During the generation following the Revolutionary War, some 300,000 people left their settled homes in Virginia and other states on the eastern seaboard and traveled the Wilderness Road, which Daniel Boone had cut through the Cumberland Gap, into the heartland of Kentucky. Many of them walked, trudging through dust and mud, with cattle and horses in tow. Some rode their horses and many of them rode part of the time in the wagons on which their meager possessions were precariously balanced.
Abraham Lincoln’s family made this journey a few years before the future president’s birth; when he was seven years old they crossed the Ohio River, settling in southern Indiana. Thirty years later, my Watkins ancestors made a similar journey, settling in the Indiana hill country north of Lincoln’s boyhood home.
Wanting to understand why people were willing to make that dangerous expedition into the wilderness, I traced their route, as best I could, in the early summer of 2004. My mode of transportation—a bright orange Co-Motion bicycle—was more advanced than the animal power they used. The roads were better and the lodging and eating facilities much improved.
Like them, however, I was exposed to the elements and dependent upon my own muscle power throughout my travels. Despite good roads and modern maps, I often was unsure about how to find my way, especially in the twisting roadways of Greene County, Indiana, the place where many of my ancestors—the “rude Forefathers [and Foremothers] of the hamlet,” to quote Thomas Gray—are sleeping, “Each in his narrow cell for ever laid.”
According to my custom, I prepared for my travels with extensive reading, including Ida Tarbell’s In the Footsteps of Lincoln, Robert Kincaid’s The Wilderness Road, and John Mack Faragher’s Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. Later, I wrote an interpretive essay, describing the trip and my thoughts about the ancestors and how they shaped the person I have become. I call this narrative “Bicycling Through Time on the Wilderness Road.”
I hope that you will check it out and read the first few pages. Maybe you’ll come to a new understanding of how our ancestors settled the American heartland and, as was the case for me, reflect upon how you fit among the generations past and still to come. I’d love to hear about ways that you have bicycled into the story of your life.