Roanoke Valley

Crossroads to Settlement
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History Museum of Western Virginia
"Crossroads ofHistory" spans 25,000 years from Paleo-Native American ... read more

Virginia Museum of Transportation
From the early days of carriages to the birth of a railroad town in ... read more

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Roanoke Valley

When the first Scots-Irish and German settlers traveled through the Shenandoah Valley and westward into Kentucky or southward into North Carolina in the 1700s, they followed muddy, dusty trails established by Indians. Tensions between the native peoples and these early settlers led to incidents, such as the one at Balcony Falls on the James River. The 1744 Treaty of Lancaster, between the Iroquois and officials from three colonies, gave settlers greater access to the so-called Indian Road, but tension continued, culminating in the Seven Years War in 1754.

With the British defeat of the French in 1763, and the increased security of the frontier, the flood of migration seemed unstoppable. The growth of this humble footpath into a major human highway which came to be known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road into the colonial backcountry contributed an important chapter to American history.

Converting a path to a wagon road was difficult. These narrow native trails were fine for travel by foot or packhorse, but as settlement increased throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, the need for road improvements became apparent. The residents living along these roads were expected to keep their section of the road in good repair. Once cleared of timber and brush, the primitive route still required travelers to contend with poor traveling conditions. Travel was grueling and few taverns or houses offered lodging facilities. Ferries provided the important service of carrying the travelers across the James and New rivers. Tolls were charged at toll houses in some places.

By 1775, the road stretched 700 miles. Historian Carl Bridenbaugh wrote, In the last sixteen years of the colonial era, southbound traffic along the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road was numbered in tens of thousands; it was the most heavily traveled road in all America and must have had more vehicles jolting along its rough and tortuous way than all other main roads put together. Like the interstate system of today, all types of goods and services could be found en route to important destinations.

Located in what is now called the Ridge and Valley Region of Virginia, Big Lick, which became Roanoke in 1882, was an important crossroads along the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. Here the road split. By taking a southern direction into Carolina and Georgia, the road became known as the Carolina Road. To the west into Kentucky, it became known as the Wilderness Road. Daniel Boone is credited with leading a crew of men with axes who chopped their way through the wilderness from Virginia into Kentucky creating this road.

Because of its prominence, Roanoke attracted its share of settlers. By the 1800s, transportation had improved and work began on the Southwest Virginia Turnpike, partly paved, from the James River at Buchanan westward to the Tennessee line. Batteaux hauled passengers and freight on the James River & Kanawha Canal from Richmond to Buchanan.


Additional Sites

Historic Roanoke City Market

Blue Ridge Parkway: Roanoke