Tuesday 14 July 2015


We are getting ready to move soon, downsizing again, after our children have been long gone and priorities in life or health challenges change. We are not going very far, just across town, but it is still a major project: to pack things we need or want to keep; sell or toss the stuff we no longer use. The latter, of course does not include the many items of memorabilia and boxes of personal documents and family records of all types that no self-respecting genealogist could ever part with. It’s going to be another challenge to find a place for all of it.

Anyway, it reminded me again of how many of my ancestors also picked up and left their old lives to begin new adventures, often with young families and with destinations thousands of miles from their homes and relatives. Many of my posts about family members over the past two years have mentioned or been centred on moving activities and/or new homes – sometimes just across a parish in England, many across the ocean to Canada and the United States.

Once in North America, many did not stop in one location for long but continued the search for that perfect piece of land or opportunity. Or, if the primary migrants stayed near where they landed, their children and grandchildren did not.

I have several family lines who, over a few generations, migrated to and then across the United States. Just writing the names of the places they lived in does not really show the distances and hardships they must have endured during those moves. Reviewing maps that show the trails they followed, in the time periods in which they migrated, greatly illustrates where and how they might have travelled.

One route family members followed west from the eastern seaboard of the US, in the decades long before there were railroads, involved the Wilderness Trail or Road. It was the principal route settlers took through the Cumberland Gap in the southern Appalachian Mountains to reach Kentucky and, on further branches, elsewhere to Ohio and Indiana. Some families stopped along the way in western Virginia where they established farms and raised children. For others the Cumberland Gap was just a gateway to lands opening up in the interior. The Wilderness Road began itself as a branch off the Great Wagon Road, traversing from Philadelphia south to the Carolinas, near Big Lick, Virginia, later to become Roanoke.
Map showing the location of the major routes taken from New England to other colonies and to western regions opening up during the late 18th and early 19th centuries (map has been used in numerous websites, this version downloaded 11 July 2015 from The Lowrys family website)
Among the early pioneers opening up the trail west from Virginia, was Daniel Boone who in 1775, with a party of men working for the Transylvania Company, cut a trail through the dense forest to facilitate the movement of settlers to the company’s licensed lands in Kentucky. The trail, usable only by men on foot or horseback at first, was widened to permit wagon traffic by the end of the century and became known as the Wilderness Road. The route served as the primary path of migration until a new road opened in the north, running from Maryland to Illinois – the National or Cumberland Road.
Drawing of travel on the Wilderness Road, source Library of Congress (downloaded 12 July 2015 from Wikimedia Commons)
Members of my maternal grandmother’s family migrated from Maryland to Washington County in western Virginia. William and Elizabeth (Gentle) McDaniel, my 2nd great-grandparents, were married in Maryland in 1801. We have not yet traced their European origins or when the first family member landed in Maryland or the New England colonies. The surname suggests they arrived from Scotland. I believe both William and Elizabeth were born in Maryland as well, although confirming records have not yet been found. They had their first child in that state in 1803. Their other eleven children were all born in Washington County, Virginia between 1806 and 1831, including my Great-Grandfather Asa, in 1827. They would have travelled both the Great Wagon Road to Big Lick and then on the Wilderness Road to a new farm near Abingdon, about 350 miles of rough going.

Asa married Margaret DeBusk in Washington County in 1851. For several years they farmed with Asa’s parents in that area. In 1860, he loaded his family and belongings on to a covered wagon and moved west to Lee County, a distance of about 85 miles but still a difficult trek. It was there my Grandmother Martha (Mattie) was born in 1875. Many of Asa’s children moved west, settling in Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. In 1894, Asa, along with daughters Mattie and Sarah, left Virginia for Missouri, probably following the old Wilderness Road, now much improved, through Lexington and Louisville.
Map showing the major events and residence locations of members of the McDaniel family along with the route taken during moves to new locations.
Other family lines also travelled the Great Wagon and Wilderness Roads on their way to new homes in the west. I’ll recount their journeys in subsequent posts here.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated