Skip Navigation


header dropnav

The Gateway to the West

Through the Gap
  Historian Martha Wiley discusses the importance of Cumberland Gap to the settlement of the American West and mentions a few of the famous Americans who traveled through the gap.  

Background Essay: Doorway to the West

Stretching like a giant wall from Canada to Alabama, the Appalachian Mountains were a barrier to the westward movement of the early American pioneers. But there was interest in what awaited on the other side: Some traders reached what is today the Bluegrass region of Kentucky by traveling down the Ohio River in canoes and returned home with tales of the rich lands to be found beyond the mountains. But the overland route was a mystery known only to Native Americans.

Native people followed a trail through Cumberland Gap, a deep notch in Cumberland Mountain near the present day borders of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. The gap was formed by erosion millions of years ago. It is not the only gap in Cumberland Mountain, but it is unique in an important way. The Appalachian Mountains in this region are made of three distinct mountains—Cumberland, Little Black, and Pine. Most passes in Cumberland Mountain lead into the steep sides of Little Black Mountain or Pine Mountain, but Cumberland Gap opens into a low valley formed over 300 millions years by a meteor. On the far side of the meteor crater is another gap in Pine Mountain. It was the combination of all these features that created a “doorway” in the mountains.

Warriors, Walker, and the way of war

Bison, deer, and elk were the first to use this natural highway. Native Americans followed the trails made by game and developed a network of footpaths. The most famous of these trails was known as the Warrior’s Path and was used by the Shawnee and Cherokee.

One of the first Europeans to travel through Cumberland Gap was Dr. Thomas Walker, a surveyor. The Loyal Land Company had hired him to find the best farming land across the mountain, but Walker never did find his way through the mountains to the level lands of the Bluegrass.

Attempts to find a way westward were interrupted when the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, lasting until 1763. France and England fought each other for control of North America between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, territory that was also claimed by the many Native American tribes who had lived there for centuries. Both the French and the British tried to get Native tribes to fight on their side, and this created conflicts not only among the different tribes, but even between bands within tribes, who fought on opposite sides in the war.

England won the war and claimed all the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, but England did not want settlers moving into this area. The English government did not want to provoke another war with the Native peoples, who were angered by the invasion of their territories. The King of England issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which said that settlers were not allowed to move to land west of the Appalachian Mountains, that they could not purchase land from Native Americans, and that the only people allowed to trade with Native people beyond the Appalachian Mountains were agents of the British government.

Deals and dangers

Settlers in the Colonies did not like these restrictions and ignored them. One of the people who ignored the Proclamation Line was Richard Henderson, a land speculator from North Carolina. In 1769, Henderson hired Daniel Boone, a long hunter and explorer, to make a deal with the Cherokee to purchase 20 million acres in the Bluegrass region. Henderson also purchased the right to build a road through Cumberland Gap. Henderson knew what he was doing was illegal, but he thought if he could found a settlement, he could make his claim stick.

There was another problem with the deal. Not all the Cherokee agreed with the deal, and those that did not were determined to stop settlers from coming into their lands. The Shawnee claimed the territory as theirs, and they also fought against the settlers.

The hostility of some of the Native people was not the only danger the settlers faced. There were threats from wild animals, poisonous snakes, flooded streams, and accidents. Still, between 1760 and 1810, almost 300,000 people crossed Cumberland Gap.

Why were they willing to face such hardships? For one thing, the land companies tried to downplay the dangers, claiming that there were no Native Americans who actually lived in Kentucky, just bands of hunters. Most of the settlers were Scots-Irish or German, new immigrants to America. They had come to escape the poor harvests, high rents, and religious intolerance of their homelands. When they arrived in America, they discovered that most of the best land in the East had already been claimed. They heard about the riches to be had beyond the mountains, and they were willing to face danger to start a new life.

Over time, conflicts between the settlers and the Native people ended. Most Native people were forced to leave, but some stayed and intermarried with the settlers. In the 1820s, more people began to travel west by steamboat, and the Wilderness Road through the Gap was not as important as it had been. In 1955, the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was established to commemorate the important role that Cumberland Gap played as the “doorway to the West.”


Cumberland Gap National Historical Park


Cumberland Gap Web site.

Back to Cumberland Gap.