It’s Not Daniel Boone’s Road

 

By Jeff Renner, 13 Dec 2010

 

There’s no other way to say this, so I’ll state it plainly: Daniel Boone’s name should not be connected with any version of any road in Kentucky south of the Hazel Patch. Contrary to popular belief, he did not conceive, construct, create or cut it out.

            Take a breath...in...out...in...outthat’s it. Okay, that’s better. I was worried about you for a second.

            I know that in certain circles those sentences border on heresy; I looked out my window to make sure the BRPC wasn’t pulling up my driveway as I typed.[i] Nevertheless, it’s true and I’ll try to explain.

            First, though, let me make clear that I don’t make such statements in order to denigrate or diminish Boone or his accomplishments, which were legion and extraordinary. I mean, what chutzpah does a guy have to have to spend two years, part of it completely alone, in a wild, unexplored, dangerous land, where he truly didn’t know what might be over the next ridge? What sort of perseverance is needed to never give up on dream of taming that wild country, even when the dream costs you a sonand almost kills you and your daughter? I seriously doubt that any of us could follow in his footsteps.

            So give Boone all the credit he deserves for what he did, because some of his actions were absolutely the stuff of legends.

            Having said that, though, there’s no need to attribute to Boone deeds which are unwarranted. At most, in 1775, he may have removed a few fallen trees or trimmed some low-hanging branches along the path—same as any conscientious traveler would have done. What he really did was mark the trail, probably mainly by carving signage into the trees, so that William Henderson and the Transylvania group could follow him into Kentucky’s interior. That was an important duty and is worthy of note. But it’s a long way from the often-held image we have of Boone hacking his way through mile after mile of tangled primeval forest, dodging Indians, finding his way only by an innate sense of direction and destiny.

            Thus the heretical opening.

            To be crystal clearI’m only speaking of the road(s) below Hazel Patch in northern Laurel County. From Hazel Patch to Boonesborough the path can rightly be called Boone’s Trace, as we’ll delve into later.

            To begin, let’s take a look at the primary records. This shouldn’t take long, because there are only two, to my knowledge: Boone’s letter to Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby in 1796 and Felix Walker’s account of the 1775 trip to Boonesborough.

            In 1796, when the state was trying to develop a decent wagon road from Cumberland Gap through the Wilderness[ii] to the Crab Orchard area, Boone wanted the job of laying out the road. He wrote to the governor:

I have sum intention of undertaking this New Rode that is to be Cut through the Wilderness and I think My Self intiteled to the ofer of the Bisness as I first Marked out that Rode in March 1775 and never Re’d anything for my trubel...[iii]

 

            The key point here is to note what Boone said he did—he marked out” the road. He doesn’t claim to have made or cut out” the road.

            Walker’s journal says:

About the 10th of March we put off from the Long Island, marked out our track with our hatchets, crossed Clinch and Powell’s river, over Cumberland mountain, and crossed Cumberland river—came to a watercourse called by Col. [Boone] Rockcastle river...On leaving that river, we had to encounter and cut our way through a country of about twenty miles, entirely covered with dead brush, which we found a difficult and laborious task. At the end of which we arrived at the commencement of a cane county, traveled about thirty miles through thick cane and reed, and as the cane ceased, we began to discover the pleasing and rapturous appearance of the plains of Kentucky.[iv]

 

            Again, it’s important to note the activities of the group. They marked out the road, at least the first part. Only at the Rockcastle River, north of Hazel Patch, does Walker say they had to cut out or create a trail. The distance from the Rockcastle River crossing Boone’s Trace at Lamero on the Rockcastle-Laurel County line to where they would have encountered the beginning of the cane country and a buffalo road (roughly where the community of Roundstone is marked on modern maps) is 18 miles, which is likely the 20 difficult miles spoken of by Walker. It’s another 20 miles to Twitty’s Fort and then about 15 more to Boonesborough, so Walker’s 30 miles of cane country took up most of that distance.

            We can quibble about the distances and how accurate Walker’s estimates may or may not have been; after all, he wrote it 50 years later. But as long as the Rockcastle River hasn’t moved significantly in the past 235 years, we know we’re in the correct vicinity.

            The important part is what they did and from whence they did it. Or, alternatively, what they didn’t do until reaching the river.

            While perhaps not as reliable as Boone’s letter and Walker’s narrative, the autobiography” of Boone in Filson’s Narrative briefly addresses the issue, as Boone says in March of 1775 he undertook to mark out a road in the best passage from the settlement through the wilderness to Kentucke, with such assistance as I thought necessary to employ for such an important undertaking.”[v]

            Again, no building, just marking.

            So from testimony of participants involved in the 1775 journey it’s pretty clear that Boone marked the path south of Hazel Patch.

            Why? Good question. The answer is because, like today, there was more than one path. The wilderness was riddled with trails, both animal and Indian. The entire purpose of Boone’s advance expedition was to pave the way for Henderson. So of course he would be marking the way so Henderson could follow.

            That leads us to a quite obvious, although seemingly overlooked in this context, item: The road through Cumberland Gap existed long before Boone, or any other European, discovered it. The Warriors’ Path, which ran from north Georgia to Ohio, went through the Gap to Flat Lick in Knox County. Thomas Walker made use of the part of the Path, up to the Cumberland River crossing at Pineville, in 1750. In the 25 years subsequent, others, especially hunters and surveyors, had traveled along it.

            From Flat Lick, the Warriors’ Path continued north but other trails intersected thereabouts. One of those led northwest and it was this trail which Boone and the other Longhunters followed in 1769. It went from Flat Lick on through Knox County into Laurel County to Hazel Patch. In 1775 Boone used this same route to Hazel Patch, marking it in such a way that he thought Henderson could easily follow. Take note: It already existed, Boone didn’t make it.

            From Hazel Patch, the by-then-well-known trail turned west and crossed the Rockcastle River, went up Skeggs Creek and over the Cumberland River-Kentucky River dividing ridge in northwestern Rockcastle County. That section is sometimes called Skaggs’ Trace; it’s the part Boone bypassed.[vi]

            Why did he choose to make a new path? Two reasons, I believe. First, Boone had made one round-trip on Skeggs Creek. That was probably one trip too many, as the trail up Skeggs Creek was, by all accounts, miserable. Almost anything would be an improvement.

            Second, Boone’s 1775 destination was northeast of the terminus of the Skeggs Creek trail; perhaps he sought to reduce the traveling distance and eliminate the worst part of the journey at the same time. In his two-year explorations, he’d scoped out a potential alternate route.

            Thus from Hazel Patch, Boone struck out north, across a somewhat barren, flat ridge. The going would have been fairly easy until he reached the Rockcastle River. But from there, he encountered the rough and rugged terrain of Rockcastle County, and had to cut through the bush. He didn’t follow Roundstone Creek the entire way (that would have made for as bad or worse journey as on Skeggs Creek); rather, he crossed the creek and made use of a natural valley and a couple of ridge gaps southwest of the creek, basically paralleling Roundstone as he went northward.

            After a few miles, his trail naturally led back to Roundstone Creek, where he found the buffalo road which he’d used six years earlier. (Beginning at the Rockcastle River crossing and going until the buffalo road would be Walker’s 20 miles of labor). This he followed into Madison County, and then made his way to the Boonesborough site, after being delayed because of an Indian attack.

            In addition to Boone’s and Felix Walker’s comments on the subject, there is one other practical matter we can look at—their rate of travel. Along the path Boone took, it’s roughly 200 miles from Long Island to Twitty’s Fort. They left the former on 10 Mar 1775 and were attacked by Indians at the latter 15 days later. That works out to moving at an average of 13 miles per day, which is way too fast for any significant roadwork to have been taking place. But even that pace is stated conservatively, as we know they did partake in about 20 miles worth of road cutting. For instance, if you assume they were able to cut four miles of road per day, then the average pace for the period when they weren’t cutting is almost 20 miles per day.[vii]

            One other item, from which some inference may be taken, is that Boone’s contemporaries never called the road south of Hazel Patch by his name. It was called a lot of things, but never one with his name attached, at least that I’ve been able to find. In a sampling of 82 pre-1800 surveys which mention the various roads in what was considered the Wilderness, 26 percent have the word “settlement” in the description. The most common usage is simply “the settlement road.” A title with the word “wilderness” included is used nine times. Out of these nine the term “Wilderness Road” or “Wilderness Trace” appears seven times. Other names include “the Kentucky road” and “the trace that leads from Kentucky to Holston.” In today’s Laurel and Knox Counties in particular, “State Road” was sometimes used to designate the ante-1796 path. “Old” or “new” is present as a descriptor in 29 percent of the documents.[viii]

            However, Boone’s name is often attached to the section north of Hazel Patch, usually in 1780s-era documents where it’s frequently called Boones old Trace,” as the section through Rockcastle was never very popular and, in all honesty, really wasn’t a very good thoroughfare, especially after a 1779 re-routing was made to eliminate the worst of the Skeggs Creek section of the western path. The Boone's Trace nomenclature is also common in Madison County documents.

            Ironically, given that Boone’s primary job for the Transylvania party traveling behind him in 1775 was in marking the way to a good settlement spot, Henderson’s group didn’t use Boone’s new route departing from Hazel Patch. Instead, they took the old way up Skeggs Creeks and across a connecting path with ran from the Brodhead area over to where Boone’s route joined the buffalo road on Roundstone Creek—pretty much the same series of trails Boone had used in 1769.[ix]

            Logically then, that leaves us with the question as to how Boone’s name came to be so closely associated with the road. Why do so many historical markers connect Boone with the road? Surely they’re not all wrong, are they?

            The answer is that unfortunately many—probably the majority—of early road-related markers are wrong or misplaced (and not just where Boone is concerned). Not only are some of them historically inaccurate, but they add considerably to the confusion surrounding the early routes into Kentucky and have contributed to our lack of understanding of the placement and development of the roads.

            I’ll readily admit that I can’t pinpoint exactly the time when Boone’s name, which is the single biggest (but by no means the only) stumbling-block to a proper understanding of the roads, came to be attached to all or most of the roads. In fact, there probably is no single moment and the terminology is inconsistently applied. However, a good place to start is with the Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR) in the early 20th century.

            In 1915 the DAR, as part of what was the first organized effort to commemorate the path into Kentucky, placed 14 markers along portions of the roads and called it the “Daniel Boone Trail.” While their intentions were no doubt honorable, and while the road is indeed worthy of remembrance, significant errors were made in placing the signs. Especially confounding are two markers in Knox County which are actually on a portion of the route not developed until 20 years after Boone’s trip. Compounding the issue is the fact that the location of one pivotal, properly-placed sign was mis-reported in an account detailing the DAR’s deeds.[x] This led to a forgetting of a section of the road that was actually original to Boone—the section I mentioned before which roughly paralleled, but didn’t run alongside of, Roundstone Creek in Rockcastle County.

            To paraphrase a great warrior and philosopher: Once we started down that dark path (pun intended), forever has it dominated the road’s destiny.[xi] Things have cascaded from 1915 to where they are today with several incorrectly worded and/or placed official” historical markers gracing our landscape, including—but not limited to—those for Hazel Patch, Logan’s Fort and Modrell’s Station.

            Subsequent writings have too often compressed and simplified events down to the point where we have Boone’s Trace/Trail and the Wilderness Road—with befuddlement about which was which and what was what—and that’s about it. Robert Kincaid’s book is perhaps the best full-length work yet published concerning the road, and certainly the most popular. He presents a lot of good info in a readable and entertaining way, which makes it particularly annoying when, speaking of plans to improve the road, he makes statements like: Not a lick had been struck on it since Boone had cut it out as a private path for Henderson and his colonizers.”[xii] That’s just so wrong on so many levels.

            One more comment on wording should be made here. Sometimes it’s said that Boone blazed” the trail into Kentucky. And that’s correct. But the word blaze” means, in this case, marked” not cut.”

            Take all these things, mix them together, add a dash of Daniel Boone legend, and it’s probably not surprising how the issue has become so muddled.

 

 

[i]     The Boone Reputation Preservation Commissariat. Well, not really. But you know what I mean.

[ii]    Very generally and broadly speaking, the "Wilderness" inside the boundaries of present-day Kentucky was considered to be the section of land between Cumberland Gap and the dividing ridges of the Cumberland River-Kentucky River watersheds. These ridges were in northern Rockcastle County, one south of Brodhead, the other on the Rockcastle-Madison County line. You arrived in "Kentucky" when you crossed over from the waters of the Cumberland to the waters of the Kentucky. So basically the Wilderness you traveled through was in Bell, Knox, Laurel and Rockcastle Counties.

[iii]   Lewis Collins, History of Kentucky (Covington: Collins & Company, 1874), p. 242.

[iv]   George W. Ranck, Boonesborough: Its Founding, Pioneer Struggles, Indian Experiences, Transylvania Days, and Revolutionary Annals (Louisville: John P. Morton & Company, 1901), p. 163.

[v]    John Filson, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke (1784): An Online Electronic Text Edition (University of Nebraska - Lincoln: 2006), p. 46.

[vi]   Skaggs’ Trace, presumably named after longhunter Henry Skaggs, was a very difficult trail to travel upon. There were many, many crossings of the main fork of Skeggs Creek, which the trace generally followed. It was rocky and the route was dictated by the unforgiving geography of the area.

[vii]  Boone, in Filson’s Narrative, gives a different date than does Walker, saying the first attack was on the 20th. Using his numbers and assuming they left Long Island on the 10th (Filson doesn’t state a starting date), they would have averaged 20 miles per day, not allowing for any slow-down for the 20 miles of brush beating. However, Boone's 1 Apr 1775 letter to Henderson also gives the Indian attack as occurring on the 25th, so Filson's date is very likely in error. Ranck, p. 168.

[viii] This is from the land survey research for my yet-to-be-completed book on the roads.

[ix]   Also from my research and a careful, in-context reading of Henderson’s and William Calk’s journals in Ranck. The description of the journey and incidents along the way given by Henderson and Calk make it unmistakably clear that they were on Skaggs’ Trace.

[x]    Twenty-First Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1916 (Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1916), p. 410-411. Coverage of the DAR presentation and event also appears in The Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society, Volume 13, Number 39, p. 43-51. The location of the mis-reported marker was vaguely stated as being on Roundstone Creek, which, I believe, has led to the notion that Boone traveled along the bank of that creek through much of Rockcastle County.

[xi]   Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (San Francisco: Lucasfilm Ltd., 1980).

[xii]  Robert Kincaid, The Wilderness Road (Kingsport, TN: Arcata Graphics, 7th ed., 1999), p. 157-158.

 

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