Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Wilderness Road

Wooden stockade at Martin's Station
The Wilderness Road, which took 300,000 immigrants into Tennessee and Kentucky in the late 18th century, did not start at the Cumberland gap. It started at Fort Chiswell, which sits on modern-day I-77 in western Virginia near Wyethville. When Daniel Boone and his 30 axmen blazed the wilderness trail, that is where they started as well. From there it was 180 miles to the Cumberland gap and when they got there they discovered that someone had beaten them to it. Joseph Martin, a hunter and soldier, had also been hired by Richard Henderson (the man that sent Boone on his trail blazing adventure) to bouy up his questionable land claims by establishing a settlement in Powell Valley, just at the south entrance to the Cumberland gap. When Boone arrived, they were in the process of building a stockade with a half-dozen log structures inside, the better to withstand the recurring threat of Indians trying to evict them. Martin's Station, as the fort was called, was an important way point for travelers along the Wilderness Road for a couple of decades. It was eventually abandoned and gradually rejoined the natural environment but now has risen, Phoenix like, from the ashes for the education and edification of the American tourist.

The reconstructed fort is located in Wilderness Road State Park in Virginia, just a few miles from our campground at Cumberland Gap. It is another historic reconstruction with costumed interpreters who dress up in 18th century pioneer garb and explain life on the frontier, similar to colonial Williamsburg and Shakerville. Here, however, they do things a little bit differently. All of the buildings and
Do not sleep in one of these
structures are built by the staff using local materials and 18th century techniques and hardware. At Boonesborough, the gaps between the logs in the cabins are filled with cement. At Martin's Station, they are filled in with mud and straw. They have made all of the tools and furniture and wooden dinnerware and whatnot. They also make wood framed beds with rope lattice foundations covered by mattresses that are just sacks stuffed with straw. And they sleep on them! They actually lie down and sleep on them at night. I tried one. They're horrible. But it proves that these people take their reenactment duties slightly more seriously than the musket jockeys at Boonesborough.

Martin's Cabin
We went to the park the first day we were at Cumberland Gap, which was a Tuesday. It turns out Tuesday is the day that they set aside to do maintenance (like filling in the chinks where the mud has run out from between the logs), so we had to come back Thursday morning before we left the area. You cannot see the fort from the parking area so we took a short walk across the crick and through the woods to reach the horse stables and a small open pasture in front of the stockade. The first building is a reproduction of Martin's cabin which they are adding a porch to, so it was closed up. The fort itself from the outside will look familiar to anyone who has been to Boonesborough (or used to watch Rin Tin Tin). There are a few interesting things we learned about the building techniques however.
Some of the buildings inside the stockade
Notice that some of the chimneys are made out of logs. This was efficient since logs were easier to put up than stone. So they would make the firebox out of stacked shale rocks and then put a wooden chimney on top. It was rare for the chimneys to catch fire but in case they did, they were not actually attached to the buildings, so they could put a prybar between the chimney and the cabin and just knock it over and let it burn itself out. They are gradually in the process of replacing the wooden chimneys with stone as a safety issue. Take note that the roofs are shingled but they are also covered with logs. Keep that in mind, we will get back to it.

The wood grain on the new one was a lot nicer.
Outside of the stockade was the gunsmith's cabin. They spent all summer making a single rifle which you can see in the picture. The one on the bottom is an authentic "Brown Bess" from the 18th century that they used as a model. The upper rifle is the one that they manufactured on-site. They even made the firing mechanism including hand making the screws to hold it in place. Each screw took several days, having to be made by hand with nothing but a metal file. They assure me that the weapon works although we did not get to see a demonstration.
Every pump of the bellows sent a shower of sparks to the ceiling.

Next door was the blacksmith's shop. The young fellow you see tending the bellows here is an apprentice blacksmith, just learning his trade. He wanted to show me his stuff so he took a square metal rod and heated up the end until it was a lovely glowing red. Then he took it over to the anvil and started pounding on it, thinning the end out. Then it was back to the fire because it was cooling and getting too hard to work with, followed by more pounding. After a couple of more cycles of this, he cut off the end of the rod and then heated up the fat, unpounded end of his work piece. He put it into special holding hole in a different anvil and beat the red hot end of it severely with a hammer. After sticking it into a bucket of cold water to cool it off, here is the result:

A single one penny nail. Time expended- about 4 or 5 minutes.  Now, think back to those shingled roofs. There is no Home Depot down the block.  There isn't even a real blacksmith within a hundred miles.  If you want to nail down your shingles, you have to build a forge and go through this five-minute nail manufacturing process at least twice for each shingle. Getting your roof finished would take you a month if you did nothing else. So they did not nail the shingles onto the cross beams. Instead they laid them in place and weighted the whole mess down with logs. An additional advantage was that if the roof caught fire (say the natives were firing burning arrows at your fort) you could just pull down the logs and let the whole mess fall onto the ground again and you only have to replace the roof, not the whole cabin and contents.

They had a few head of livestock and the remains of a cornfield and a couple of gardens, all of which had been harvested by the time we arrived. At the entrance to the park, they also had a small herd of buffalo which were apparently quite numerous in the area before the Wilderness Road was installed. The last buffalo in Kentucky was shot in 1791. Before Daniel Boone left Kentucky and moved to Missouri he was heard to complain that game had gotten so scarce in Kentucky that he could barely hunt enough meat to feed his family. Whoa there fella, you're a professional hunter. How do you suppose that happened?

Farewell to Martin's Station
From Martin's station it was another 170 miles to Boonesborough, so this was basically the halfway point on the wilderness trail. It allowed weary settlers to rest and resupply prior to going through the gap. This was one of the more interesting and educational stops we have made this year. If you are in this area, be sure not to miss it. They have big gatherings called "encampments" in May and October with amateur reenactors if you want to be there while guns are going off.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting history and building construction lessons! Thanks! Linda (not so "Anonymous")