- Breaking the Appalachian Barrier: Maryland as the Gateway to Ohio and the West, 1750-1850 by John Hrastar
Before 1750, the Appalachian Mountains formed a natural barrier between British possessions along the eastern seaboard and French territorial claims west of the mountains. The Ohio Company of Virginia received a charter from the British government to settle the Ohio Country in 1749. France claimed the area that same year, with the competing claims culminating in the French and Indian War a few years later. By 1752, the Ohio Company had cleared a [End Page 149] primitive road from Wills Creek, a tributary of the eastward-flowing Potomac River, at Cumberland, Maryland, to the Monongahela River near present-day Brownsville, Pennsylvania. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other early leaders recognized the Potomac-Monongahela corridor as a choice location to break the Appalachian barrier. Maryland subsequently emerged as an important gateway to the West, a development that helped shape the demographic and political composition of residents living in Ohio and beyond.
Breaking the Appalachian Barrier: Maryland as the Gateway to Ohio and the West, 1750-1850 touches on a range of important historical issues, including colonial wars for empire, federal and state involvement in internal improvements, and the evolution of transportation technology. It also covers related themes, such as Native Americans' reactions to colonial westward migration (and their loss of territory), the disposition of western land claims by eastern states after U.S. independence, and the Land Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787. The book's final chapters detail three principal nineteenth-century transportation routes that spanned the Appalachian Mountains in Maryland: the Cumberland Road, the nation's first interstate highway; the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was nearly obsolete from the day it opened; and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the country's first long-distance carrier.
In the preface, author John Hrastar admits that the facts about the opening of the Ohio Country have been well covered. He states, "The objective of this book is to focus on the people and events that contributed to breaking the Appalachian barrier as a single story in its own right" (p. 2). Without question, Hrastar exhibits a masterful ability to combine a series of seemingly separate and distinct projects into a unified, well-documented, and interesting story that details an essential building block of U.S. history. Therein lies the primary contribution of Breaking the Appalachian Barrier.
The author has produced an encyclopedic account of the myriad transportation projects that crossed the formidable Appalachians to link Maryland with Ohio between 1750 and 1850. He provides an exhaustive backstory for each one, while clearly explaining the contextual and historical forces at work. Detailed and accurate maps are a standard component of any good transportation history, and Hrastar exceeds the standard with the inclusion of seventeen maps that detail early roads, Native American land cessions, Ohio land subdivisions, and more. In summary, Breaking the Appalachian Barrier is a must-read for anyone with a general interest in U.S. transportation history. Moreover, it details the specific forces that shaped westward migration and transformed Maryland into an important gateway for settlers moving to and through Ohio for a hundred years.