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Exodus to Kentucky

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      Exodus to Kentucky

Michael's motivation for the move to Kentucky stemmed from first-hand knowledge acquired during his service in the Illinois Regiment. He had arrived in Kentucky during the Spring of 1780, and had remained there until the Fall of 1781. He had seen the beauty of the country, the crops the fertile soil was capable of producing, and had experienced it's weather during all seasons. He had also been exposed to the horror-stricken families after an Indian raid, and possibly determined not to make the move to Kentucky until the Indian atrocities had abated.

The tax lists from previous years indicate that Michael O'Hair owned several horses and cows before his sale in the Fall of 1788. His sale probably included all except one of the cows, but none of the horses. An emigrant family customarily took a cow along with them, especially if there were small children. Michael's son, Thomas, was four years old in 1788. His daughter, Sally, was no more than a baby. The horses were necessary to transport the family and their possessions to the new country. The small family might have started their journey by wagon. Michael's home on Craig's Creek was about ten miles from Fincastle. The Wilderness Road passed through Fincastle and was a good wagon road for another two hundred miles. "No single trail was more significant in the westward spread of English colonization than the Wilderness Road of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. It was the first route opened across the Appalachian barrier. From 1775 to 1800 it was the principal overland entry into the limitless reaches of the West...The Road

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originally began at Wadkin's Ferry on the Potomac River and passed up the Shenandoah River through the giant trough in Virginia formed by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny ranges, crossed the low divide transversing the Great Valley, at the headwaters of the James and Roanoke (Staunton) Rivers, passed over New River at Ingles Ferry, and continued down the middle fork of the Holston to Long Island, the present site of Kingsport, Tennessee. The modern road following this route is known as Federal Highway No. 11, or the Robert E. Lee Highway. It was called variously the 'Great Wagon Road,' the 'Irish Road,' the 'Valley Turnpike' and the 'Pennsylvania Road.'

"The true Wilderness Road to Kentucky and the Northwest took up this feeder Valley Road at Kingsport, the southern base of the loop, and turned northwest to leave the Holston Valley at Moccasin Gap in Clinch Mountain. Winding a hundred miles through a jumble of close hills and narrow valleys drained by the Clinch and Powell Rivers, it picked its way to Cumberland Gap, a deep cleft in the high Cumberland Mountain wall separating Virginia and East Tennessee from Kentucky. This segment generally conforms to the route taken later by Virginia Highway No. 421.

"Fifteen miles north of Cumberland Gap the Road cut through the Cumberland River gorge in Pine Mountain and from there wandered through the rugged country of eastern Kentucky, crossing Laurel and Rockcastle Rivers. At Hazel Patch it forked, the right prong leading directly north to Big Hill and to the site of Boonesborough on the Kentucky River, and the left going to Crab Orchard, Danville, Harrodsburg and finally to the Falls of the Ohio, known later as Louisville, Kentucky. From Cumberland Gap to Corbin, with the advent of modern roads, the route became known as Federal Highway No. 25-E, and from Corbin to Richmond and Lexington as Federal Highway No. 25. The left prong from Mount Vernon to Crab Orchard, Danville, Bardstown and Louisville was designated as Kentucky Highway No. 150...It was this mountainous section from the Block House, near Kingsport, Tennessee, to Crab Orchard, Kentucky, which gave the Road its name." 1

According to Filson's logged account of the Wilderness Road from Philadelphia, through its 826 miles to Fort Nelson, at the Falls of the Ohio, Fort Chiswell was 78 miles southwest of Fincastle. Most of the people traveling to Kentucky

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traded their wagon for other necessary supplies at Fort Chiswell rather than risk the chance of not finding a buyer for the wagon a hundred miles beyond, where the road narrowed from a wagon road to a packhorse road. "It was the custom for people going from Kentucky to Virginia [and from Virginia to Kentucky] to travel in companies under guard, and these trips were advertised long ahead so that all travelers might take advantage of them." 2

Fort Chiswell was a good place to join with other travelers headed for Kentucky. Michael and his family probably stayed several days at Fort Chiswell making the final preparations for the journey. The Cherokee and Chickamauga Indians still took their toll in massacres around Cumberland Gap. Over a hundred men, women and children were massacred along the Wilderness Road by the Indians during the year of 1784. Two years later, in 1786, some thirty travelers from Botetourt and Rockbridge counties were attacked. Two-thirds of the travelers were scalped and many of the women taken prisoner. Larger groups of travelers were less likely to be attacked. The men of the group were ever watchful, placing several of their number on guard at their front and rear in case of attack.

Household goods and farming implements were packed into large bundles and cinched with a saddle girth upon packhorses. Michael's wife, Elinor, must have ridden one of the horses carrying the two small children with her. Saddle bags, or baskets, were made large enough to accomodate a small child balanced on either side of the horse. Michael probably made the journey by foot, leading their small string of packhorses and the cow. The bundles carried by the packhorses had to be adjusted several times during a day's traveling. Sometimes the rivers were swollen and it was necessary to stop and build rafts to ferry the supplies, women and children across the river. The men and horses waded and swam the rivers.

Dr. Thomas Walker is generally credited with being the first explorer of Kentucky. He had been commissioned by a land company to explore the western country and had kept a journal of the trip. His description of the Cumberland Gap and its approach, when he made the westward journey in the Spring of 1750, tells of the country as Michael saw it when he too made the journey in 1788. They rode through the rough

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and hilly country approaching the three thousand feet high Cumberland Mountains looming cold and forbidding before them. They wound their way over the ledges and boulders until they reached a gap in the range of mountains flanked by steep cliffs on either side. Dr. Walker had written in his journal, "...On the north side of the Gap is a large Spring, which falls very fast, and just above the Spring is a small Entrance to a large Cave, which the Spring runs through, and there is a constant stream of Cool air issuing out...On the South side is a plain Indian Road. on the top of the Ridge are Laurel Trees marked with crosses, others Blazed...The Mountain on the North Side of the Gap is very Steep and rocky, but on the South side it is not So..." 3

Daniel Boone and his companions had also traveled this same country in 1769 when they had determined to locate the gap and enter Kentucky by that route. "Boone was in familiar territory in southwest Virginia and knew the trail which led to the pass...Through Moccasin Gap and across the Clinch, over Walden's Ridge, Powell Mountain and into the valley, the riders picked their way. They came upon a dark escarpment which rose with forbidding ruggedness. This huge wall only a few miles on their right was the Cumberland barrier a thousand to fifteen hundred feet above Powell Valley. The precipitous slopes gleamed gray in the sun, and it was no surprise to the travelers that the trail should turn southwest along the base of the rugged cliffs, through canebrakes, meadows and rolling timbered lands.

"...Boone and his companions hastened on - down the valley through thickets and timber, across streams and over small hills, till they came upon the break in the mountain which Walker had found nineteen years before. On their right was the sheer face of a precipice which loomed fifteen hundred feet above them. On the left was the smaller rounded peak where the wall took up again. The dip was like a 'V', and winding up to this lower depression was the Old Indian road, twisting through masses of underbrush and over boulders and ledges.

"In the saddle of the depression, the men crossed the divide between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. It was early summer...the trail led down into a ravine where oak, elm, pine, poplar and chestnut trees brightened the slopes. At the northern base, the path leveled out in a jungle of high

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grass, canebrakes and animal wallows, and followed the lazy, crooked stream of Yellow Creek... Boone and his men followed the Indian road down the creek to the Cumberland River ford." 4

There were few houses along the Wilderness Road to accomodate travelers. The travelers were usually too poor to afford the price of floor space on which to sleep in the few taverns or inns along the way. Camp was made early every evening. There were fires to be built, cows to be milked, and supper to be cooked before the weary children could be bedded down. The adults talked much of the glowing accounts in Filson's book, telling about the new country for which they were headed. They slept in bedrolls, with their feet close to the warmth of the fires, to ward off the chill of the cold nights.

The trail became wider and easier to travel at Hazel Patch where the road forked. One fork led to Boonesborough or Lexington. The other fork passed Crab Orchard, where the first brick house in Kentucky had been built during 1782, and went on to Fort Nelson at the Falls of the Ohio (Louisville). This still was a small fort. There were only 200 houses at Louisville by 1805. Michael and his family took the right hand fork which led to Boonesborough and Winchester. This fork divided several miles south of Boonesborough where another road led to Lexington. "The present road system of Kentucky is founded on the traces of pioneer times, and those, in turn, were based on the Indian and buffalo trails. There was an essential difference between the two, since the Indian paths were narrow, while the buffalo trails were many rods wide...Filson's map of 1793 shows the road system of Kentucky in pioneer times. Lexington was the converging point of nine roads; Danville, of four. The four most important roads were the Wilderness Road, the Nashville Road, the Lexington-Limestone Road, and the Louisville roads...The Lexington-Limestone road was never a subject for State action before 1792. Its origin lay in the Indian-buffalo trail that connected both places with the Lower Blue Licks. It came into prominence first as an immigrant road to central Kentucky for those coming down the Ohio, and later as a route by which the Pennsylvania merchandise reached the Bluegrass. The first wagon was taken over it in 1783. The course of the road was the present Maysville and Lex-'

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ington pike [route 68]. At Lexington began the road to Nashville; it made with the Limestone Road a continuous highway across the land...The Louisville roads were also modified trails connecting that town with Lexington and Danville. At these towns they connected with the roads already mentioned. The Louisville roads were free from obstruction, for most of their course, and could be traveled by wagons from the first." 5