Early Western Settlements in British Colonial America (National Institute)

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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 ($).

Settlements in the Early Western Frontier

Westward movement was delayed because of a combination of factors—mountain barriers, the threat of Indian attack, as well as the other risks of frontier life. Traders were well acquainted with the land beyond the mountains, and explorers ventured out, returning to praise the land and its possibilities.

In New York, settlement spread into the Hudson River Valley, especially after the British took over the colony in 1664 because they cultivated friendly relationships with the Iroquois Indians. Protestant Germans were among those who settled along the Hudson River and subsequently moved into the western fringes of the Middle Colonies. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the landed Dutch aristocracy strengthened its foothold in the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys.

Early New Englanders established settlements north and south along the river valleys of the Berkshires and other mountains, filling the valleys of the Delaware, Susquehanna, Hudson, Mohawk, and upper Connecticut and Merrimac. They continued their system of group allotments resulting in individual acreage assignments by town proprietors. Later migrations went west along trails and roads.

New Englanders moving on west from the Hudson River either crossed New York to the Ohio country or moved into the northeastern part of Pennsylvania to settle. Similarly, those from the middle colonies moved across lower Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh and on to the Ohio Valley, or moved south into Maryland and Virginia. (Merlin C. and Eva M. Finnell. Migration Trails of the Eastern United States, 54.)

The Great Shenandoah Valley linked the northern and southern portions of the area sometimes called the “Old West.” In the North, this inland region extended across Pennsylvania and New York as far as Lake Champlain. In the South, the “Fall Line” formed the separation between the Tidewater settlements and the Piedmont which sloped gradually upward towards the Appalachian Mountains. Through the Valley, the Germans and the Scots-Irish migrated in unending procession.

Southern settlers from Maryland and Virginia moved along the Potomac River north and west to Fort Cumberland and then to Pittsburgh and Ohio country. Alternately, some went through mountain passes into Kentucky and Tennessee. Still others continued south and west into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. (Merlin C. and Eva M. Finnell.Migration Trails of the Eastern United States, 54.)

The Appalachian Barrier

The Appalachian Mountain system extended some 1,300 miles along the colonial backcountry, from New Hampshire’s White Mountains south to the highlands of Georgia.

The great mountain range called the Appalachians could not be seen from the Atlantic shore and few people even knew it existed before 1675. By 1700 explorers and traders had traveled far enough west to tell stories of the magnificent mountains, but few along the eastern shore understood the role those mountains would play in western expansion.

                                                Carrie Eldridge, An Atlas of Appalachian Trails to the Ohio River
                                                                              (Huntington, WV: CDM Printing Inc., 1998).

The “Great Migration” from England begun in 1629 brought so many people into the Massachusetts Bay Colony that the founding fathers encouraged new settlements, particularly in the valley along the Connecticut River. Due to the Appalachian mountain barrier and the Indian threat in that region, the New England frontier moved south before it headed west.

Breaking through the Mountain Barrier

The British colonials had found several routes that would take them across the Appalachians. But until the end of the French and Indian War, movement across the mountains was minimal due to the threat of powerful Indian tribes there who operated with French allies from Louisiana and Canada to guard the interior. In the North, a good route followed the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, then on through central New York from Fort Stanwix beyond Oneida to Lake Erie. From there they could follow the Great Lakes to a river and portage to the Ohio-Mississippi system. As late as 1800, however, unfriendly Iroquois Indians were a barrier to this route.

Farther south in Pennsylvania, pioneers could choose from two routes. The Kittanning Path ran along the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers to the mountains, crossing the Appalachian to Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) on the Ohio River. Because of the need to transport General John Forbes’ wagon trains during the French and Indian War, the Forbes Road opened in 1758 in southern Pennsylvania, between Philadelphia and Fort Pitt at the Forks of the Ohio. Today, the Pennsylvania Railroad follows the northern route, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike follows much of the southern route.

Along the Potomac River was Braddock’s Road which opened in 1755 as a military road. It followed the Potomac as far as the town of Cumberland, and then cut overland to Fort Pitt. The Braddock Road was the first road to cross the Appalachian Mountain range and to allow for the first time horse-drawn wagons to travel into the West. The later National (or Cumberland) Road followed this old trail west to Cumberland and then branched out toward Wheeling.

Settlers were particularly attracted to the Fort Pitt region, moving west in large numbers during the 1769 and 1770 travel seasons. Initially, about 5000 made the mountain crossing into this first permanent British settlement west of the Allegheny front in present United States; within a few years, the figure went up to around 30,000.

Farther south was the Cumberland Gap which cut through the main range of mountains in the extreme southwestern corner of present Virginia. By this route, pioneers migrated to the headwaters of the Ohio from the western edge of Virginia and North Carolina on into eastern Tennessee. A permanent settlement was located in the Watauga country in the early 1770s. This road was much used in the Revolutionary days and for some years after. In time its importance decreased, probably due to the absence of navigable rivers and to the existence of other mountains to the east and west; consequently no important settlements developed at either end of the gap.


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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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