easiest path over the hill
December 5, 2008 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Deer trails to super highways... I read long ago that the major routes West were originally deer trails thru the passes and across the mountains. These became footpaths for humans and were later paved. I recall that the major pass thru the Smokies that Daniel Boone used is now a major freeway. Is there any technical or academic research that supports this-- with GIS or satellite images? Thanks
posted by ohshenandoah to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Daniel Boone's path is known as the Wilderness Road. While much of it has been paved (or a modern highway runs nearby), his pass through the Cumberland Gap is now US Highway 25, which is not one of the major interstates that runs thru Appalachia. Interstate 81 runs very close to the Wilderness Road for awhile, but rather than go "over the mountains" it turns south and follows the valleys out of southwest Virginia into eastern Tennessee, which would be a much less direct way of getting to Kentucky (Boone's goal). A little further north, Interstate 64 leaves central Virginia and cuts through West Virginia on a difficult track that early settlers could not have hoped to follow. So no, Daniel Boone's track through the Smokies (and technically, I do not think that Cumberland Gap is in the Smokies) is not a major freeway today, although it was an important road west at the time.

You might also be interested in Mary Draper Ingles, who found her own way across the mountains between Virginia and Kentucky 20 years before Daniel Boone even tried. But then, she was traveling west to east.
posted by junkbox at 3:14 PM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

So no, Daniel Boone's track through the Smokies (and technically, I do not think that Cumberland Gap is in the Smokies) is not a major freeway today, although it was an important road west at the time.

No, the Cumberland Gap is not technically in the Smokies. But while I wouldn't call 25E (it splits off from 25 somewhat north of the Gap) a freeway, it is a very important (good, not scary, and four lane) road through the region.

FWIW, they removed the paved part through the Gap itself, and tunneled through Cumberland Mountain. The goal is to try to restore the Gap to something like the pioneers would have seen.
posted by dilettante at 3:45 PM on December 5, 2008

On a very non-technical level, wouldn't it be safe to assume that animals initially found the easiest routes past large obstacles, and these paths were noted by people who have been using them ever since (in some form or another)? We're all looking to get from A to B, and animals were doing it before us.

The difference would be between new and old paths - the original routes lead from one settlement to another, and the settlers camped with plentiful resources at hand. Now we can truck whatever wherever, so you have more major roads criss-crossing the land where no animals cared (or needed) to go.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:55 PM on December 5, 2008

I vaguely recall that when I was working at the University of Nebraska Press a couple of years back, they had a manuscript out for peer review (or at any rate somewhere in the pre-publication process) concerned with the history of trails in early America, the interaction between natives and settlers on the trail, etc. I seem to remember the author taking a friend's question about the history of the Appalachian Trail as a point of departure in the introduction, saying that the modern Appalachian Trail hasn't got much to do with the paths people would've used several hundred years ago. That much is probably obvious, but I got the impression the book was pretty well written. I imagine it'd be all kinds of relevant to your question. Unfortunately, I can't remember the author's name, I don't know if it was ever published, and Google is not helping.
posted by brennen at 4:18 PM on December 5, 2008

I've read a couple of books that touched on this subject, though I'm blanking on titles and authors.

I do recall reading one excellent book on the Oregon Trail that compared period drawings from diaries and journals to modern day photographs of the same scenes, and noted where modern highways followed the old path and where they diverged from it. It might be this one, but I'm not sure. I have it at home and can post it's title when I get a chance.

It's also worth noting that in the West, a lot of the mountain passes were used by Native Americans for centuries as trade and hunting/migration routes before they were "discovered" by whites migrating west.
posted by mosk at 5:10 PM on December 5, 2008

arg..."its title"...
posted by mosk at 5:11 PM on December 5, 2008

Best answer: OK, I found the book I mentioned above: The California Trail Yesterday and Today, by William E. Hill. LOTS of side by side photos of original drawings by immigrants and modern photos of the same vistas, as well as explanatory text, journal and diary excerpts, etc. I would also highly recommend George R. Stewart's The California Trail, which is also finely detailed and chronicles the overland journey west from 1841(the first to "make" the trail) to 1859. This book has a lot of discussion about route choice and terrain difficulties, and is both scholarly and interesting, with many original sources cited.
posted by mosk at 8:19 PM on December 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I quickly found at least one documented example, Jarman Gap in the Shenandoahs, which was blazed for humans by Michael Woods, who followed a buffalo trail.

Personally, I don't find the thesis objectionable in any way. Why wouldn't humans follow the animal trails? Especially if the animals were game.
posted by dhartung at 12:09 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: I have followed deer and boar trails up and down steep slopes. Often there is just one good way from A to B, just as there is just one way for a stream to flow, and walking that route only makes it better and more obvious, so you will follow where animals have gone.

But such trails are short, they meander, and they form a network of trails created on the animal level by animals looking just ahead of themselves and walking from hillock to stream to copse. A man walking the woods might use such trails because he is also an animal walking for similar stretches of time with similar goals: to reach the next woods, the next stream, the next high ground.

A cart or car trail, however, is built for machines on longer journeys, machines carrying people going places they've seen only on maps. Such routes require engineering, excavation, and construction that will ignore the finer details of animal trails and instead follow the general lay of the land as seen by surveyors and engineering teams with maps and money and machinery to help them plot and create trails where none were possible.
posted by pracowity at 2:33 AM on December 6, 2008

Best answer: Trails evolve as transportation evolves. As pracowity points out, it's much easier to follow an animal trail than to blaze your own. Animal trials also don't stray very far from water, and it makes sense to follow trails along riverbanks, not only for the resource, but for the landmark the river provides. But changes have to be made when people begin driving oxen, or start laying track. I've followed animal trails myself, on foot and on horseback. Narrow little trails between boulders don't work for wagons, nor can wagons go down extremely steep grades. So you probably won't find many footpaths being paved over mountain passes, but wagon trails and/or railways.

The other thing is, fur trappers and mountain men would still maintain their own trails, away from popular overland routes where game was becoming scarce or shy.

Here's some info you might find useful about the development of western trails. (Pictures don't seem to work.)
posted by oneirodynia at 1:54 PM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: The American Roads web site features information and resources related to finding and traveling America's scenic and historic old highways. Travel down the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Road, or the Old Spanish Trail. Find old, forgotten alignments of US 60 or 80. Get off the freeways and see the real America!


The Cumberland Gap, which measures 1,304 feet in altitude, is Nature's passage through the Cumberland Mountains between Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. One of three natural breaks in the rugged Appalachian Mountain range, it served as a gateway in prehistoric times, when Native Americans used it as a footpath and buffalo used it to seek greener pastures.

posted by ohshenandoah at 9:16 AM on November 23, 2009

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