Routes to the West for American Settlers

Roads, Canals, and Trails Led the Way for Those Who Settled the American West

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 which had already been marked. And 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

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 Indian pathways and trails used for centuries by herds of buffalo. Over time it was improved and widened to accommodate the wagons of 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 Indians who were becoming increasingly suspicious of white encroachment on 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 which made westward expansion of the United States possible.

The National Road

photo of Casselman Bridge on the National Road
The Casselman Bridge on the National Road. Getty Images

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

Illustration of a boat traveling on the Erie Canal
A boat on the Erie Canal. Getty Images

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 which 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.

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

The Oregon Trail

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 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

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

The South Pass

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.