The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road should be as famous as the Oregon Trail. For a century, it was the primary immigration artery to the American interior, and shaped the culture that still defines the “frontier.” Adapting to American ways, most immigrants’ first home was a log house. Much like toy Lincoln Logs, these structures were relatively quick to build, durable, and even transportable. An amazing number of very old log structures remain, but many are unrecognized.
Philadelphia and the nearby towns of Lewes and New Castle, Delaware were collectively the “Ellis Island” of the 18th century. Shiploads of German and Scotch-Irish immigrants docked at these towns. Under the care of Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches the immigrants headed west toward the Pennsylvania frontier, passing through Downingtown, Lancaster and York on the road that is now U.S. Route 30 in most places. It was typically in Lancaster, along the Conestoga Creek, that they were outfitted for the long trip. Lancaster’s German craftsmen provided “Conestoga” wagons and “Pennsylvania” rifles along with other supplies. (Wagon drivers frequently smoked cigars, hence the slang "stogie" from "Conestoga.")
After Carlisle, the road turned south into the Cumberland Valley, through Western Maryland and into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. From there it continued south all the way through Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina before terminating at Augusta, Georgia. Other important thoroughfares connected with it along the way. The Great Wagon Road connected at Carlisle with the Forbes Road, a French and Indian War military road that led to Pittsburgh. Above Winchester, the Wagon Road intersected with Braddock’s Road, another vestige of the French and Indian War that connected Alexandria, Virginia with Pittsburgh. Near where Virginia met North Carolina (later Tennessee), the Wilderness Road turned west through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky (originally party of Virginia).
The settlers brought more than Conestoga wagons and Pennsylvania rifles with them. Perhaps the most enduring symbol of frontier life is the log cabin. This architectural marvel was first brought to America by the settlers of New Sweden—the short-lived colony of the Swedish Empire that preceded William Penn’s Quakers along the lower Delaware River. Many of the colonists were Finns (Finland was part of Sweden for centuries) who had grown up in log houses in the forests of Scandinavia. They were more comfortable in the forest than other early New World colonists and were among the first to venture inland. The log house is their contribution to American culture.
Surprisingly, a large number of 17th- and 18th-century log houses remain standing along the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road corridor and the various connecting western immigration routes. Many are hidden under ancient clapboard or modern vinyl or aluminum siding. Others have been magnificently restored. The document embedded below is an effort to start compiling a list of these important but often ignored historic structures. Please contribute to it by emailing gabeneville@8thVirginia.com.
Read more: "A Frontier Cabin Restored" (8/15/17)
is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
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