Cumberland Gap

  In colonial times, the Cumberland Gap was the pass through which the Ohio River Valley could be reached most directly from southern Virginia and the  Carolinas. It lies midway in the central range of the Appalachian Mountains, which separate the Atlantic seaboard from the Mississippi watershed by a  succession of steep ridges, extending 150 miles inland along a 600-mile corridor from Pennsylvania to Georgia.  For approximately 120 miles, straddling the present-day boundary between Virginia and Kentucky, and then into northeastern Tennessee, the chief barrier  to westward travel consists of two precipitous ridges Cumberland Mountain on the south and Pine Mountain on the north running parallel at intervals  varying from 9 to 15 miles. The elevation of these rugged mountains exceeds 3,500 feet above sea level near the gap. Where Virginia, Kentucky, and  Tennessee now intersect, a deep cleft penetrates Cumberland Mountain to about 1,600 feet above sea level. Another notch bisects Pine Mountain 10  miles to the north, beyond which several tributaries of the Kentucky River meander in a protracted descent toward the bluegrass plateau below.  During seasonal migrations to natural salt licks, herds of bison, deer, and other large animals gradually stamped out a well-worn trace (up to 5 feet wide)  between these mountain gaps and the rolling meadows of central Kentucky. In the course of stalking game, Native Americans also discovered this highly  useful route, marked it with directional symbols, and eventually lengthened its course northeastward to the Ohio River. The improved trail served as a  major artery for long-distance hunting, trade, and warfare by Cherokees from Tennessee and Shawnees from Ohio, who called it the Warriors’ Path.  Anglo-Americans remained unaware of the twin notches at Cumberland and Pine mountains, much less of their geographical significance, for most of the  colonial period. Gabriel Arthur, a Virginian, almost certainly traversed those passes in June 1674 with Shawnees, as probably did James Salling, another  Virginian, with Cherokees in 1730. But they left no maps or detailed accounts by which other white explorers might retrace their steps across the  Appalachians. As later colonists probed the forest primeval of southwest Virginia to barter furs with Native Americans or to seek sites for farmsteads, they  gradually became aware that tantalizingly close to the farthest frontier outposts lay a key gap through which a quick crossing might be made over the  mountains.  The Loyal Land Company sent Thomas Walker in 1750 to survey a tract of 800,000 acres in Virginia’s western territory for its investors to claim. Walker  reached Cumberland Mountain on April 13 and penned the first written description by any British subject of the gap’s precise location and surrounding  terrain. He referred to the defile as Cave Gap, a title he possibly learned from isolated pioneers on the Holston River, just over two weeks’ travel  eastward.  On April 17, Walker found the headwaters of a large river called the Shawnee by Native Americans flowing southwest from the Pine Mountain narrows,  and he named it for the duke of Cumberland, who had crushed Scotland’s Jacobites at Culloden in 1745. Over the next generation, the surrounding  highlands which Walker always designated by the Shawnee name Wasioto (or Ouasioto, meaning place of plentiful deer) also became known as the  Cumberlands, and Cave Gap was subsequently renamed Cumberland Gap.  Cumberland Gap first assumed a significant role in western expansion from 1761 to 1772, when Daniel Boone, Elisha Walden, Richard Skaggs, James  Knox, and other woodsmen led parties of long hunters (so called because they went off into the wilderness for long periods of time) through the  mountains over the old buffalo trace. They accomplished an extensive reconnaissance of central Kentucky’s geography while living off the land for periods  of up to eighteen months. In spring 1775, Boone and thirty axemen cleared and widened a 200-mile trail through the pass and along the Warriors’ Path  from modern Kingsport, Tennessee, to Boonesborough, Kentucky. The widened trail became known as the Wilderness Road.  The Cumberland Gap served as the sole Southern avenue by which Virginians and Carolinians could reach the bluegrass region. The Ohio River was a  superior route for moving west, however, since this waterway could be traveled not only in much less time but also with far more possessions than was  possible on the Wilderness Road. The latter overland route was not improved to accommodate wagon traffic until late 1796.  While the majority of the Ohio Valley’s settlers came by flatboat from Pittsburgh, an enormous overland migration still passed through the Cumberland  Gap. Perhaps 30,000 Easterners had trudged westward through the pass by 1789. Another 70,000 probably followed in their footsteps to the Ohio country  during the 1790s.  Thomas L. Purvis  See also: Appalachia; Boone, Daniel; Kentucky.  Bibliography  Burns, David M. Gateway: Dr. Thomas Walker and the Opening of Kentucky. Middlesboro, KY: Bell County Historical Society, 2000.  Chinn, George M. Kentucky: Settlement and Statehood, 1750 1800. Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 1975.  Kincaid, Robert L. The Wilderness Road. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947.   Cumberland Gap K-1 Marker History Cumberland Gap Slideshow TripAdvisor„

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