Exploring the Great Wagon Road

Mar 10, 2012

A few Saturdays ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh. I had a general plan to see what types of records I might find for individuals who had migrated from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. I did some preliminary searching, (type “Pennsylvania” into the online catalog, and you’ll find BIble records, account books, military records, and some family papers of Pennsylvania native Daniel Boone, for starters) and had heard from other researchers that I would find very helpful staff and amazing sources when I got there. They were right.


You might be asking what the connection is between Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  Or maybe you already know, because you’re from one of those Scots-Irish or German families who made the trip down the Great Wagon Road, which stretched from Philadelphia, west to Gettysburg, south to Hagerstown Maryland, Virginia and the Piedmont area of North Carolina, then down to South Carolina and Georgia. Prior to my visit, I had heard and read a bit about the trek the pioneers made, (especially through browsing a PGM article which pulled lists of names from deeds books from Pennsylvania migrations to Rowan County, North Carolina, formed in 1753), but soon was going to learn more than I ever imagined about the migrations that happened in the mid-1700s.




Both the State Library and Archives are located in the same building—very convenient for research purposes. I started in the Genealogy Room of the Library, where I found a family file about one North Carolina friend’s family, the Kloningers, who came from Germany through Philadelphia, migrated to Adams County, and then down to North Carolina. I then decided to head upstairs to the Archives. There I met Debbi Blake, head of public services, who was working the reference desk and was extremely helpful. She quickly photocopied (free of charge!) several articles that gave history and background of the migration, and she and the rest of the staff pointed me towards several book titles as well, including The Great Wagon Road: From Philadelphia to the South by Parker Rouse, Rhinelanders on the Yadkin by Carl Hammer, and perhaps the most definitive source for information on those who migrated from Pennsylvania, Robert Ramsey’s Carolina Cradle: Settlement of the Northwest Carolina Frontier.



The helpful NC State Archives staff (from l-r): Vann Evans, Kim Anderson Cumber, Lisa Coombes, Debbi Blake, Rachel Trent


Back I went to the State Library to pull the books from the shelves, and began to browse, learning how after the Road was created in 1744, many Germans and Scots-Irish came through Philadelphia, immigrated west to Lancaster and the surrounding area, and then made their way down the Road to North Carolina, pulled by the cheap price of land.  In “Carolina Cradle,” I read page after page of names of individuals from Bucks, Berks, Lancaster, and Philadelphia counties who made the decision to trek southward and ultimately create settlements in North Carolina. I then pulled a few original wills from the Archives of some of those original settlers. There's nothing quite like holding an original will from the 17000s in your hand...


On this visit, I only scratched the tip of the iceberg, but I look forward to putting together a research plan and heading back down South to explore the path of some of these intrepid travelers.


The trip was also a first-hand reminder for me that you never know where you might find records of your ancestors. If you're working with an unusual surname and are taking a trip, it doesn't hurt to locate the historical or genealogical society where you're going and do a surname search of their online catalog or website before you travel. I've found documents for Yacynychs in Ohio, Iowa, and California--now it's up to me to connect the dots.



Want to learn more about the Wagon Road and migration routes in general?  Besides the books listed above, check out From Ulster to Carolina: The Migration of the Scotch-Irish to Southwestern North Carolina, and articles like "The Great Wagon Road" by Dorothy A. Boyd-Bragg (NGS Magazine, July-September 2008, Vol 34, No. 3), "Colonial Roads of Our Ancestors" by William Dollarhide (Genealogy Bulletin, April-May-June 1994)  and "Moving Targets" (Family Tree Magazine, March 2008.)  And if you have an ancestor that went south from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, post here in the comments about your story—we’d love to hear it.   ---JH


Map of some Eastern migration routes, published in Rouse's "The Great Wagon Road."