September 16, 2013

Westward ho

A bit of the National Road in Cambridge, Ohio. Photo by Bwsmith84

A bit of the National Road in Cambridge, Ohio. Photo by Bwsmith84

I’ve said it before, but I have no probem saying it again – genealogy is the best way in the world to learn your country’s history.

Why did my forefathers settle in a village in Kentucky and outside of Cincinnati and at a crossroads in Illinois? Why did a handful of them land in eastern Ohio  while the others went more than twice as far?

Very mysterious – but then not. The answer to the first question is the Ohio River. And as for the second, it was thanks to the U.S. government’s first federal highway program – the National Road.

It was Thomas Jefferson who authorized the Cumberland Road, the first leg of the journey from Maryland and points south, and in 1811 a construction contract was approved. That part took seven years to build and it got everybody as far as Wheeling, West Virginia.National_road_map

In 1820, more money was appropriated to get the road across Ohio and Indiana, and more again in 1835.  The idea was to get to St. Louis, but as you can see from the map, it ended at an unlikely spot – Vandalia, Illinois.  That’s because the money ran out.

Interest had waned, probably because of the very surprising result that had been achieved by getting as far as Wheeling – settlers discovered a faster and easier route via the Ohio River.  Settlement began on its banks and rapidly moved north and south.

Wheeling Suspension Bridge, opened in 1849. Photo by Chris Light

Wheeling Suspension Bridge, opened in 1849. Photo by Chris Light

About three-fourths of my ancestors took the river route and went as far as the Iowa territory, while the remainder settled in Ohio, pretty much right on the side of the road. (I so sympathize with the weary wives who probably muttered, ‘Fine, this is fine, let’s stop here. Puhleeeze!’)

There is even a bit of the National Road still visible in Cambridge, Ohio, where they settled.

And you want history? Go to Wheeling and drive across the Ohio River on the suspension bridge that opened to traffic in 1849 and is still in use.

Finally, if you spend any time east of the MIssissippi, you’ve probably been on the National Road – it became much of US 40 during a later highway program.



  1. Those old roads are fascinating. In 1945 my grandmother drove what was left of the old Chillicothe Road from Lake Erie to Chillicothe, Ohio, on the Ohio River. Her great grandfather had come from Maryland to Cleveland that way.


    Comment by Jane — September 16, 2013 @ 5:39 am | Reply

  2. , Good for you. Happy you’ve found your way.


    Comment by Carol — September 16, 2013 @ 1:33 pm | Reply

  3. I prefer to travel and scout around.


    Comment by Carol — September 16, 2013 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

  4. So instructive! What a great, grand history you have!


    Comment by galyatarmu — September 16, 2013 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

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