The Great Wilderness Road

Author: Ken Coffey | Category: History

Editor’s Note: Ken Coffey has made significant contributions in efforts toward securing a federal scenic byway designation for Highway 25E through Grainger County. His research details the original old Great Wilderness Road and points to significant contributions by Capt. William S. Bean Jr. and the importance of Grainger County to the development of the emerging United States. This submission by Coffey is a synopsis of the significant parts of that research and according to Coffey contains some previously unpublished information.

The Great wilderness Road begins at Wadkins Ferry on the Potomac River below Hagarstown, VA, and ends at Long Island (Kingsport). It is also known as the great Wagon Road; Irish Road; Valley Turnpike or Pennsylvania Road and today is know as Hwy. 11 or Robert E. Lee Hwy. Most of our ancestors traveled this great road, coming from overseas to ports on the east coast, whole families, fathers, mothers and children, indentured servants (quasi-slavery) for seven years.

On the present day map the Wilderness Road can be followed, beginning just below Hagarstown, VA. on the Potomac River from Hwy. 11 down Virginia into Tennessee to Bean Station to Corbin, KY, then to Crab Orchard, Danville, Bardstown and Louisville following Hwy. 150.

In 1769 the Great Wilderness Road ended at Kingsport (Long Island). By the order from the British Government no one was allowed to go any further; however, in 1769 Daniel Boone extended the Wilderness Road from (Long Island) Kingsport. The first route follows Hwy. 11 to Bean Station, then 25E to Cumberland Gap. The second time in 1775 Boone cut a trail starting at Kingsport, going northwest through Moccasin Gap at Clinch Mountain (Gate City, VA) winding through hills and valleys to Cumberland Gap. This second part follows close to Virginia Hwy. 421, Hwy. 58 and 25E through Cumberland Gap the road was cut through Rockcastle Rivers at Hazel Patch (eight miles north of London, KY.) it forked, the right fork leading north to Boones borough on the Kentucky River: the left fork leading to Crab Orchard, Danville, Harrodwsbourgh and on the Fall OH (Louisville, KY).

Both Joseph Waddell in his “Annals of August County” and Dr. Rober Kincaid in his “Wilderness Road” tell the same story of the journey through Grainger County made by 300 settlers from Virginia who met 200 settlers from North Carolina at Bean’s Station. The Party left Abingdon, VA with 300 people and was joined at Bean’s Station by another 200 most of who were from North Carolina. Instead of going northwest from the Blockhouse to follow Boone’s Road to Cumberland Gap the party took an open path through Carter’s Valley on the Holston to the newly established Bean Station, 50 miles directly west of long Island (now Kingsport).

At Bean Station, Colonial James Knox took command of the company for the trip through the Wilderness. Knox selected the armed men who had no family obligations and divided them into advance and rear guards, each party to alternate daily in position. He placed the family, women and children, and the long line of packhorses between these armed groups. As they could proceed only in single file, the line extended for nearly two miles along the trail.

Three miles out of Bean Station the party came to Clinch Mountain. They moved slowly up the steep sides, and many of the packhorses were unable to make the ascent. The rear guard discovered signs of Indians and sent frantic word ahead to Knox. He dispatched the advanced guard to Clinch River, six miles away, to reconnoiter above and below the crossing with instructions to wait there until the arrival of the main company. Knox ordered women to advance slowly. Then he turned back to bring up the struggling packhorses.

The advance guard, headed by Captain James Trimble, reached the river and found it swollen by recent rains. Realizing that it was impossible to cross at the usual ford, Trimble took his men to a big bond above the ford and crossed over. Because he believed that Knox should be in the advance party of the women, Trimble did not leave a guard at the main ford. When Mrs. Trimble arrived on her horse with little William on her back and baby Allen in her arms, she saw some of the guards on the other side. She supposed they had crossed at that place and immediately plunged into the river with Mrs. William Ervin following her. Captain Trimble saw their danger and shouted to them not to attempt it but his voice was drowned by the rushing water. The horses of the two women were soon swimming the current, and Mrs. Ervin’s horse was washed against a ledge of rocks. With great difficulty the animal struggled to get a footing and managed to climb back up the bank. A man coming up at the time plunged into the stream and managed to save the children and the boys.

Mrs. Trimble’s horse continued to struggle against the current, with his head turned toward the opposite shore. Firmly gasping the bridle and mane with her right hand, clinging to her baby with the left and calling to William behind her to hold fast, she urged her swimming horse forward and at last managed to reach the opposite bank.

Frighted and anxious, the men lifted her and the children from the exhausted horse. She sank to the ground uttering a broken prayer, completely spent. Because of the danger her attack at Cumberland Gap, Knox sent Captain Trimble with 50 men to examine the mountain. Another Group of 10 men was sent to Cumberland Ford to see if the way was clear that far. The advance spies, though discovering frequent signs, reported that apparently no large body of Indians was ahead of them. Feeling a little easier, Knox led his long caravan through the pass and down into the canebrakes of Yellow Creek. They arrived at Crab Orchard, November 1, 1784.

William Trimble, the three-year-old who had struggled through the water of Clinch River, became a distinguished soldier of the War of 1812, and his younger brother, Allen, became a future governor of Ohio.

A party of eight horsemen overtook the party at Clinch River and preceded them on the route. Between Clinch River and Cumberland Gap, the emigrants came upon the remains of the eight horsemen who had passed on before them. They had been tomahawked, scalped and stripped by the Indians, and some of the bodies had been partly devoured by wolves.

General James Knox, who had taken command of the caravan at Bean’s Station, stopped the party long enough to bury the remains of the unfortunate men.