and encroaching pioneers also clashed in numerous confrontations.
The best known of the early explorers venturing into the region was Daniel Boone, a native Pennsylvanian who was living in North Carolina at the time. In 1769 John Finley, Boone’s fellow campaigner in the French and Indian War, who had visited the Bluegrass region several years before, convinced Boone that it could be reached through Cumberland Gap. Following the “Warriors’ Path,” they and four companions moved northward until they came to a branch of the Kentucky River. Completely alone much of the time in hostile Indian country, Boone spent nearly two years exploring the rich and beautiful country. In September, 1773 he led an unsuccessful attempt to settle in the region. Early in 1774, during the Indian uprising known as Lord Dunmore’s War, he passed through Cumberland Gap and in two months’ time covered 800 miles of Kentucky wilderness to warn white men of the danger.
The defeat of the Indians, in October, paved the way for an ambitious scheme to settle Kentucky. The following year, under the terms of the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, Judge Richard Henderson purchased for his Transylvania Co., the Cherokee claim to 20 million acres south of the Kentucky River. To open the region for a private new colony he called Transylvania, he engaged Daniel Boone to blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap and thecWilderness Road was born. Starting from Long Island of the Holston in present-day Kingsport, Tennessee, in March, 1775, Daniel Boone led 30 ax-men in cutting the road. Hacking its way across mountains and through swamp and canebrake, within a month’s time the party reached the Kentucky River, 208 miles from its starting point. There, the men erected a fort and named it Boonesborough, the only white settlement in the region except Harrodsburg, founded the previous year about 30 miles to the southwest by a party that had moved down the Ohio River. Soon, Henderson arrived with reinforcements for the Boonesborough garrison.
The opening of the road attracted many pioneers, and other “Kentucky stations” began to spring up. When Henderson tried to assert authority over the new settlements, the individualistic backwoodsmen rebelled. In 1776, the state Virginia, at the request of the Kentucky settlers, formally organized Kentucky as its westernmost county. This action squelched Henderson’s plans for a private colony; but, his Wilderness Road guaranteed the permanence of white settlement in Kentucky. During the American Revolution (1775-83), the westward movement slowed to a trickle. The gap was frequently closed because of the threat from British-backed northern Indians; and when open, it was used mainly to bring troops and supplies to the hard-pressed settlements. The tide turned in 1778-79, when a Kentucky and Virginia force under George Rogers Clark crossed the Ohio River and captured the important British posts at Kaskaskia and Cahokia in present-day Illinois, and Vincennes, Indiana.
After the war, though sporadic Indian attacks continued, a flood of westward traffic passed over the Wilderness Road. By 1783, some 12,000 settlers had entered Kentucky, most of them through Cumberland Gap. At the time Kentucky entered the Union, in 1792, its population was 100,000 and by 1800, it was 220,000. In 1796, the Wilderness Road was widened and improved for wagon traffic. Eventually, however, more direct routes across the mountains and the final defeat of the northern Indians diverted most of the traffic from the road. By 1825, it consisted mostly of livestock en route to Eastern markets.