Historic Trails

The trails, traces, and finally roads used by early immigrants to travel to the Cumberland settlements had two main routes. A northern route started south of Clinch Mountain (near Blaine), crossed the Clinch River (east of Oak Ridge), and continued across the Cumberland Mountains to Standing Stone (Monterey). A later southern route passed by Knoxville to Kingston as settlements grew in that area, crossed the Clinch River at Southwest Point (near Kingston), and rejoined the northern route at Johnson's Stand near Standing Stone. The routes again separated near the Cumberland River, with a northern route that crossed the river at Fort Blount near the mouth of Flynn's Creek and a later southern route that crossed the Cumberland at the mouth of the Caney Fork River (near Carthage). The routes rejoined north of the Cumberland River and terminated at Nashville.

The earlier northern route from East to Middle Tennessee followed sections of an old Indian trail known as Tollunteeskee's Trail. Long hunter James Smith used this trail as early as 1766. The Cherokees claimed the territory between the Clinch River and a treaty line west of Standing Stone (Monterey) and disputed the right of whites to pass through their land without permission. James Robertson's overland trip in 1779 to establish the Cumberland settlement used the Wilderness Road through Kentucky rather than a more dangerous and direct route through the Cherokees' land.

The first formal authorization to “cut and clear” a trace for a direct route to the Cumberland settlements occurred in 1785 when the North Carolina legislature provided for a force of three hundred men to protect the Cumberland settlements. These soldiers were charged with cutting and clearing a road by the most eligible route from the lower end of Clinch Mountain to Nashville. More direct and shorter than the Wilderness Road, it would accommodate expected increases in immigration as Revolutionary War veterans claimed their land warrants. Probably little real progress was made on this road as James Robertson continued to request protection and improvements.

In 1787 North Carolina legislators approved a second road act, which again ordered a road cut and cleared from the south end of Clinch Mountain to Nashville. Peter Avery blazed a trail to mark the route which crossed the Clinch River near present-day Oak Ridge, passed through Winter's Gap (Oliver Springs), and crossed the Emory River near present-day Wartburg. It passed through present-day Lansing to Johnson's Stand, followed a ridge to Standing Stone (Monterey), and then went on to the Cumberland settlements (Nashville). Major George Walton directed the soldiers working on this earliest road. This northern route was also known as Avery's Trace, the old North Carolina Road, and later Emery Road.

The Cherokees continued to resist white settlers' crossing their land and demanded that tolls be paid. Those who refused risked losing their lives. A concern for safety caused individual travelers and families to avoid the northern route and form groups on the banks of the Clinch River to wait for an armed escort by the southern route. Both routes were still little more than traces, yet Harriette Arnow noted that a party of one hundred under the protection of Kasper Mansker and other guards used the trace in 1787, a year before it officially opened.

In 1788 the North Carolina legislature passed a third act for a road to the Cumberland settlements and provided for two companies of militia of fifty men each to guard immigrants. When the road (southern route) was completed, Robertson gave notice in the State Gazette of North Carolina that soldiers had successfully escorted the first party of immigrants on September 25, 1788. During that year several families and individuals including the widow of General William Davidson and Judge John McNairy and his family grouped together and made the escorted trip. Andrew Jackson also came to the Cumberland settlement during this period, having obtained an appointment as prosecuting attorney.

On July 10, 1795, the territorial legislature authorized a wagon road to be cut from Knoxville to Nashville. George Walton received the commission to determine the direct route from Southwest Point on the Clinch River through the Cumberland Mountains to the conflux of the Caney Fork and Cumberland Rivers. William Walton, William Martin, and Robert Koyle were in charge of cutting the road. This road did not meet the demands of the Cherokees for a single road from Washington District to Mero District to be authorized by the United States, so attacks on travelers and demands for tolls continued until 1799, when Tennessee legislators asked the president to designate the road and assign commissioners.

With peace obtained, the general assembly turned Walton Road into a turnpike through legislation enacted in 1801. The requirements for a turnpike designation included measuring and erecting mileposts on the road and digging and leveling the sides of hills and mountains over which the road passed to the width of twelve feet. Bridges and causeways were to be twelve feet but on all other ground the width was to be cut to fifteen feet. By 1802 Walton Road was known as a “broad and commodious” turnpike with markers set every three miles. It soon became known as the Great Stage Road and later the Cumberland Road.

Several historical markers recognize the Emery and Walton roads. At Dixon Springs, a marker commemorates these immigrant trails and the hardy travelers who used them. Just west of Cookeville, a marker identifies the Walton Road. At Blaine a marker locates the beginning of the northern route at the south end of Clinch Mountain. At Oak Ridge, on a section of the earliest (northern) route, a rock and concrete bridge was constructed in the early 1900s, and a marker for that bridge recognizes the Emery Road as one of the earliest routes used in the settlement of Middle Tennessee.

Suggested Reading

Harriette S. Arnow, The Flowering of the Cumberland (1963); A. W. Putnam, History of Middle Tennessee (1971); Samuel Cole Williams, Early Travels in the Tennessee Country (1928)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Historic Trails
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018