Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
The Great Debate over the Great Wagon Road

The Great Debate over the Great Wagon Road

  • Updated
  • 0

June Koehn, 75, has spent half her life investigating the route of the Great Wagon Road, an 18th century settlement route, in North Carolina.

And two years ago, when she found a map from 1711 printed in “The Exploration of North America, 1630-1776,” she felt she had stumbled upon a real treasure that could offer valuable clues in her search.

Although the map wasn’t a treasure map — at least not in the typical sense — it was nonetheless a historical gem for Koehn.

“The book only cost me $1.75 at the Goodwill, but to me it’s priceless,” Koehn said. “It proves the existence of Indian footpaths in and around Rural Hall that laid the groundwork for the Great Wagon Road.”

The Great Wagon Road, the main route for travelers settling Colonial America’s western frontier in the 1700s, began in Philadelphia and cut through Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina before ending in Augusta, Ga.

Scotch-Irish and German settlers, in particular, took the road as a means to explore new opportunities in the South. And i n 1753, 15 Moravian brethren left Bethlehem and travelled along the Wagon Road through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to establish the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina, at Bethabara.

A mural of what the Great Wagon Road would have looked like — based on the diary drawings of settlers — today spans across two walls of the Bethabara Park Visitor’s Center.

The road passed through many present-day North Carolina towns, including Winston-Salem, Salisbury and Charlotte.

And after almost 40 years of investigating the road’s exact route, Koehn said she believes Rural Hall can be added to the list with certainty.

The 302-year-old map Koehn found in the book was drawn by Captain Thomas Marin, an explorer in the early 1700s. It depicts Indian trading paths in the English Colonies, particularly the Carolinas.

“The know-it-alls tell me used to tell me I can’t prove the Indians passed through here, but that map is proof,” said Koehn, a resident of Rural Hall. “It is a pretty darn good documentation. It’s the best map I’ve ever seen.”

Michael Hill, research supervisor at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History in Raleigh, said the route of the Wagon Road is difficult to confirm in some places: The road didn’t go in a straight line but instead from ford to ford where rivers could be crossed.

“With early settlement paths, it’s not safe to assume there’s only one path,” Hill said. “There could be several paths slightly departed depending on high water, low water, so it makes it tricky to plot out.”

The 1711 map would be too early to show the route and use of the Great Wagon Road in the state, he said, as the road in North Carolina was traveled by settlers primarily in the 1750s.

“It may have shown the Indian footpaths that became the road and enabled her (Koehn) to make discoveries of her own in Rural Hall,” Hill said. “Often people who have learned the way of the woods and know the location very well can find things we don’t know about.”

And it wouldn’t be the first time that locals have uncovered parts of the road.

Kyle Stimson, a local historian and author of “The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road: Path of Settlement, Harbinger of Revolution,” unearthed new research on the road’s path through Forsyth County in the 1990s that was unknown to the Raleigh office, Hill said.

But Stimson argued fervently in his book that the road, which was traveled mostly on horseback and wagons, did not pass through Rural Hall.

Hill said and there is much debate among local historians as to whether or not the road passed through Rural Hall.

The 18th century maps often do not include the level of detail needed to exact a clear-cut route, he said. Instead historians must rely on “on-the-ground evidence” or archeological remains, which can be conflicting.

“The general location of the road’s route is known, but it’s the ruins we find that are telling of its exact path,” Koehn said. “I go out in the woods and hunt for the remains of the road.”

Koehn developed her passion for the Great Wagon Road when she was 16. She had just moved to Rural Hall, and an elderly neighbor showed her a path in the woods that she said was “the road to Pennsylvania.”

So when the Northwest Piedmont Council of Governments announced in 1976 that it was looking for the local ruins of the Great Wagon Road in the stretch between Virginia and Augusta, Ga., Koehn said she knew where to start looking.

“I thought, hey, I know where the road comes through in Rural Hall,” she said. “Once I started looking into it, I was hooked by the history of it all. That road’s my baby now.”

Koehn has spent the past 37 years trying to tie the sections of the road together into a comprehensive route and looking for physical evidence left behind by settlers.

She has talked to locals who own property on the supposed Great Wagon Road, who have told her stories passed down from their ancestors about settlers being buried nearby.

She has also found remnants of old houses, roadbeds and the graves of settlers from the 1700s.

But the road isn’t quite what it used to be. In many places, the abandoned road was used as a garbage dump and remains filled with trash.

Everything from car parts to metal washing machines litters parts of the old road bed, and no efforts to clean up the pivotal road in the nation’s history, Koehn said.

Frank James, the town manager of Rural Hall, said he hopes to see the road preserved. His said his property contains a section of the road where he said two sets of iron plaques and the old roadbed are still visible.

“I walked back there with my grandson just last month because I wanted him to be able to see it,” James said. “It’s part of the history of our community and important for future generations to see.”

The Rural Hall Historical Society will celebrate the role of the Great Wagon Road in history as part of the town’s 40th birthday celebration in May 2014.

Marylee Smith, the president of the Rural Hall Historical Society, said the celebration will be a part of the town festival.

“It’s important for people to know what was here and the road’s importance in the formation of our country,” Smith said. “We hope people will be able to see the road’s great historic value.”



Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News

News Alert