George Washington’s vision for a major road westward likely built over time.
The Ohio Company of Virginia owned a trading post on the Monongahela River, which is now Brownsville, Pennsylvania, in the 1750s. George and his half-brother Lawrence were members of this organization that hired Colonel Thomas Cresap to oversee the blazing of a trail from Cumberland, Maryland, to its trading post in 1752. Cresap hired Delaware Indian Nemacolin who performed the task. The new trail was called Nemacolin’s Path.
The following year, the French occupied Fort Le Boeuf (currently Waterford, Pennyslvania), an area in British territory. Major George Washington, sent by Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie to order them to leave, rode his horse over the future National Road. The French ignored the warning.
In 1754, Washington commanded a small army with orders to remove the French from Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh.) Washington’s small army traveled over ground that would become the National Road. He was ambushed and eventually surrendered.
As aide to British General Edward Braddock, Washington again found himself traveling toward the French at Fort Duquesne in 1755. Braddock ordered 500 axmen to clear a road for his supply wagons and infantry. The army was ambushed again and Braddock was killed.
The road his army blazed, marked by stumps and brush, was called Braddock’s Road. It ends near Pittsburgh. Early pioneers preferred packhorse trails over the rough road.
After the Revolutionary War in 1784, Washington focused on his western holdings. He took the same difficult route westward as he’d taken in 1754. Then he called a meeting at a land agent’s cabin on the Cheat River (currently Morgantown, West Virginia) in September of 1784. He asked for opinions on the best route between the upper Potomac to an Ohio River tributary.
A young surveyor, Albert Gallatin, was present at that meeting. He surprised Washington by agreeing that a passage through the mountains of northwestern Virginia (now West Virginia) was the best route. Washington agreed.
Our first President died in 1799 without seeing his vision for a national road realized, but Gallatin didn’t forget. President Thomas Jefferson selected him to become Secretary of the Treasury. One of Gallatin’s duties was the disposition of western public lands.
Gallatin lived in southwestern Pennsylvania. He approved of a road there and assured Jefferson that this type of road was “of primary importance.”
Congress voted on March 29, 1806, to lay a road from Cumberland, Maryland, to Ohio.
Perhaps Gallatin thought of a long-ago meeting in the Virginia wilderness with a famous Revolutionary War general and future President as the National Road was voted into law.
-Sandra Merville Hart
Day, Reed B. The Cumberland Road: A History of the National Road, Closson Press, 1996.
Schneider, Norris F. The National Road: Main Street of America, The Ohio Historical Society, 1975.