Road trips

PA 1984 mapIt is summer time and the siren call of the road echoes through my mind: “Come explore! Leave your desk and your clutter. Forget the phone, pack your car and come explore!” When we were children, summer meant road trips to far off and “exotic” places such as Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. One memorable summer we took a four-week camping trip across the country from Washington, D.C., to the Colorado Rockies to explore the old Moffat Railroad over the Continental Divide. Four squirming children and two adults crammed into a Dodge Sedan towing a trailer with the tent and other camping gear (no pop-up camper for our family).

The call of the road was especially strong last week as I pored over books and references to colonial Pennsylvania. I was puzzling the problem of how a family might travel from Philadelphia to what is now Pittsburgh in the late 1790s when I happened upon Paul Wallace’s Indian Paths of Pennsylvania, published in 1987 by the Pennsylvania Historical Society. This richly illustrated book describes over 130 named paths in Pennsylvania such as the Allegheny Path (the southern branch became Forbes Road), Nemacolin’s Path (later Braddock’s Road), and the Monocacy Path (later part of the Great Valley Road).

The most direct route from point A to point B

Native Americans blazed trails through the wilderness of Pennsylvania long before Europeans arrived. As hunters, they would track game for miles, often on the same paths used by prey. Over time the network of paths and trails evolved into an interconnected system for travel and trade. The trails tended to be dry and level, taking the most direct route from point A to point B. They often followed river terraces above the flood zone. When river crossings were inevitable, the shallowest and narrowest points were selected for traversing. Trails over the mountains used gaps such as Cowan’s Gap to get across the Tuscarora mountain ridge. Settlers moving westward across the state used this pre-existing network.

Military generals such as Braddock and Forbes began the process of widening some of the paths during the French and Indian wars to accommodate the movement of artillery and supply wagons. In 1794, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike – the first paved road in the new United States – opened, following the Great Minquas Path and the Monocacy Path.

For the road tripper, Wallace’s book provides not only detailed descriptions of each path, but also instructions for following the path via car. For example, US Route 40 mostly follows Braddock’s Road. Route 30 was built on the footprint of the Monocacy. Interstate 81 and Highway 11 trace the Virginia Path. The descriptions include maps, history, and key geographical features. If you are looking for a new way to explore, and have ancestors who crossed Pennsylvania, pick up Paul Wallace’s book and retrace your ancestors’ steps across the state.

About Ann Lawthers

Ann G. Lawthers assists our library patrons in enhancing their research skills and in bringing alive their family histories. She is a graduate of Wellesley College, the Harvard School of Public Health and has completed the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research program. She has conducted genealogical projects as an independent researcher. Ann is familiar with resources for Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey; and has research experience with Quebec and the Canadian Atlantic Provinces, Ireland and Germany.

14 thoughts on “Road trips

  1. Ann, thank you! I have vaguely wondered for years about how those people who moved inland from the east coast of our country and finally traversed the entire area knew how to move in a logical pattern from one place to another. Somehow, it had not occurred to me to think of trails established by Native Americans or others, and of the importance of those trails in colonial transportation.

    I truly appreciate those of you who contribute to “Vita Brevis” and provide these gems of information.

  2. A Mormon ancestor came in 9 Apr 1850 from Boston to New York, then train to Philadelphia, then train westward until switching to canal boats to Holydaysburgh (now Hollidaysburg, Blair), PA. There they went by railroad (over mountains) to Johnstown, PA where they took canal boats to Pittsburgh. Then to boats to St. Louis and onto Council Bluffs, IA. From there it was wagons and oxen to Great Salt Lake City on 14 October 1850.
    A little later but I don’t know that I would have wanted to take that trip.

    1. Hollidaysburg was named for General Thomas Holliday, who fought in the Revolution. It was never Holydaysburg.

      1. Sara – reference your comment about Hollidaysburg, thank you. I quoted my ancestor’s dairy and, as in census enumerations, it was probably spelled as he heard it. I will revise that part of my family’s genealogy to reflect your comment.

        1. Dear Howland,
          The reference is from the documentation presented when Hollidaysburg applied for its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. It was placed on the Register in 1985. Under “Significance” in this link you will find the information. I was wrong in remembering it at Thomas instead of Adam and William Holliday. I always check “facts” in family stories. I have found many in my family lore.

          1. And not Rev War but French and Indian – sorry. Thanks for asking me to check my reference so I could correct my memory.

          2. Sara – I didn’t think that I asked you for a reference but thank you for them. I just said, “reference your comment, . . . .” and thanked you for correcting the town’s name.

          3. Howland, Just wanted to be certain since I was going from long ago memory. Thanks, again.

  3. Thank you for the information on Paul Wallace’s book. Next time I’m at HSP I’ll take a look at it. I know some of the trails and how to follow via car; however, I would love to know about how to follow the others.

  4. Highway 27 in New Jersey used to be an Indian path. Now it is very heavily traveled and goes through New Brunswick, Middlesex, NJ, a very large town and lots of traffic!

  5. My Gideon Durfee ancestors moved from Rhode Island to western New York after the Revolution. They was one story about them having to go around some of the broken equipment (wagons etc) left over from the War on their way. I never thought about the trail being an Indian path first. Of course it had to have been. Who was here first?

    1. Gideon Durfee is also my ancestor, 7th great-grandfather. I know that after the war Gideon moved to western NY from Rhode Island and I have been curious about his journey from Tiverton to the Palmyra area.

  6. As a child I read a wonderful book about the development of a road over a long period of time. Written from the viewpoint of a child, it started with a path which ended up as a turnpike. “Turnpike” was a foreign word to me as we do bot use it in Canada. I often think of that book when we travel along major highways and see lovely old homes very near the highway. I would love to read that book again. Have you ever read or heard of such a book?

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