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The Settlement of the Appalachian Frontier: Cumberland Gap

The Settlement of the Appalachian Frontier

Sharing information, stories, and ideas for teaching students about the settlement of the Appalachian Frontier. Focusing on the little-known people and history of Southwestern Virginia, Northeast Tennessee, and Eastern Kentucky.

Location: Nickelsville, Virginia, United States

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Cumberland Gap

What a sight it must have been. Standing at the narrow, 2-mile-wide notch, or gap, on Cumberland Mountain, a visitor with lots of time—say, a couple of centuries—would have had the privilege of watching one of America's most unusual animal and human migrations. First it was woodland bison (Bison bison pennsylvania), elk (Cervus canadensis), and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that trampled a trail through this natural doorway to the salt licks and ample food of bluegrass Kentucky beyond the mountain barrier. Bands of Shawnee and Cherokee Indians followed the animals to the rich hunting grounds, and sometimes raiding parties followed one another. So many bleached bones of rival Indian tribes littered the trail from the Potomac River south through Cumberland Gap then north to the Ohio River that the route came to be called Warrior's Path.
Then in 1750, white explorers led by Dr. Thomas Walker found this narrow pass through the Appalachian Mountains, of which the Cumberland range is a part. With only primitive transportation, restless colonists along the eastern seaboard had been stymied all along the mountain wall. Also, French settlers and allied tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy made the western frontier beyond the mountains dangerous to explore. Shawnees, distressed at encroachment on their rich Kentucky hunting grounds by white trappers and settlers, became increasingly belligerent.
In 1774, at Point Pleasant, the Shawnees and a confederacy of Delaware, Wyandot, Cayuga, and other Indian tribes led by Cornstalk lost a bloody battle with Virginia settlers and militia. To save their families, the Shawnees gave up rights to their hunting grounds by signing the Treaty of Camp Charlotte. When the 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals was signed, Daniel Boone and 30 men set out from the Long Island of the Holston (in present day Kingsport, Tenn.) and blazed the Wilderness Trail through Scott and Lee Counties in Va. and through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.
Waves of land-hungry immigrants soon trudged along the crude trail . By the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, an impressive stream of 12,000 people had crossed into the new territory. The stream became a river, then a torrent. By 1792, the population west of the gap was more than 100,000, and Kentucky was invited to join the Union. As the century came to a close, traffic on the Wilderness Road continued day and night. The curses of oxen drivers and the bawl of cattle mingled with the jingle of horse harnesses and the groans of loaded wagons struggling across Cumberland Gap. By 1800, just 50 years after it was discovered by Walker, the famous gap had funneled more than a third of a million people from the East to the new lands of the West.