Today when we think of the American West, images of vast, empty expanses under huge skies come to mind. Prairies and cattle drives and covered wagons carrying settlers toward hopes of a better life. But before the land west of the Mississippi River became known as the West, America’s western frontier was considerably further east.
I was born, raised and spent the first nearly 25 years of my life in Kentucky. If you’re a Kentucky native, there are several things that just say “home” to you — the Kentucky Derby, basketball, the words to “My Old Kentucky Home” and Daniel Boone. There is probably not another single person throughout history who signifies Kentucky more than Boone. He was among the founders of the state who led settlers along the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.
Today you can learn about this famous gateway to the frontier at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, which is located where Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee come together. You can even walk in Boone’s footsteps along portions of the old Wilderness Road here. Prior to 1996, you could drive the route via Highway 25E, but in that year a tunnel through the mountain was completed, connecting the towns of Cumberland Gap, Tenn., and Middlesboro, Ky. Since 2001, work has been underway to restore the Gap to as close to its historic appearance as possible, including removal of the asphalt road and all modern structures, adding vegetation and even adding several feet of lost elevation.
Another of my favorite historic sites in Kentucky is Fort Boonesborough State Park on the site of the fort built by Boone and other settlers on the banks of the Kentucky River in 1775, 17 years before Kentucky became a state. The park contains a reconstructed fort with cabins and bunkhouses. During part of the year, costumed artisans and craftsmen showcase how a variety of goods were made in the 1700s to ensure survival on a dangerous frontier.
Even though this period began the settlement of Kentucky in earnest, Boone and his fellow settlers weren’t the first Europeans to set foot in what became Kentucky. You’ll probably recognize the names of famous explorers who walked this land as far back as Hernando de Soto of Spain in 1543, followed by French explorers such as Marquette and Joliet in 1673. It’s important to remember, however, that this land was not unoccupied when Europeans began to explore there or even when tens of thousands of settlers came flooding in via the Wilderness Road. Many Native American tribes called Kentucky home or used it as hunting grounds. Among these were the Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Yuchi and Mosopelea.
There is a lot more pioneer history to explore across the Bluegrass State, the western part of which once was prairie and home to elk and bison — herds of which can be seen at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area near where I grew up. LBL’s 170,000 acres includes one of the largest undeveloped forests in the Eastern U.S., wetlands, and more than 300 miles of shoreline since it sits on a peninsula between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. One of my favorite parts of LBL is The Homeplace 1850s, a living history farm which features costumed interpreters, breeds of farm animals that would have been raised during the mid 1800s in Kentucky, and crops that also fit the time period. Several special events throughout the year showcase an even bigger slice of 1850s daily life with crafters showing visitors how to hand dip candles, make cornshuck dolls and homemade soap, as well as many other tasks. It’s a great way to get a glimpse into what life on this early frontier was like.