The First American West

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.

Daniel Boone escorting settlers, including his wife Rebecca, through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, 1851-52 (oil on canvas) by George Caleb Bingham (1811-79); Washington University, St. Louis, USA; American, out of copyright.

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.

Fort Boonesborough, photo via Wikipedia

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.

Bison in Land Between the Lakes, Photo by Spongylumps (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
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.

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18 thoughts on “The First American West”

  1. Trish, there’s a place called Connor’s Prairie in Indianapolis, an 1830s town…when Indiana was the extreme western frontier.
    It captures my imagination like few other places. It’s so weird to think of that as the American west. It’s a part of history no one explores. I think there are stories to tell about the wild west…when it was the back range of the Adirondaks!!! Instead of the Rockies!

      • Colonial Williamsburg! Oh my gosh, what a great place to immerse yourself in history. And the people are very willing to answer questions. Anyone who lives near there is majorly in luck! I’m fortunate to live near some living history places and reconstructed Texas forts. The forts are quite an eye-opener. Nothing like the pallisaded forts in a lot of Western movies. Strong history of cattle drives, pioneers on the frontier, generational ranches from the 1800s … I have my research right out my door 🙂

      • It’s great to have so much history right outside your door, Nancy. I’d love to go back to Colonial Williamsburg. I haven’t been in probably 15 years.

  2. I have been to these places as a young child but I would love to revisit them because I have little memory of them I lived in Western Kentucky from age 4 until I finished 4th grade. I’ve also lived in Tennessee at two different times in my life. I still have family in Kentucky and Tennessee.

    • You sound similar to me. I lived in Kentucky until I was almost 25, then moved to Tennessee and lived there for about 21 years before moving to Florida last year. I’d like to revisit Fort Boonesborough. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been there.

  3. Studying colonial history and genealogy, the first frontier I studied and visited was Rt 81 traveling down the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was called the Wagon Road and also the Philadelphia Road, but it was basically an Indian Trail settlers used moving west and south before the Revolution followed. Wealthier people lived closer to the Atlantic Ocean, while other less affluent immigrants used the Wagon Road. Those settlers were also the barrier between Indians and wealthier classes, which lead to tax problems in North Carolina leading up to the war, just like the Boston tax revolt.

    • This stuff is so interesting to me. That trend of the wealthier living in the coastal cities and the less well off continually pushing westward continued throughout our history. Growing up in the South, there was a lot of focus on the Civil War, although personally I found other periods of history more interesting — colonial/Revolution and Old West.

  4. I had no idea the Shawnee were in Kentucky! Wow. I love to visit places like you mentioned. I learn so much from noticing details. And there’s something about just being there. Thanks for giving us a heads up on these places.

    Nancy C

    • Yeah. I grew up in Western Kentucky on the Ohio River. There was a lot of Shawnee history around there. Just north of us across the river in Illinois is the Shawnee National Forest.

  5. You start doing family history and get some of the early books about the old American “West,” you learn very quickly just how far east the “West” was. There is a reason the Great Lakes ares was called the Northwest. Up until the American Revolution, all land west of the Appalachian (Allegheny) Mountains was considered Indian Territory, and therefore, the West.It was off-limits to white settlement. Once the Americans gained control, that didn’t last long….

    • Exactly. The frontier, “West” and lands where Native Americans could live just kept pushing west. When you think about it, it all happened pretty quickly.

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