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Overland Travel, 1784-1839
The demand for improved roads was great. The Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap was improved somewhat to allow wagon traffic. There was some improvement too in the old roads east of the Alleghenies, particularly across New York and Pennsylvania. New “roads” were constructed in the West, principal among them: Zane’s Trace; the Natchez Trace; the National Road; the Federal Road in the South; and the Chicago Road, reaching the tip of Lake Michigan.
This road was named after Ebenezer Zane, considered to be the founder of Wheeling (then in Virginia, now West Virginia). Zane was one of the first individuals to receive a land grant in Ohio, and Zane’s Trace became the first road in the Northwest Territory. In 1796, Congress awarded Colonel Ebenezer Zane a contract to complete a path between Wheeling and Limestone (now Maysville, Kentucky), the western end of the Great Wagon Road through Kentucky. Zane also established three ferries to cross the Muskingum, Hocking, and Scioto Rivers. In 1804, the Legislature appropriated about fifteen dollars a mile for making a new 20-foot-wide road over Zane’s route, but it was still a poor road because stumps of trees were left when under one foot high.
Zane’s makeshift road was the main land route in early Ohio. It ran west from Wheeling as does today’s Interstate 70 to the town of Zanesville. Then it cut southward through a dense forest, passing Lancaster and Chillicothe to reach Limestone. There a road led to the bluegrass country or a boat could be floated down to Cincinnati.
This road was both an aid to western travelers and a commercial boon for shipping western produce to the east. Between 1825 and 1830, the section from Wheeling to Zanesville became part of the National Road.
The Natchez Trace began as an early native Indian trail and was followed also by early explorers. Later it was used by Kentucky boatmen, post riders, and military men, including General Andrew Jackson after his victory at the Battle of New Orleans.
President Thomas Jefferson had made a treaty with the Chicasaw and Choctaw tribes so that a road could be opened along the old Indian Trace. The road was initially conceived with strategic military purpose due to possible hostilities with Spain over the restrictions they placed over use of the port of New Orleans. The military road was completed in 1803. Then, in 1806, Congress authorized construction of a 12-foot-wide road on the route, from Nashville to Natchez, a distance of 500 miles. It still wasn’t a carriage road because stumps up to 16 inches high were allowed to remain. The Natchez Trace passed through dense forests, 100 miles in Tennessee, 40 miles in Alabama and 300 in Mississippi. A more direct 40-foot-wide military road along the same route was completed in 1820—the Jackson Military Road. But by 1824, most of this road south of Columbus, Mississippi, was overgrown and abandoned. The trace was rapidly displaced by the fast-moving steamboats that came into general use by the 1830s.
The city of Natchez benefited by booming cotton production; roads webbed out over the countryside, accommodating endless wagons heaped high with cotton. Farmers would float their produce down the Mississippi River, sell their flatboats for lumber, then walk home in the direction of Nashville via the trace. For a time, this was the busiest trail in the “Old Southwest.”
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