Forbidden trails

new-york-mapAt the New York State Family History Conference held in September in Syracuse, I attended two excellent lectures about the Erie Canal: “Canal Fever: Life, Work, and Travel on the New York State Canals, 1818–1918” and “Gateway to the West: Interstate Migration on Canals,” presented by Pamela Vittorio.

As someone who attended college in the Mohawk Valley region and lived in Buffalo for several years, I have certainly driven my share on the New York State Thruway. Although I get dubious looks from family, I’ve always enjoyed “hang[ing] a left at Albany” to see the incredibly beautiful countryside that borders the highway and to catch glimpses of the Mohawk River and Erie Canal. The canal played a significant role in nineteenth-century migration of families heading west from New England, and I was curious to learn about other early routes from New England.

There is a great website that has amassed information about migration routes. These routes are from and within New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; they include trans-Appalachian routes, southern routes, and routes to the North-Central Plains, Southwest, and Western Mountain states. The site also contains many links to maps and images. A few links are broken, but the descriptions of even those routes are helpful and provide the basis for further research.

The earliest paths were the Native American foot trails that eventually became horse paths and wagon roads. The Old Connecticut Path was the first Native American trail used by the earliest colonists of Massachusetts Bay, beginning around 1630, and it led west from the first settlements on the eastern coast. In 1635, this route was used by settlers of Watertown when they removed to Wethersfield, Connecticut. The following year, Rev. Thomas Hooker and his congregation followed the path to the Connecticut River and founded the English settlement of Hartford. The Old Connecticut Path connected with many other early migration routes such as the Kings Highway, also known as the Boston Post Road.

“The threatened penalty for unauthorized use of the trail was to be ‘burned at the stake’ or ‘roasted.’”

Another early path was the Pequot Path, a Native American trail that ran south and westward from Providence to New London, Connecticut. It was the earliest traveled highway used by the English settlers of Rhode Island.

But the path with the most intriguing name was the Forbidden Path or the Forbidden Trail. According to the website, the name of this Native American trail comes from the Seneca tribe, Keepers of the Western Door of the Six Iroquois Nations. According to an article by Albert G. Hilbert, it was a secret trail that edged the Iroquois homeland while leading west through Iroquois-controlled lands. It was “a strategic route, and for security purposes, was barred to both unfriendly or undesirable tribes and to all white men. This trail starting at Tioga Point of the Susquehanna and ending on the Allegheny River became known as the Forbidden Trail. The threatened penalty for unauthorized use of the trail was to be ‘burned at the stake’ or ‘roasted.’”

There long had been controversy regarding the location of the trail – where it went through New York and Pennsylvania – as well as whether David Zeisberger, a Moravian missionary, was the first white man to traverse the trial in 1767 and 1768. However, the trail has been definitely located in both states and can be followed closely.

The article can be read here. See also Paul A. W. Wallace, ed., The Travels of John Heckewelder in Frontier America (Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958).

About Nancy Bernard

Nancy holds a certificate from the Boston University Genealogical Research program. She has a master’s degree in history and media study from SUNY University of Buffalo, where she focused on American cultural history and writing and producing documentary videos. She also has a B.A. from Hamilton College. She has interned at the American Jewish Historical Society, now at NEHGS, as well as the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA. Her areas of interest include New England and New York history and researching house histories and the families who lived in those homes.

3 thoughts on “Forbidden trails

  1. My 4th great grandparents Elijah and Mary (Hubbard) Nye traveled from Berlin, Vermont, to Ogdensburg, New York, to visit their son-in-law and daughter Bemsley and Florinda (Nye) Huntooon. Mary records their their first trip that began on Monday, 10 February 1817. The text is long, thus I will mention places they stopped as they rode using Mary’s original spellings. Montpealer, Midelsex, Moretown, Duxbury, Waterbury, Bolton, Richman, Jerico, Four Corners, Mallets Bay, Cumberland Head, Platsburgh,, Moretown, Shadagee Woods, Bells, Reidges,, Mesenia, Madrid, Potsdam, Red Mills, They arrived in Ogdensburg on Sunday, 18 February. On Monday, 24 February, they started for home on a different route—passing through Potsdam, Hopkinton, Chesterfield, Bangor, Malone, and on to Platsburgh before arriving back in Berlin on Saturday, 7 March.

    There must have been regular travel between Montpelier and Ogdensburgh as Mary records four more trips that she made, all in February. Elijah Nye made several trips on his own and Bemsley and Florinda went to Berlin about once a year until they moved to New York City before 1830 and then went to Chicago in 1835.

    Mary and Elijah Nye went to Chicago from Montpelier starting on Thursday, 8 June 1837. Except for the first leg of the trip from Montpelier to Burlington, they traveled by water all of the way. In her diary, Mary records stops along the way, names of boats and their captains, costs of each leg. For example, after going through Whitehall, they reached the junction with the Erie Canal, went through Syracuse, Lyons, Rochester, Lockport, and reached, as she wrote, Bufferlow on Friday, 16 June. They took Cap Shhocks steamboat to Detroit, arriving on the 18th.They left for Chicago on 19 June on the Queen Charlot with Captain Keeth. They passed through Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. They arrived in Chicago on 1 July at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. After staying in the Chicago area for a month, they left for home on 1 August. On the 14th, Mary and Elijah stopped at Volney to visit Mary’s brother Eber Hubbard. They arrived in Montpelier on 22 August, having taken a stage from Burlington.

    My 3rd great grandmother, Florinda (Nye) Huntoon made at least two trips from Chicago to Montpelier and to Paterson, New Jersey during the 1840’s.

    I have another connection to the Erie Canal. My 3rd great grandfather, Ezra Fisk, went from the Saratoga area to Port Gibson about 1819. He built a large house just north of where the canal came. He maintained an inn and stable until he died in October 1831.

  2. Nancy, your overview of these different routes west from New England is very helpful. When I clicked on the map, I didn’t see any of the eastern US areas and New England in particular which I gather was the starting points for these routes. I’d love to see the whole layout of the map if it exists. As an NEHGS member, please let me know how I might do this. Thanks for the helpful article.

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