mcwhorter lives and times
McWhorter Lives and Times

The Drovers Road

It’s a pretty good bet that the McWhorters traveled from Pennsylvania to Virginia on the Great Pennsylvania Wagon Road, and used it again to move on to South Carolina. It’s also a pretty good bet that they traveled the Wilderness Road from Cumberland Gap to Casey County Kentucky. But how did they get from Union County SC to the Cumberland Gap? The best I could guess until recently was that they backtracked on the Wagon Road to the Holston River and followed the Wilderness Road from there.

Somehow I happened upon a Rootsweb archive exchange between Thom Faircloth and Suzanne Matson about the Germanna people travels in which they discuss the “Drovers Road.” (Thank you both for sharing your knowledge.) With the assistance of the Western North Carolina Historical Association in Asheville, and their excellent web entry about the Drovers Road, I learned a lot more about this historic path, a good candidate for the route the McWhorters took.

In this region, the Cherokee were brutally overrun in 1776 when Brigade General Griffith Rutherford and 25,000 members of the NC Militia punished them for helping the British in the Revolutionary War. After the war, North Carolina sought to settle its debts by granting land to former soldiers. Migrants followed what may have been called the Rutherford Trace to settle in new lands, or to be killed by the displaced Cherokee, depending upon luck. By 1793, a town grew up at the crossing of two Indian trails, named Morristown. The name was changed to Asheville in 1797. (Author Sharyn McCrumb has written a series of mysteries in Rowan and Buncombe Counties that beautifully tell stories of its history.)

It was not until the 1820s, when enough drovers took livestock from new farms back to the markets in South Carolina that the road got the name it’s now known by. The Western NC Historical Association’s website describes the passage experienced by the early settlers.

The early roads were dirt or gravel and were indicated by notches on marginal trees… Along the stream gorges, the early roads were “fearful and wonderful things.” In a five-mile stretch from mid-Asheville, the French Broad River's bed drops from 1,985 feet above sea level to 1,924 feet. Midway between the mouth of Reems Creek and Flat Creeks, its bed is at 1,785 feet. Although the new roads were crude, they made it possible to use wagons to go from settlement to settlement. Sondley reports that in July 1795, “Two wagons arrived at Knoxville from South Carolina, having passed through the mountains by way of Warm Springs of the French Broad; so a wagon road may be said to have been opened from Georgia, South Carolina and other Atlantic States.”

The McWhorters, having made the trip in 1796, must have been among the earliest to travel the route. Even ten years later, the road was treacherous. From the same website we learn:

Francis Asbury … recorded his difficulties traveling in 1802. “We labored over the Ridge and the Paint Mountain; I held on awhile, but grew afraid and dismounted, and with the help of a pine sapling, worked by way down the steepest and roughest part.”

In coming through Mills Gap between Buncombe and Rutherford Counties in 1806, he wrote, “One of the descents in like the roof of a house, for nearly a mile… I road, I walked, I sweat, I tumbled, and my old knees failed. Here are gullies, and rocks, and precipices, …bad is the best.” At the end of one of his annual visits, Asbury recorded, “Once more I have escaped from filth, fleas, rattlesnakes, hills, mountains, rocks, and rivers.”

Even though roads were improved, river crossings were still a problem. Roads crossed rivers where fording was convenient, but this limited crossings and travel to periods of low water. Because of its size, the French Broad River could only be crossed using crude ferries of either canoes or flat boats that were pulled by ropes. By 1798, John Davis operated a ferry across the French Broad near the mouth of Newfound Creek.

So what became the Drovers Road would get them to Morristown (Asheville). Now we have to get them through parts of North Carolina and Tennessee to the Cumberland Gap.

Last updated 10/28/2006 Copyright© 2006 by Karen McWhorter Wilhelm