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The Kanawha Trace

By Neil Elvick

     Anyone today, traveling across West Virginia from the Blue Ridge area of southwestern Virginia, to Gallia County, must marvel at the spectacular mountain scenery, and the splendid isolation of the countryside. Looking down from an airplane one is struck even more forcefully with just how much out of the way this land is. But beautiful as this country is, it would have been very difficult to travel through in the early days when one would have gone through it with horse and wagon. Well known migration roads going north through the Shenandoah Valley and into Pennsylvania and then west to Ohio or west into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap and then north to Ohio were well known, but very much out of the way for the area of southwestern Virginia. Today this represents a leisurely afternoon’s drive, but how in the world did our ancestors do it?
     Many of our ancestors who came from Virginia to Gallia County, were already experienced in the art of migration. They had already made the trip across the ocean and settled in the new world. Those who had come in the early 18th century and settled in southeastern Pennsylvania often had made a second move into the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge areas of Virginia. The German settlers had invented the Conestoga wagon and this horse, oxen or mule drawn vehicle was used to move families and their worldly goods down through the Shenandoah Valley on the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. The general direction of settlement was to the southwest. Directly west, the Appalachian Mountains formed a barrier to easy travel, and Indian hostility prevented settlement in that direction.
     The Indians were certainly the first to use the route of the New and Kanawha Rivers to get to and from the Ohio and Shenandoah Valleys. It was called the Shawnee Indian War Path by the settlers around Roanoke, Virginia, who were victimized by Indian raids. It was this route that Col. Andrew Lewis later used to make two early military incursions. The first in 1757, during the French and Indian War was recalled before completing its mission, but in 1774 the Indians were again threatening settlers on the frontier, and the Virginia governor, Lord Dunmore, ordered Col. Lewis to raise an army and march it from the Greenbriar area of Virginia to Point Pleasant, opposite Gallipolis. Once underway with his army and supply train, it took him nineteen days to get there and he would describe it as a difficult nineteen days march. This tells us that the route was feasible, and that it could be traversed with horse drawn wagons, but that it was difficult.
     After the Indian threat was contained in the years after the Revolution, there were restless settlers in southwest Virginia, ready to move to Ohio and acquire cheap land. The route that Lewis' army took was the most direct way there. The New River (inappropriately named, since it is thought to be one of the oldest rivers in the world) arises in the mountains of western North Carolina, and travels northeast through southwestern Virginia, then turns northwest into what is now West Virginia. It cuts a deep gorge through the mountains before it is joined by the Gauley River, after which it becomes the Kanawha. From the point of this juncture, all the way to the its mouth opposite Gallipolis the Kanawha is a wide slow moving stream and is navigable throughout its entire course.
     There is proof that this was indeed the route our ancestors took. In an article submitted and posted on the web site, Pioneer Migration Routes through Ohio by Merle C. Rummel in 1998, there is a description of this route called The Kanawha Trace. Rummel has come into the possession of an actual waybill that described the route taken by Quaker migrants from around Greensboro, North Carolina, as they traveled to the important Quaker center of Richmond, Indiana. This route was being used by at least 1809 and it is a portion of this "Trace" that our ancestors coming to Gallia County used.
     The Kanawha Trace enters what is now West Virginia near the town of Peterstown, about twenty-five miles west of Blacksburg, Virginia. It largely follows alongside the course of the New River, but at times it will go overland in places where the river makes a wide loop. From Peterstown to where the trail comes to the Falls of New River (where the Kanawha River Dam is now located) was eighty-one miles of rugged trail. At this point the river becomes navigable and some settlers would build flatboats to float down to Gallipolis. Others would continue on the trail alongside the river for the remaining eighty-two miles to the Ohio River. After crossing the Ohio, the overland trail continued to Rio Grande, Jackson, Chillicothe and on to Indiana.
     Rummel's article shows how the journey was divided into segments approximately equal to what could be traveled in a single day. The segments varied in length from three up to eighteen miles. The three-mile segment represents the Trace, just after it enters West Virginia at Peterstown. The last fifty-five miles before getting to the Ohio River opposite Gallipolis could be traversed in four days. The daily segments across what is now West Virginia add up to a total of 163 miles and would take nineteen days, the same as what was described by Col. Lewis.
     There was, of course, the option of building a flatboat where the river widens out and then floating down the rest of the way. This was probably an option used mostly by those who were continuing downstream on the Ohio to Cincinnati or Indiana. The extra effort and time required to build a flatboat would probably not be worth it for the eighty or so miles it could be used on the Kanawha. The trail follows along the south bank of the Kanawha, sometimes on a ledge barely wide enough for the wagons. When it reaches the Ohio, it turns south along the east bank of the Ohio. Rafts carried the settlers across the Ohio to the old town dock area, now the City Park.