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Boone Trace

A Historical Perspective of Boone Trace in
Kentucky, 1775 - 1795

Boone Signature

Boone Trace


The Boone Trace from Cumberland Gap to the mouth of Otter Creek on the Kentucky River, just 1 mile upstream of the site of Fort Boonesborough, has been said to be one of the most widely known and used trails in American History. Many consider this trail to be of the greatest historical significance to the founding of Kentucky and opening of the West. On the Western Frontier in the late eighteenth century, “Traces” were for the most part little more than beatenpaths or trails formed by wild game (e.g. bison, elk and deer), explorers, long hunters, and thenimmigrants looking to settle this new land: these were often referred to as roads, although theywouldn’t accommodate wagon use.

Boone Trace is not to be confused with the Wilderness Road. Daniel Boone marked the trail to Boonesborough in March, 1775, while construction of the Wilderness Road didn’t begin until around 1796, from Cumberland Gap to Crab Orchard, on a much different route than Boone Trace so wagons could be used by immigrants. However, because much work was needed to construct and continually improve the road and maintenance was poor, it was hardly more than a pack road until the 1800s. In the early years of the road many referred to it as ‘the mud road’. A particular challenge was the improvement of the many fords crossing the Cumberland River, Laurel and Little Laurel Rivers, the Rockcastle River, and many other streams.

Before describing Boone Trace in some detail below, one should have an understanding as to the driving force behind Boone’s work in opening up the Western Frontier. This effort waspushed by Judge Richard Henderson of North Carolina, a respected jurist (appointed associate justice of the Superior Court of North Carolina in 1768), land speculator, militia colonel in the Revolutionary War, and influential politician elected to the state Legislature in 1781. He, along with a number of prominent investors, collectively envisioned a new Transylvania colony that would later become the State of Kentucky in 1792. The Transylvania Company was first organized as the Louisa Company by Richard Henderson in August 1774; it was reorganized as the Transylvania Company in January 1775. Henderson organized the company in hopes of acquiring wealth, power and prestige by exploiting and colonizing the area that now comprises most of Kentucky and Tennessee.

On March 17, 1775, Henderson met with a large contingent of Cherokee Indians, led by Chief Oconostota at Sycamore Shoals, on the Watauga River near present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee. He was able to purchase a vast amount of land from the Cherokees,shown on the map below: over 31,000 thousand square miles (over 20 million acres) ofterritory bordered by the Ohio, Kentucky, and Cumberland rivers, as well as a tract through Cumberland Gap. In Kentucky the purchase covered over 9,436,160 acres or 14,744 square miles. Judge Henderson and his partners invested about 10,000 British Pounds in Sterling and trade goods, equivalent to about $50,000 dollars, for their purchase from the Cherokee. In today’s dollars (2017) accounting for inflation, this would be equivalent to about $1.5 million dollars. The U.S. Congress (March 4, 1789, the first session of the United States Congress was held at Federal Hall in New York) didn’t establish the U.S. dollar as currency until 1792 therefore, the $50,000 value of Judge Henderson’s purchase in 1775 was derived as an equivalent to what the dollar would’ve been worth at that time; by converting the English system used in Colonial Virginia of pounds to dollars.

Transylvania Purchase

Roadside historic marker erected near Sycamore Shoals, West of Elizbethton, Tennessee, nearthe Watauga River (N 36 20.619 W 082 15.023)

Richard Henderson

Roadside Historical Marker located along side SR 1319, Satterwhite Point Road, in Vance County N.C.

Cherokees in Kentucky

Historical Marker #2410 is in Stanford, Kentucky, Lincoln County. Marker is on East Main Street, on the left when traveling east. (37 31.765′￿N, 84 39.693′￿W)

Transylvania Map 1

Map showing the full extent of Judge Henderson’s purchase.

Transylvania Map

Map showing coverage of Judge Henderson’s purchase of lands in Kentucky

In May 1775, Henderson organized a provisional democratic government for his planned colony, which he called Transylvania, and began seeking approval of his scheme by King George,and appointment as royal governor of Transylvania as the 14th colony. The treaty with the Cherokee’s though was technically illegal since the purchase of land from Native Americans was reserved by the government in the Proclamation of 1763 (the British, the governments of Virginia and North Carolina, and later the United States, all forbade private purchase of landfrom Indians). Therefore, both Virginia and North Carolina, the two "real colonies" within which his claim lay, refused to recognize his claim to the land, saying that the Cherokee never owned the land and could not, therefore, sell it to anyone. As a result, the Continental Congress never gave Henderson's petition serious consideration.

Furthermore, all didn’t go well among many of the Cherokees regarding the sale of lands they claimed. During the treaty negotiations, Dragging Canoe, son of the Cherokee Chief Attacullaculla, condemned the sale and broke from the Cherokee tribal government to form a sub-tribe known as the Chickamauga.

In December 1776, Virginia assumed formal control over that portion of Henderson's claim within its jurisdiction, and created Kentucky County. In November 1778, Virginia voided all Transylvania Company-issued titles within Kentucky County. North Carolina voided Henderson's claims in 1783.

Although Henderson's scheme of establishing a 14th state had been rejected, his efforts did not go unrewarded.  Virginia and North Carolina each awarded Henderson and his associates 200,000 acres for their time and expenses in having played a major part in the settlement of Kentucky and Tennessee. This raises the question, “without the involvement of Judge Henderson, and his work in attempting to establish a new colony he called Transylvania, would there have been a Boone Trace or Boonesborough?”

Fort Boonesborough

Historical Marker #1520, located at the replica of Fort Boonesborough, Boonesborough State Park, off highway 627 in Madison County Kentucky (37.893582, - 84.270262)

Boone Trace

It’s been said that possibly as much as a week before the treaty was signed by Judge Richard Henderson at Sycamore Shoals, Boone was off to the Holston settlements to recruit a group of men that were seasoned woodsmen, well mounted and well-armed to mark and develop a trail to what would be later called “Boonesborough”. The Transylvania Company promised them land for their services; a promise not kept.

The Appalachian’s were a huge barrier to immigrants coming to the frontier. However, evenwith the various hazards and barriers such as steep slopes, numerous stream and river crossings, moist/wet bottoms with extensive areas of river cane, and forests along and beyond the route north, the existing trail through Cumberland Gap was well known by long huntersand explorers.

Boone Trace through Cumberland Gap (photo below) followed the ancient Warrior's Path northward, crossing the Cumberland River at Cumberland Ford (a buffalo trail crossing) at the present location of the city of Pineville, and continuing eight miles in a northerly direction to Flat Lick, a relatively level area with several salt springs that was the junction of several major trails (photo below). Here Boone Trace left the Warrior's Path, used for centuries by Indians in their travels across that land now known as Kentucky; they gave it the name which reflects the purpose for which it was most used — the trail followed by their war parties. The name they gave it "Athawominee," when translated literally means, Path of the Armed Ones, or in the language of the pioneers, The Warrior's Path. Most of the early hunters entering Kentucky by way of Cumberland Gap followed portions of it. In most cases, however, their destinations lay to the west of the country traversed by this famous trail and so they left it at some point, most commonly at Flat Lick (Historical Marker shown on page 8). There buffalo trails and hunters' traces led to the west and the northwest previously marked and used by long hunters, through the old established hunting ground along “Stinking Creek”. Stinking Creekwas named for the stench from rotting buffalo, deer and elk carcasses left by Long Hunters near the numerous station or base camps they had set up in the watershed; from which to stage their hunts. They skinned, processed and bundled the hides in bales for shipment by pack train back to the eastern colonies.

Native Americans had been using the gap for centuries before Europeans settled North America, sometimes as a trade route and sometimes as a "warpath" or war route linking the tribes of eastern Tennessee with those of the mid-Ohio Valley. The ‘Warriors Path’ wen tnorthward to a large Shawnee town called Eskippakithiki, now known as Indian Old Fields. It’s located in eastern Clark County just north of Boonesborough. The ‘Warriors Path’ then went on north to the Upper Blue Licks and on to the Ohio River.

Indian Old Fields

Historical marker # 1274, 11 miles SE of Winchester, KY, along highway KY 15 (37.945833, - 84)

Flat Lick

Historical Marker #1,600: Located 8 miles south of Barbourville, KY at Flat Lick, in Knox County, U.S. 25-E (36.838500, - 83.771164).

Boone Trace continued in a northerly direction, crossing the Laurel and Little Laurel rivers through the site of the present city of London. North of London Boone Trace came to a large area covered with a dense growth of hazel which soon became a landmark for the many thousands of people who traveled the Trace. This area, called the Hazel Patch (Roadside marker shown below), is still known by that name to this day. Here Boone Trace went north toBoonesborough, while Skaggs Trace continued on west to Crab Orchard.

Hazel Patch

Historical marker #53 located along Kentucky 490, near Patton Road, 4 miles from U.S. 25, East of Bernstadt, KY and just north of Hazel Patch Creek (37.229904, - 84.102197).

Daniel Boone's Trace

Historical marker #1443: It’s located about 100 feet north of Duncannon Lane, alongside and east of Golden Leaf Blvd.; just South of Richmond, Kentucky, in Madison County (37.7010039, –84.277877).

Cumberland Gap

Cumberland Gap as viewed from the South near the Tennessee-Virginia State line off Highway58. From the Gap it was 120 miles to Boonesborough traveling the Boone Trace.

Once Boone and his trail crew crossed the Rockcastle River near the mouth of Parkers creek, they went down the north bank of the river to a tributary steam (later called Trace branch), then up this stream, which it crossed about 50 times (William Calk’s Journal, 1775) to the disgust of many travelers during the next 20 years. Then Boone Trace went over Gauley Mountain to Crooked Creek, on to Brush Creek, up Roundstone Creek to cross through a low gap dividing the watersheds of the Cumberland River and the Kentucky River. This gap, known to this day as Boone’s Gap, is located about two miles south of the present city of Berea just off Highway 25.

Boone Trace

Historical Marker #2473, along State Road 490 and Boone Trace Branch Road, east of Livingston, KY (37.310450, - 84.173995).

Trace today

Boone Trace in Rockcastle County (compliments of Dr. John Fox, Friends of Boone Trace)

Breaking out into the Bluegrass Physiographic Region the terrain became less difficult. Boone Trace then continued in a northerly direction, passing through the present cities of Berea and Richmond and north to the headwaters of Otter Creek, which it followed to its junction with the Kentucky River; the northern terminus of Boone Trace and the future site of Fort Boonesborough.

It was here on the northern boundary of Judge Henderson’s purchase from the Indians that Boone had previously selected a site to build a Fort, and a community of new settlers; based on his reconnaissance of the area six years earlier in 1769 for Judge Henderson when hunting with his brother Squire, brother-in-law John Stewart, and others. There were men along in the party though that knew the way as well as Boone; including Squire, and an old hunting companion named Benjamin Cutbirth, the veteran long hunter Michael Stoner, and a number of others.

Boone Trace was marked and improved by Daniel and his party of axe-men, accompanied by and enslaved black man and woman, and Boone and Rebecca’s daughter, Susannah, wife of Captain William Hays, a crew member. The party left Long Island of the Holston River, present day Kingsport, TN, on March 10, 1775, then set up camp about two miles south of the present city of Richmond, KY on the 24th of March. Unfortunately

they were ambushed early the next morning by Indians, killing the slave of Captain William Twitty and severely wounding him and Felix Walker. Captain Twitty (his name was spelled‘Twetty’ on the 1937 DAR Marker on site) died soon afterwards. So Boone and his trail crew spent the next several days burying the dead, caring for Felix Walker, and constructing two or three cabins for protection; later to be called Fort Twitty (Historical Marker below). While there Boone found a young Samuel Tate, a survivor of another ambush that occurred a fewmiles away where two were killed. Then on April 1st Boone and his men took Felix Walker withthem, suspended between two horses, the final 15 miles down Otter Creek to the Kentucky River, arriving at the site Boone had previously selected for Judge Henderson as the location of the Capitol of the Transylvania Colony and Fort, on the South side of the River. It took them 21 days to travel about 200 miles, averaging almost 10 miles each day. Because of the delay at Fort Twitty they actually spent a few days less than the full 21 days traveling, marking and working on the trail from Long Island on the Holston River to Boonesborough. This was an arduous task achieved under the effective leadership and skill of Daniel Boone in selecting the location of this trail, improving upon existing game trails, the Warrior Path and trails createdand used by multiple long hunters (i.e. Henry Skaggs). Boone and his party marked and improved these existing trails, and creating a new trail that was suitable for travel by saddle horses, packhorses, and on foot for the thousands of immigrants to follow.

Long Island Holston

Roadside historic marker for the sacred Cherokee Indian Island, and starting point for Boone Trace into Kentucky (N 36 33.073 W 082 35.040)

Twitty Fort

Historical marker #77: It’fs located about 100 feet north of Duncannon Lane, alongside and east of Golden Leaf Blvd.; just South of Richmond, Kentucky, in Madison County (37.701039, -84.277877)

Boone and his axe men (see list below) made good time while felling trees where necessary, and clearing fallen limbs and trees, thick underbrush, and cutting through dense canebrakes where necessary. Immigrants that followed had to pack their belongings on horses in order to cross the mountains as Boone Trace wasn’t generally located or constructed to accommodate wagons. They had to lash baskets and bundles of clothing, bed furnishings and household articles upon packhorses. In addition to carrying tools (e.g. axe, adze, hoe, etc.), farm implements, flour, salt, seed, powder and lead, and other miscellaneous supplies for cooking, etc., children were perched on top, or rode in front and behind their mothers and relatives. The older boys and men who did not have mounts had to trudge along on foot. Some who didn’t own horses contracted with others to move their supplies into Kentucky. Others of more limited means basically had to carry what few supplies they owned. Many were very poor, truly destitute, often owning little more than the clothing on their backs. They were gambling that a move west would improve their personal fortunes, literally risking their very lives. Many did lose their lives in the turbulent years of early settlement.

A line of pack horses and people on foot sometimes stretched out as far as three miles along the trail. Even for the strong, the trip was exhausting as well as hazardous. An interesting story of a pioneer family was told about a wife insisting they bring their feather bed to Kentucky; definitely a luxury item at the time on the frontier. But once in Kentucky Indians stole their only horse, leaving them with no way to transport their mattress. However, being of tough pioneer stock, she persuaded her husband to strap it to the back of the family cow. This demonstrates how resilient immigrants were at a personal level; meeting various challenges that invariably would come up when coming into Kentucky.

Pioneer accounts of coming to Kentucky tell of some of the hardships encountered by these first settlers. Swollen streams and rivers, canebrakes so tall and thick that a man on horseback could get lost in them, and mud deep enough to reach a man’s waist; all of these hazards awaited those who wanted a chance at getting a piece of Kentucky land.

It has been estimated that in the year following the conclusion of the Revolutionary war at least 20,000 prospective settlers traveled Boone Trace. The rush was on for the western frontierthrough Cumberland Gap, it was remarkable.

At first Boone Trace was little more than a marked route through the wilderness. Its tread was often steep, rough and narrow, entrenched and muddy at times, requiring numerous stream crossings. Judge Henderson, on his first trip to Boonesborough over Boone Trace recorded inhis journal, “No part of the road tolerable, most of if it either hilly, stony, slippery, miry or bushy”. Furthermore, after hundreds and eventually thousands of horses and many cattle and hogs passed over the Trace it became wider, due to trail erosion, rutting, etc. it became tougher to travel; in places one would see diverging and coalescing trails. It was suitable for travel only by saddle horses, packhorses and on foot. In the years to follow it was to be marked by many graves of its travelers as thousands lost their lives to sickness, accidents, drownings, murder, exposure to severe weather (i.e. freezing to death during the severe winter of 1778) and Indian attack. It has been projected that about 100 people were killed annually, with probably 3,600 immigrants killed in the first two decades of Kentucky settlement (Eslinger, 2004).

Furthermore, there were reportedly thousands of dead horses and cattle seen along Boone Trace, which occasioned a continual stench (Eslinger, 2004). The frontier at that time was considered as one of the bloodiest in American history.

From the beginning the danger of Indian attack was always present for travelers of the BooneTrace. One of the worst, if not the worst, of many Indian attacks in Kentucky history involved the massacre of the prominent McNitt, Ford and Barnes families, their servants, and others. Reportedly, 21 men, women and children were killed in a surprise attack while the party was camped along Boone Trace during the night of October 3rd, 1786, in what is now Levi-Jackson State Park in Laurel County, KY; five women were taken prisoner, and only three people escaped. Furthermore, on March 26, 1793, another notable massacre occurred on the Boone Trace five miles south of the Hazel Patch, where a party of nine men, two women and eightchildren, led by James McFarland, were ambushed as they were riding along Boone Trace. The Indians killed or made prisoners of all of the party, but four. One little girl was later rescued.

Even though traveling Boone Trace was difficult and hazardous, it was the best available route for immigrants to use between 1775 and 1795 coming up from the Powell Valley in S.W. Virginia. After Kentucky achieved Statehood in 1792, funding was provided for construction of Wilderness Road in 1795 through Cumberland Gap to Crab Orchard and beyond; after which travel was greatly improved. At that time, some sections of Boone Trace were utilized, but basically the Wilderness Road beyond Flat Lick was located off Boone Trace, and grades kept to less than 13 percent, supporting passage of wagons hauling one-ton loads pulled by four horses. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 men, women and children passed through the gap on their way into Kentucky between 1775 and 1795.

Wilderness Road 1

Historical marker is located at 37 17.892′￿N, 84 12.905′￿W. Marker is in Livingston, Kentucky.

Wilderness Road 2

Historical Marker “The Wilderness Roadh, London, KY - N 37 07.934 W 084 05.264

The Wilderness Road, Warriors Path and Boone’s Trace are shown on the maps shown below:

Map 1
Skaggs Boone trace
Map Early Traces


10 March - 1 April 1775

Taken from the Transylvania Monument at Fort Boonesborough, 1935

Daniel Boone 1/

Squire Boone 1/

Edward Bradley

James Bridge

William Bush

Richard Calloway 1/

Samuel Coburn

Jacob Crabtree

Benjamin Cutbirth

David Gass

John Hart

William Hays

Rebecca (Correctly Susannah) Boone Hays

William Hicks

Edmund Jennings

Thomas Johnson 1/

John Kennedy 1/

John King

Thomas McDowell 2/

Jeremiah McPheeters 2/

William Miller

William Moore

James Nall

James Peeke 1/

Bartlett Searcy

Michael Stoner 1/

Samuel Tate 1/

Samuel Tate Jr.

William Twitty 3/

John Vardeman

Felix Walker

A Negro man 3/

A Negro woman


1/ Present for fort construction as per H. Thomas Tudor, “Early Settlers of Fort Boonesborough”. 1975.

23 pages. (Revised 1995)

2/ Killed when scouting with Samuel Tate Sr. & Samuel Tate Jr. on March 27, 1775, along an area knownnow as Tate’s Creek, west of Richmond, KY in Madison County.

3/ Killed at Ft. Twitty in Madison County, KY by Indian attack on March 25, 1775.

Suggested Reading:

By George Ranck
A History of Laurel County
Boone by JohnMack Faragher
My Father Daniel Boone
Running Mad From Kentucky
Randell Jones
Boone by Robert Morgan
Boones Trace

Boonesborough: Its Founding, Pioneer Struggles, Indian Experiences, Transylvania Days and Revolutionary Annals. George Washington Ranck

J.P. Morton, Printers to the Filson Club, 1901 - Boonesboro (Ky.) - 286 pages

A History of Laurel County, Thomas D. Clark, 1989. 478 pages.

Faragher, John Mack. 1992. Daniel Boone, The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. 429 pages

Hammon, Neal O., editor. 1999. My Father Daniel Boone. The Draper Interview with Nathan Boone. 176 pages.

Ellen Eslinger, Running Mad for Kentucky
University Press of Kentucky, 2004. 288 pages

Randell Jones - In the Footsteps of Daniel Boone 2005 - Biography & Autobiography - 244 pages

Morgan, Robert. 2007. Boone - A Biography. 538 pp.

Brown, Meredith Mason. 2008. FRONTIERSMAN, Daniel Boone and the Making of America.

375 pp.

Enoch, Harry G. 2009. Colonel John Holder, Boonesborough Defender & Kentucky Entrepreneur. 288 pp.

Enoch, Harry G., A. Crabb. 2014. Women at Fort Boonesborough, 1775-1784. 174 pp.

Harry Enoch, editor, 2011. “William Calk’s Journal of a Trip to Boonesborough in 1775”. 18 pages.

Neal O. Hammon, “Following Boone's Trace, 2016. 126 pages

Published Paper:

EARLY ROADS INTO KENTUCKY By NEAL OWEN HAMMON Kentucky Historical Society (KHS)  April 1970. Paper Published in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol 68, No.2, April 1970. 35 pages



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