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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Securing the West for the New Nation

At the start of the Revolution the trans-Appalachian region was claimed by seven of the thirteen states. This was due to the crown-granted charters to which they owed their origin. The six landless states wanted the cession of the western lands to the United States. Accomplishing this took several years; not until 1802 was the last cession completed, assuring the United States of the vast wilderness lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. The next concern was how to sell this newly acquired land to acquire money to reduce debts and meet part of the government’s current expenses. Congress considered both the New England practice of surveying lands before settlement or the southern custom which allowed a settler to lay out his plot and then have it surveyed. Ultimately, they selected a plan by which all government-owned lands would be divided into townships six miles square which in turn would be subdivided into 36 sections, each containing one square mile (640 acres). This plan took effect through the Ordinance of 1785, and prepared the way for systematic land sales and dramatic migration.

Thomas Jefferson had drafted a plan in 1784, showing divisions of the nation’s newly acquired land. Then came the Ordinance of 1787 which was the original law that provided for the creation of all new territories and states. Under the 1787 Ordinance the Northwest Territory was to be formed into no less than three nor more than five states. However, from an original three territories, the final division resulted in the creation of six states— Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The first federal land records developed from the Ordinance of 1785 with field survey notes, plats and drawings of the boundaries, and tractbooks listing who got what land from the Federal government and when. These tractbooks exist for the 13 Public Land states under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. These conveyance documents include homesteads, cash entries, military bounty warrants, private land claims, swamp lists, railroad lists, Indian allotment patents, and State selections. These have been indexed and are searchable. From information out of these records, one can locate the Land Entry files held at the National Archives which contain the paperwork created by processing a patent/deed.

Be sure to visit the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), General Land Office (GLO) Records,

Areas of Largest Growth by 1840

Special attention should center on areas in the frontier West which experienced the greatest increase in population between the dawning of United States as a new nation and the 1840s with the opening of the Far West. Note the strong patterns of movement from specific eastern areas.

  • Ÿ Kentucky
  • Ÿ Tennessee
  • Ÿ Ohio
  • Ÿ Other Parts of the Northwest Territory
  • Ÿ The Early Southwest

Growth in Kentucky

The most popular destination for the earliest trans-Appalachian settlers was Kentucky. It especially attracted people from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. During the 1780s, hundreds of families migrated into Kentucky, and its population rose quickly. Of Kentucky’s 75,000 population in 1790, about 90 percent had arrived by way of the Wilderness Road. In 1792 Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachians, and by 1800, close to a hundred thousand more persons had traveled to Kentucky. After 1796 the trail through the Cumberland Gap was widened for Conestoga wagons, at which time it took on the name of Wilderness Road. A Scots-Irish family could travel from the end of their sea voyage at Alexandria, Virginia, all the way to the middle of Kentucky in the same wagon. When Kentucky and Tennessee became occupied, the Wilderness Road provided the means to send surplus produce back to the eastern seaboard. Droves of cattle, horses, mules, and hogs went by this route and on to the cotton plantations of South Carolina and Georgia.

Even after the roadbed was widened to accommodate wagons, the Wilderness Road was both tedious and dangerous. Moreover, the combined Great Wagon Road and Wilderness Road with its seven hundred mile U-shape from Harrisburg and the Cumberland Gap to Lexington was a full 150 miles longer than reaching Lexington by way of the Forbes Road to Pittsburgh or Wheeling and then down the Ohio River and the short highway south from Maysville, Kentucky. Once the Indians were removed from control of the Ohio River, passage over the Wilderness Road waned. Louisville was Kentucky’s most important river town; it was rivaled by Maysville across the river from the terminus of Zane’s Trace, which originated at Wheeling. In the interior of Kentucky, Lexington dominated the blue grass country. It became a trade center for nearby farmers, developed several industries, and established itself culturally with a college and a center for publishing.

Growth in Tennessee

When one looks at a map of Tennessee, it appears that there are rivers which look like natural pathways but the rivers in east Tennessee were too deep to ford; also there were Indian threats along the rivers.

Consider the early land routes into Tennessee. From the Northeast, the likely path was by way of the Great Wagon Road through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. From the East and Southeast, pioneers may have come over the Catawba Trail which crossed western North Carolina after connecting in Burke County, North Carolina, to a road from Charleston, South Carolina. The French Broad Trail went from Asheville to Knoxville. Also, the Unicoi Turnpike led through Unicoi Gap in Southwest North Carolina; it connected in Georgia with a trail which led northwest from Augusta. From East Tennessee to the interior of the state, persons would have followed Boone’s Wilderness Road from Cumberland Gap northwest into Kentucky, then on to Nashville. Or they might have taken the North Carolina Military Road from near Knoxville over to Nashville. Still another route was the Walton Road from Southwest Point/Kingston to Carthage.

Tennessee’s earliest settlements were near the Cumberland Gap. Eastern Tennessee with its mountains and valleys attracted small farmers who practiced a diversified agriculture. Knoxville, founded in 1789, became the center of its population. Central Tennessee was suitable for cotton culture; Nashville was its metropolis, and it experienced a boom after the opening of a wagon road in 1795. There was little settlement west of the Nashville area before 1810. The real beginnings of Memphis came in 1819, but growth was small at first. Early pioneers to Tennessee came largely from Virginia; later ones came from North Carolina.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.