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Parent Category: Classic Historical Works
Category: The Paths Of Inland Commerce, A Chronicle Of Trail, Road, And Waterway
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For the beginnings of the paths of our inland commerce, we must look far back into the dim prehistoric ages of America. The earliest routes that threaded the continent were the streams and the tracks beaten out by the heavier four-footed animals. The Indian hunter followed the migrations of the animals and the streams that would float his light canoe. Today the main lines of travel and transportation for the most part still cling to these primeval pathways.

In their wanderings, man and beast alike sought the heights, the passes that pierced the mountain chains, and the headwaters of navigable rivers. On the ridges the forest growth was lightest and there was little obstruction from fallen timber; rain and frost caused least damage by erosion; and the winds swept the trails clear of leaves in summer and of snow in winter. Here lay the easiest paths for the heavy, blundering buffalo and the roving elk and moose and deer. Here, high up in the sun, where the outlook was unobstructed and signal fires could be seen from every direction, on the longest watersheds, curving around river and swamp, ran the earliest travel routes of the aboriginal inhabitants and of their successors, the red men of historic times. For their encampments and towns these peoples seem to have preferred the more sheltered ground along the smaller streams; but, when they fared abroad to hunt, to trade, to wage war, to seek new, material for pipe and amulet, they followed in the main the highest ways.

If in imagination one surveys the eastern half of the North American continent from one of the strategic passageways of the Alleghanies, say from Cumberland Gap or from above Kittanning Gorge, the outstanding feature in the picture will be the Appalachian barrier that separates the interior from the Atlantic coast. To the north lie the Adirondacks and the Berkshire Hills, hedging New England in close to the ocean. Two glittering waterways lie east and west of these heights--the Connecticut and the Hudson. Upon the valleys of these two rivers converged the two deeply worn pathways of the Puritan, the Old Bay Path and the Connecticut Path. By way of Westfield River, that silver tributary which joins the Connecticut at Springfield, Massachusetts, the Bay Path surmounted the Berkshire highlands and united old Massachusetts to the upper Hudson Valley near Fort Orange, now Albany.

Here, north of the Catskills, the Appalachian barrier subsides and gives New York a supreme advantage over all the other Atlantic States--a level route to the Great Lakes and the West. The Mohawk River threads the smiling landscape; beyond lies the "Finger Lake country" and the valley of the Genesee. Through this romantic region ran the Mohawk Trail, sending offshoots to Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence, to the Susquehanna, and to the Allegheny. A few names have been altered in the course of years--the Bay Path is now the Boston and Albany Railroad, the Mohawk Trail is the New York Central, and Fort Orange is Albany--and thus we may tell in a dozen words the story of three centuries.

Upon Fort Orange converged the score of land and water pathways of the fur trade of our North. These Indian trade routes were slowly widened into colonial roads, notably the Mohawk and Catskill turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into the Erie, Lehigh, Nickel Plate, and New York Central railways. But from the day when the canoe and the keel boat floated their bulky cargoes of pelts or the heavy laden Indian pony trudged the trail, the routes of trade have been little or nothing altered.

Traversing the line of the Alleghanies southward, the eye notes first the break in the wall at the Delaware Water Gap, and then that long arm of the Susquehanna, the Juniata, reaching out through dark Kittanning Gorge to its silver playmate, the dancing Conemaugh. Here amid its leafy aisles ran the brown and red Kittanning Trail, the main route of the Pennsylvania traders from the rich region of York, Lancaster, and Chambersburg. On this general alignment the Broadway Limited flies today toward Pittsburgh and Chicago. A little to the south another important pathway from the same region led, by way of Carlisle, Bedford, and Ligonier, to the Ohio. The "Highland Trail" the Indian traders called it, for it kept well on the watershed dividing the Allegheny tributaries on the north from those of the Monongahela on the south.

Farther to the south the scene shows a change, for the Atlantic plain widens considerably. The Potomac River, the James, the Pedee, and the Savannah flow through valleys much longer than those of the northern rivers. Here in the South commerce was carried on mainly by shallop and pinnace. The trails of the Indian skirted the rivers and offered for trader and explorer passageway to the West, especially to the towns of the Cherokees in the southern Alleghanies or Unakas; but the waterways and the roads over which the hogsheads of tobacco were rolled (hence called "rolling roads") sufficed for the needs of the thin fringes of population settled along the rivers. Trails from Winchester in Virginia and Frederick in Maryland focused on Cumberland at the head of the Potomac. Beyond, to the west, the finger tips of the Potomac interlocked closely with the Monongahela and Youghiogheny, and through this network of mountain and river valley, by the "Shades of Death" and Great Meadows, coiled Nemacolin's Path to the Ohio. Even today this ancient route is in part followed by the Baltimore and Ohio and the Western Maryland Railway.

A bird's-eye view of the southern Alleghanies shows that, while the Atlantic plain of Virginia and the Carolinas widens out, the mountain chains increase in number, fold on fold, from the Blue Ridge to the ragged ranges of the Cumberlands. Few trails led across this manifold barrier. There was a connection at Balcony Falls between the James River and the Great Kanawha; but as a trade route it was of no such value to the men of its day as the Chesapeake and Ohio system over the same course is to us. As in the North, so in the South, trade avoided obstacles by taking a roundabout, and often the longest route. In order to double the extremity of the Unakas, for instance, the trails reached down by the Valley of Virginia and New River to the uplands of the Tennessee, and here, near Elizabethton, they met the trails leading up the Broad and the Yadkin rivers from Charleston, South Carolina.

To the west rise the somber heights of Cumberland Gap. Through this portal ran the famous "Warrior's Path," known to wandering hunters, the "trail of iron" from Fort Watauga and Fort Chiswell, which Daniel Boone widened for the settlers of Kentucky. To the southwest lay the Blue Grass region of Tennessee with its various trails converging on Nashville from almost every direction. Today the Southern Railway enters the "Sapphire Country," in which Asheville lies, by practically the same route as the old Rutherfordton Trail which was used for generations by red man and pioneer from the Carolina coast. In our entire region of the Appalachians, from the Berkshire Hills southward, practically every old-time pathway from the seaboard to the trans-Alleghany country is now occupied by an important railway system, with the exception of the Warrior's Trail through Cumberland Gap to central Ohio and the Highland Trail across southern Pennsylvania. And even Cumberland Gap is accessible by rail today, and a line across southern Pennsylvania was once planned and partially constructed only to be killed by jealous rivals.

These numerous keys to the Alleghanies were a challenge to the men of the seaboard to seize upon the rich trade of the West which had been early monopolized by the French in Canada. But the challenge brought its difficult problems. What land canoes could compete with the flotillas that brought their priceless cargoes of furs each year to Montreal and Quebec? What race of landlubbers could vie with the picturesque bands of fearless voyageurs who sang their songs on the Great Lakes, the Ohio, the Illinois, and the Mississippi?

In the solution of this problem of diverting trade probably the factor of greatest importance, next to open pathways through the mountain barriers, was the rich stock-breeding ground lying between the Delaware and the Susquehanna rivers, a region occupied by the settlers familiarly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. In this famous belt, running from Pennsylvania into Virginia, originated the historic pack-horse trade with the "far Indians" of the Ohio Valley. Here, in the first granary of America, Germans, Scotch-Irish, and English bred horses worthy of the name. "Brave fat Horses" an amazed officer under Braddock called the mounts of five Quakers who unexpectedly rode into camp as though straight "from the land of Goshen." These animals, crossed with the Indian "pony" from New Spain, produced the wise, wiry, and sturdy pack-horse, fit to transport nearly two hundred pounds of merchandise across the rough and narrow Alleghany trails. This animal and the heavy Conestoga horse from the same breeding ground revolutionized inland commerce.

The first American cow pony was not without his cowboy. Though the drivers were not all of the same type and though the proprietors, so to speak, of the trans-Alleghany pack-horse trade came generally from the older settlements, the bulk of the hard work was done by a lusty army of men not reproduced again in America until the picturesque figure of the cow-puncher appeared above the western horizon. This breed of men was nurtured on the outer confines of civilization, along the headwaters of the Susquehanna, the Potomac, the James, and the Broad--the country of the "Cowpens." Rough as the wilderness they occupied, made strong by their diet of meat and curds, these Tatars of the highlands played a part in the commercial history of America that has never had its historian. In their knowledge of Indian character, of horse and packsaddle lore, of the forest and its trails in every season, these men of the Cowpens were the kings of the old frontier.

An officer under Braddock has left us one of the few pictures of these people *:

 

     * "Extracts of Letters from an Officer" (London, 1755).

 

"From the Heart of the Settlements we are now got into the Cow-pens; the Keepers of these are very extraordinary Kind of Fellows, they drive up their Herds on Horseback, and they had need do so, for their Cattle are near as wild as Deer; a Cow-pen generally consists of a very large Cottage or House in the Woods, with about four-score or one hundred Acres, inclosed with high Rails and divided; a small Inclosure they keep for Corn, for the family, the rest is the Pasture in which they keep their calves; but the Manner is far different from any Thing you ever saw; they may perhaps have a Stock of four or five hundred to a thousand Head of Cattle belonging to a Cow-pen, these run as they please in the Great Woods, where there are no Inclosures to stop them. In the Month of March the Cows begin to drop their Calves, then the Cow-pen Master, with all his Men, rides out to see and drive up the Cows with all their new fallen Calves; they being weak cannot run away so as to escape, therefore are easily drove up, and the Bulls and other Cattle follow them; and they put these Calves into the Pasture, and every Morning and Evening suffer the Cows to come and suckle them, which done they let the Cows out into the great Woods to shift for their Food as well as they can; whilst the Calf is sucking one Tit of the Cow, the Woman of the Cow-Pen is milking one of the other Tits, so that she steals some Milk from the Cow, who thinks she is giving it to the Calf; soon as the Cow begins to go dry, and the Calf grows Strong, they mark them, if they are Males they cut them, and let them go into the Wood. Every Year in September and October they drive up the Market Steers, that are fat and of a proper Age, and kill them; they say they are fat in October, but I am sure they are not so in May, June and July; they reckon that out of 100 Head of Cattle they can kill about 10 or 12 steers, and four or five Cows a Year; so they reckon that a Cow-Pen for every 100 Head of Cattle brings about 40 pounds Sterling per Year. The Keepers live chiefly upon Milk, for out of their Vast Herds, they do condescend to tame Cows enough to keep their Family in Milk, Whey, Curds, Cheese and Butter; they also have Flesh in Abundance such as it is, for they eat the old Cows and lean Calves that are like to die. The Cow-Pen Men are hardy People, are almost continually on Horseback, being obliged to know the Haunts of their Cattle". "You see, Sir, what a wild set of Creatures Our English Men grow into, when they lose Society, and it is surprising to think how many Advantages they throw away, which our industrious Country-Men would be glad of: Out of many hundred Cows they will not give themselves the trouble of milking more than will maintain their Family."

With such a race of born horsemen, every whit as bold and resourceful as the voyageurs, to bear the brunt of a new era of transportation, all that was needed to challenge French trade beyond the Alleghanies was competent and aggressive leadership. The situation called for men of means, men of daring, men closely in touch with governors and assemblies and acquainted with the web of politics that was being spun at Philadelphia, Williamsburg, New York, London, and Paris. Generations of tenacious struggle along the American frontier had developed such men. The Weisers, Croghans, Gists, Washingtons, Franklins, Walkers, and Cresaps were men of varied descent and nationality. They had the cunning, the boldness, and the resources to undertake successfully the task of conquering commercially the Great West. They were the first men of the colonies to be unafraid of that bugbear of the trader, Distance. We may aptly call them the first Americans because, though not a few were actually born abroad, they were the first whose plans, spirit, and very life were dominated by the vision of an America of continental dimensions.

The long story of French and English rivalry and of the war which ended it concerns us here chiefly as a commercial struggle. The French at Niagara (1749) had access to the Ohio by way of Lake Erie and any one of several rivers--the Allegheny, the Muskingum, the Scioto, or the Miami. The main routes of the English were the Nemacolin and Kittanning paths. The French, laboring under the disadvantages of the longer distance over which their goods had to be transported to the Indians and of the higher price necessarily demanded for them, had to meet the competition of the traders from the rival colonies of Pennsylvania and Virginia, each of them jealous of and underbidding the other.

When Celoron de Blainville was sent to the Allegheny in 1749, by the Governor of New France, his message was that "the Governor of Canada desired his children on Ohio to turn away the English Traders from amongst them and discharge them from ever coming to trade there again, or on any of the Branches." He sent away all the traders whom he found, giving them letters addressed to their respective governors denying England's right to trade in the West. To offset this move, within two years Pennsylvania sent goods to the value of nine hundred pounds in order to hold the Indians constant. The Governor had already ordered the traders to sell whiskey to the Indians at "5 Bucks" per cask and had told the Indians, through his agent Conrad Weiser, that if any trader refused to sell the liquor at that price they might "take it from him and drink it for nothing." There was but one way for the French to meet such competition. Without delay they fortified the Allegheny and began to coerce the natives. Driving away the carpenters of the Ohio Company from the present site of Pittsburgh, they built Fort Duquesne. The beginning of the Old French War ended what we may call the first era of the pack-horse trade.

The capture of Fort Duquesne by the English army under General Forbes in 1758 and the final conquest of New France two years later removed the French barrier and opened the way to expansion beyond the Alleghanies. Thereafter settlements in the Monongahela country grew apace. Pittsburgh, Uniontown, Morgantown, Brownsville, Ligonier, Greensburg, Connellsville--we give the modern names--became centers of a great migration which was halted only for a season by Pontiac's Rebellion, the aftermath of the French War, and was resumed immediately on the suppression of that Indian rising. The pack-horse trade now entered its final and most important era. The earlier period was one in which the trade was confined chiefly to the Indians; the later phase was concerned with supplying the needs of the white man in his rapidly developing frontier settlements. Formerly the principal articles of merchandise for the western trade were guns, ammunition, knives, kettles, and tools for their repair, blankets, tobacco, hatchets, and liquor. In the new era every known product of the East found a market in the thriving communities of the upper Ohio. As time went on the West began to send to the East, in addition to skins and pelts, whiskey that brought a dollar a gallon. Each pony could carry sixteen gallons and every drop could be sold for real money. On the return trip the pack-horses carried back chiefly salt and iron.

Doddridge's "Notes", one of the chief sources of our information, gives this lively picture:

"In the fall of the year, after seeding time, every family formed an association with some of their neighbors, for starting the little caravan. A master driver was to be selected from among them, who was to be assisted by one or more young men and sometimes a boy or two. The horses were fitted out with packsaddles, to the latter part of which was fastened a pair of hobbles made of hickory withes,--a bell and collar ornamented their necks. The bags provided for the conveyance of the salt were filled with bread, jerk, boiled ham, and cheese furnished a provision for the drivers. At night, after feeding, the horses, whether put in pasture or turned out into the woods, were hobbled and the bells were opened. The barter for salt and iron was made first at Baltimore; Frederick, Hagerstown, Oldtown, and Fort Cumberland, in succession, became the places of exchange. Each horse carried two bushels of alum salt, weighing eighty-four pounds to the bushel. This, to be sure, was not a heavy load for the horses, but it was enough, considering the scanty subsistence allowed them on the journey. The common price of a bushel of alum salt, at an early period, was a good cow and a calf."

Thus, with the English flag afloat at Fort Pitt, as Duquesne was renamed after its capture, a new day dawned for the great region to the West. Beyond the Alleghanies and as far as the Rockies, a new science of transportation was now to be learned--the art of finding the dividing ridge. Here the first routes, like the "Great Trail" from Pittsburgh to Detroit, struck out with an assurance that is in marvelous agreement with the findings of the surveyors of a later day. The railways, when they came, found the valleys and penetrated with their tunnels the watersheds from the heads of the streams of one drainage area to the streams of another. Thus on the Pennsylvania, the Baltimore and Ohio, the Southern, the Chesapeake and Ohio, and other railroads, important tunnels are to be found lying immediately under the Red Man's trail which clung to the long ascending slope and held persistently to the dividing ridges.

Even this necessarily brief survey shows plainly how that preeminently American institution, the ridge road, came about. East and west, it was the legitimate and natural successor to the ancient trail. With the coming of the wagon, whose rattle was heard among the hills as early as Braddock's campaign, the process of lowering these paths from the heights was inevitably begun, and it was to the riverways that men first looked for a solution of the difficult problems of inland commerce. Eventually the paths of inland commerce constituted a vast network of canals, roads, and railway lines in those very valleys to which Washington had called the nation's attention in 1784.