Menu Close

The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road

The story of the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road is the story of the German and Scots-Irish settlement in America.  For nearly 150 years after North America was settled, it remained a green wilderness.  Only a few trails cut through the vast forests which spread from New Hampshire to Georgia, for the Appalachian Mountains thrust a stern barrier between the Atlantic plateau and the unknown interior of the continent. 

The settlers, as they moved inland, usually followed the paths over which the Indians had hunted and traded.  Many of these trails had been word down in earlier ages by buffalo which once roamed the eastern uplands in search of grazing lands.  These paths usually followed the valleys and the river shores. 

Slowly, through countless disappointing probes, the coastal settlers learned the immensity of the mountain range which paralleled the Atlantic Coast, several hundred miles inland, which the Indians called the Appalachians.  Extending southwest from Canada to the Gulf Coast Plain in the south in a succession of rocky ranges, they impeded the large-scale westward movement of the English colonists until after the American Revolution.

The movement of individuals, families, communities, and entire peoples from one place to another has been one of the important human experiences shaping history.  It involved leave-taking from one home and one environment in search of another, the crossing of oceans, frontiers, rivers and mountains.

East of Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia

In eighteenth and nineteenth century migrations, few trails in America were more important than the Indian route which extended east of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia.  This ancient Warrior’s Path had long been used by the Iroquois tribesmen of the north to come south and trade or to make war in Virginia and the Carolinas.  Then, by a series of treaties with the powerful Five Nations of the Iroquois, the English acquired the use of the Warriors’ Path.  After 1744, they took over the land itself. 

The growth of the route after 1744 into the principal highway of the colonial back country is an important chapter in the development of a nation.  Over this Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, vast numbers of English, Scots-Irish and Germanic settlers entered this continent and claimed lands. 

The endless procession of new settlers, Indian traders, soldiers, and missionaries swelled as the Revolution approached.  “In the last Sixteen years of the Colonial Era,” wrote historian Carl Bridenbaugh, “southbound traffic along the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road was numbered in tens of thousands.  It was the most heavily traveled road in all America and must have had more vehicles jolting along its rough and tortuous way than all the other main roads put together.” 1

From the Heritage of Rowan County North Carolina

Note: there is a wonderful chart documenting the route of the Great Wagon Road on Wikipedia.

  1. Kathy Sanford Petrucelli, editor, The Heritage of Rowan County, North Carolina (Salisbury, N.C.: Genealogical Society of Rowan County, 1991.)