Brave Men Who Blazed the Trail in Kentucky; BILLY KENNEDY Has Been to Kentucky, Travelling along the Wilderness Road Via the Cumberland Gap - in Pursuit of 18th Century Ulster-Scots Who Pioneered This "Dark and Bloody Land"

By Kennedy, Billy | The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), December 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

Brave Men Who Blazed the Trail in Kentucky; BILLY KENNEDY Has Been to Kentucky, Travelling along the Wilderness Road Via the Cumberland Gap - in Pursuit of 18th Century Ulster-Scots Who Pioneered This "Dark and Bloody Land"


Kennedy, Billy, The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland)


ULSTER families were in the vanguard of the first flow of pioneer settlers who took the wagon road to Kentucky in the last three decades of the 18th century.

With English frontiersman Daniel Boone, these hardy folk moved along the Wilderness Road, via the Ohio River and over the Cumberland Gap to a region many considered too dangerous to encounter.

By the late 1780s, the population flow towards Kentucky moved at a rate of 10,000 a year - made up of English, Ulster-Scots, Scottish Highlanders, Welsh, German Lutherans and French Huguenots. The immigrant stream increased to a flood, with some arriving by boat down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. Most, however, took the safer overland route.

In 1763, a proclamation by King George III restricted white settlements to the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, but the settlers' determination to move westwards was overwhelming and, by 1768, land negotiations were started with Indian tribes.

Kentucky was a land of mystery to the mid-18th century settlers. For several centuries, it was a battleground for territorial conflict between the Cherokee, Iroquois and Shawnee Indians and, because of the stand-offs between the tribes, early white explorers experienced little resistance.

Long hunter Gabriel Arthur was the first white man to view the region, known to the Iroquois Indians as Ken-ta-ke, meaning "Prairie" or "Meadow Land". Arthur made the trip with a party of friendly Cherokees in 1674.

The early years of pioneering life in Kentucky were marred by bitter conflict between white settlers and native Indian tribes over land and territorial rights.

In 1768, Cherokee chief Dragging Canoe gave a grim warning to land speculators who came to buy his tribal acres. He said: "We have given you a fine land, brother, but you will find it under a cloud - a dark and bloody ground." Subsequent events confirmed the murderous intent of his words.

Daniel Boone first sighted the Cumberland Gap in 1769, after leaving his North Carolina farm with five hunting and scouting companions. They marvelled at "the eminence and beautiful level of Kentucke - a fertile land of cane and clover." It was a region with an abundance of game - "hundreds of acres principally covered by Buffelowes."

After several trips through the Gap, Boone and 30 long hunters returned in 1773 and with their axes they felled a road through the forest. Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio was opened up by virtue of Boone's "Wilderness Road" and, for this engineering feat, Boone was given 2,000 acres of land and each of his 30 workers received small tracts.

For centuries Indians used the Cumberland Gap as the "Warrior's Path" from the Potomac River down the south side of the Appalachians to the hunting grounds of Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

From the early 19th century the Gap was used for transportation and commerce from east to west and today it acts as a link between Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. During the American Civil War the Union Army used the 1675- feet high and half-a-mile wide Gap - known as "the keystone of the Confederacy" - as the route to Tennessee.

The Gap was a high-risk passage for the 18th century settlers, with danger of attacks from Cherokee and Shawnee Indian tribes and from white renegades and marauders. …

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