250 years ago: Daniel Boone ‘discovers’ Cumberland Gap

Published 11:44 am Thursday, April 11, 2019

By Marcia Phillips

For the Enterprise

An important event is being commemorated nationally this spring – the 250th anniversary of Daniel Boone first crossing through the Cumberland Gap into the western frontier of Colonial America in 1769.

He and a handful of companion explorers started forth on May 1 from this region in North Carolina and by June 7 were standing on the pinnacle that granted them and all who followed access to the American West.

It cannot be overstated how important this proved to be in the course of the emerging United States. This narrow crossing, at the point where modern Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia touch each other’s borders, was the best way nature provided for migration through the barrier of the Appalachian Mountains. And the timing was perfect. The eastern seaboard was bursting with restless nomads waiting for someone to say “Charge” into unconquered frontier and a young man from Davie County led that charge.

In l769, the 13 colonies were on the verge of fighting the Revolutionary War and winning the right to be a new nation. Colonial America could hardly wait to spread out. It would be six years before Boone would clear a path and successfully lead settlers on the Wilderness Road into the place called “kentak ee” but they found the way that May. Among those pioneers he would later escort would be the sons of immigrants (like Boone himself), poor farmers hoping to own their own land and those driven by a wanderlust to see what lay on the other side of the hills. They became the founding families of the West.

Among the surge Boone led west was a simple man named Abraham Lincoln whose grandson and namesake would be born in Kentucky and rise to the presidency during the most trying time in a divided America. Millions of lives like his would be shaped by the land to which Boone opened the door and pointed the way.

He was not the discoverer of the Cumberland Gap or the first to see it by any means but he viewed it with a vision of what could be and that made all the difference. At that moment in history, he was the nation’s dad who answered the question “Are we there yet?”

Daniel Boone the legendary explorer began that famous journey here in Davie County.

Of all the many places that claim him, none should be prouder than us to say our place produced the woodsman up to the challenge of opening the way to the frontier.

Daniel was born in Pennsylvania into a Quaker family that became part of the first great American migration to surge down the Old Wagon Road or Road to Georgia (yes, Georgia Road here in Davie County is part of that trek).  His parents ended their journey here and acquired good land in multiple parcels, including the family farm by Bear Creek where the historic marker stands today alongside Highway 64 between Mocksville and I-40.

It was here that a teenage Daniel honed his skills at tracking and hunting. It was here he met and married his neighbor Rebecca Bryan who contributed her own heroic spirit to the quest. It was here he became a family man who supported them by hunting farther and farther afield in the hills to the west. It was here he buried his father and carved his tombstone from a rock from the family farm, still in Joppa Cemetery. (It is perhaps the only true artifact you can touch that Boone himself touched.) It was here he said goodbye to his mother with whom he was so close.

The mountains that lay before him held personal challenges and tragic deaths. But the challenge of blazing a trail through those hills that his family and others could later traverse on foot and horseback was solved when he climbed out of the wide valley through the v-shaped notch 250 years ago that visitors to the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park can still walk today. It is a small but incredibly moving place and well worth the visit to experience the sense of awe for yourself that he did.

But start here like Daniel did. Find the Boone markers on the downtown square and in Farmington and look for the remote country roads where he lived and gave up on being a farmer to follow his dreams.

Climb into Boone Cave and look across the Yadkin River as the Boones did to the place they chose to settle.

Drive down Highway 64 across Bear Creek, where he fished and hunted, and view the land that is still farmland today as it was then.

Visit Joppa Cemetery where many of the Boone family stayed while Daniel moved on, moving always farther west until he and Rebecca were buried in Missouri…and then in Kentucky…or were they? It is still a bit of a mystery where Boone’s bones finally came to rest but it is no mystery that his journey into history began here in our Davie County.

Celebrate our link to Daniel Boone, the great American explorer, with the community by taking advantage of upcoming opportunities.

Learn more at a special commemorative event at the Davie County Public Library at 7 p.m. on April 25 where Boone historian and author Randell Jones will speak of the path Boone followed to greatness. Jones’ books and other good local history resources will be available to purchase at special prices. It promises to be a great experience for history lovers, homeschoolers, newcomers to Davie County and all who want to know more.

Explore the History Room and discover your own family adventures.

Then plan on spending Saturday, May 4 at the Boone Family Festival in downtown Mocksville where tours and period food and activities (writing with a quill pen as Boone did) will expand your shared experience with our most famous native son.

Seniors can sign up at the Senior Center for a historical tour on May 7. Make a family trip to the Cumberland Gap and follow his footsteps.

Get to know Daniel Boone better, one of our own before he pointed the way west for our nation. As he might have said, “Come join me in this adventure.”

Phillips is the author of the book, “Davie County Mavericks: Four Men Who Changed History,” about Boone, Hinton Rowan Hepler, Peter Marshal Ney

and Thomas Ferebee.