4 Routes to the West Used by American Settlers

Roads, Canals, and Trails Led the Way for Western Settlers

Covered wagons in a circle on the prairie under a blue sky.

Artodidact / Pixabay

Americans who heeded the call to "go west, young man" may have been proceeding with a great sense of adventure. But in most cases, those trekking to the wide-open spaces were following paths that had already been marked. In some notable cases, the way westward was a road or canal which had been constructed specifically to accommodate settlers.

Before 1800, the mountains to the west of the Atlantic seaboard created a natural obstacle to the interior of the North American continent. And, of course, few people even knew what lands existed beyond those mountains. The Lewis and Clark Expedition in the first decade of the 19th century cleared up some of that confusion. But the enormity of the west was still largely a mystery.

In the early decades of the 1800s, that all began to change as very well-traveled routes were followed by many thousands of settlers.

The Wilderness Road

Full color painting of Daniel Boone leading settlers on the Wilderness Road.

George Caleb Bingham / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Wilderness Road was a path westward to Kentucky established by Daniel Boone and followed by thousands of settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s. At its beginning, in the early 1770s, it was a road in name only.

Boone and the frontiersmen he supervised managed to link together a route comprising old Indigenous peoples' pathways and trails used for centuries by herds of buffalo. Over time, it was improved and widened to accommodate the wagons and travelers.

The Wilderness Road passed through the Cumberland Gap, a natural opening in the Appalachian mountain range, and became one of the main routes westward. It was in operation decades before other routes to the frontier, such as the National Road and the Erie Canal.

Though Daniel Boone's name has always been associated with the Wilderness Road, he was actually acting in the employ of a land speculator, Judge Richard Henderson. Recognizing the value of vast tracts of land in Kentucky, Henderson had formed the Transylvania Company. The purpose of the business enterprise was to settle thousands of emigrants from the East Coast to the fertile farmlands of Kentucky.

Henderson faced several obstacles, including the aggressive hostility of the Indigenous tribes who were becoming increasingly suspicious of white encroachment on their traditional hunting lands.

And a nagging problem was the shaky legal foundation of the entire endeavor. Legal problems with land ownership thwarted even Daniel Boone, who became embittered and left Kentucky by the end of the 1700s. But his work on the Wilderness Road in the 1770s stands as a remarkable achievement that made westward expansion of the United States possible.

The National Road

Toll house and historic marker on the National Road on a sunny day.

Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

A land route westward was needed in the early 1800s, a fact made evident when Ohio became a state and there was no road that went there. And so the National Road was proposed as the first federal highway.

Construction began in western Maryland in 1811. Workers started building the road going westward, and other work crews began heading east, toward Washington, D.C.

It was eventually possible to take the road from Washington all the way to Indiana. And the road was made to last. Constructed with a new system called "macadam," the road was amazingly durable. Parts of it actually became an early interstate highway.

The Erie Canal

Color painting of the Eerie Canal in 1825 with travelers on boats and covered wagons in the distance.

Federal Highway Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Canals had proven their worth in Europe, where cargo and people traveled on them, and some Americans realized that canals could bring great improvement to the United States.

Citizens of New York state invested in a project that was often mocked as folly. But when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it was considered a marvel.

The canal connected the Hudson River, and New York City, with the Great Lakes. As a simple route into the interior of North America, it carried thousands of settlers westward in the first half of the 19th century.

The canal was such a commercial success that soon, New York was being called "The Empire State."

The Oregon Trail

Painting of settlers on the Oregon Trail walking toward a beautiful sunset.

Albert Bierstadt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In the 1840s, the way westward for thousands of settlers was the Oregon Trail, which began in Independence, Missouri.

The Oregon Trail stretched for 2,000 miles. After traversing prairies and the Rocky Mountains, the end of the trail was in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

While the Oregon Trail became known for westward travel in the mid-1800s, it was actually discovered decades earlier by men traveling eastward. Employees of John Jacob Astor, who had established his fur trading outpost in Oregon, blazed what became known as the Oregon Trail while carrying dispatches back east to Astor's headquarters.

Fort Laramie

Settlers arriving at Fort Laramie, full color painting.

MPI/Stringer / Getty Images

Fort Laramie was an important western outpost along the Oregon Trail. For decades, it was an important landmark along the trail. Many thousands of emigrants heading to the west passed by it. Following the years of it being an important landmark for westward travel, it became a valuable military outpost.

The South Pass

Marker near South Pass on the Oregon Trail under a blue sky.

BLM Wyoming / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The South Pass was another very important landmark along the Oregon Trail. It marked the spot where travelers would stop climbing in the high mountains and would begin a long descent to the regions of the Pacific Coast.

The South Pass was assumed to be the eventual route for a transcontinental railroad, but that never happened. The railroad was built farther to the south, and the importance of the South Pass faded.

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McNamara, Robert. "4 Routes to the West Used by American Settlers." ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2020, thoughtco.com/routes-west-for-american-settlers-1773612. McNamara, Robert. (2020, December 5). 4 Routes to the West Used by American Settlers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/routes-west-for-american-settlers-1773612 McNamara, Robert. "4 Routes to the West Used by American Settlers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/routes-west-for-american-settlers-1773612 (accessed March 27, 2023).