The Dan River State Crossings region played an important role in the settlement of the early American frontier as home to a crucial section of the Great Wagon Road.
History of the Great Wagon Road
Tens of thousands of immigrants used the road in the late 1700s and 1800s. They arrived in the United States at Philadelphia, then headed west and south. The road extended west to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and then Hagerstown, Maryland, before following the Great Valley south to Roanoke, Virginia.
At Roanoke, the road diverged. A southwestern route took settlers to Kentucky and Tennessee. The Great Wagon Road cut more directly south, through Franklin County and the State Crossings area.
The road had previously been a Native American path. With the establishment of the United States, it became a highway for immigrants. German and Scotch-Irish settlers used it to populate the Appalachian and western Piedmont regions of North Carolina and Virginia.
The Great Wagon Road today
Following the trail today can be tricky, though much safer than it was in the days of the early American republic. The Great Wagon Road’s Wikipedia page includes a detailed route, but the details remain hotly debated. Settlers almost certainly used a variety of shortcuts and alternative routes, which complicates the matter even more.
I decided to try to follow an approximation of the Great Wagon Road between Ferrum, Virginia, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on a recent trip. I decided against following Wikipedia’s version. Instead, I chose a more pragmatic route, linking up towns along the Great Wagon Road using GPS.
Driving the Great Wagon Road
This trip on the Great Wagon Trail began in Ferrum, Virginia, where the historic route was eventually broken up by the arrival of the railroad in the 1890s. I headed southeast, driving past multiple access points for beautiful Philpott Lake, which was constructed in the late 1940s and completed in 1952.
Next I passed through Henry, Virginia, and followed U.S. 220 south before getting on U.S. 58 westbound at Martinsville. I continued west on U.S. 58 through the town of Horse Pasture before breaking south and traveling across the Virginia/North Carolina state line and arriving in the town of Sandy Ridge.
Following the wagon road through Stokes County
Construction of railroads and paved roads have mostly obscured the former Great Wagon Road. At the same time, however, much of the land on the old road through Henry County and Patrick County, Virginia, and Stokes County, North Carolina, remains largely rural. Numerous heritage farms site along the roads that roughly approximate the Great Wagon Road. The land has changed since the 1750s, but it still feels country.
I continued south through Dodgetown and Dillard, North Carolina, before heading southwest on U.S. 311. The landscape began to open up as the mountains gave way to the rolling hills of the Piedmont. Settlers following this route must have felt this shift as the landscape echoed their spirits with expanding horizons.
I continued on to Germanton, whose name demonstrates the influence of the German settlers who arrived here via the Great Wagon Road. The road continued on south, eventually to Charlotte and then South Carolina and Georgia.
End of the line
The growth of the communities along the Great Wagon Road eventually built over it, either with buildings, roads, or railroads. Yet the road’s legacy is evident in the place names and people that are still found along its old route.