- Running Mad for Kentucky: Frontier Travel Accounts
In contrast with Spanish New Mexico and French Illinois, most new settlements in England's North American colonies were contiguous to [End Page 317] existing communities. In Virginia, England's oldest and most populous colony, it took more than a century of expansion for settlement to reach the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, thousands of Americans moved far beyond existing settlements to the western side of the Appalachian Mountains. By 1800, more than 550,000 of these migrants and their descendents—almost 8 percent of the new nation's population—lived in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.
Despite the impressive number of people who made the journey to Kentucky, relatively few firsthand accounts survive of the trek west. Not surprisingly, the better-documented nineteenth-century migration on the Overland Trail has long overshadowed its trans-Appalachian predecessor. This is partially explained by the wealth of primary data on the Overland Trail. By contrast, "only a few dozen" (ix) accounts survive of the trans-Appalachian migration. Working within this limitation, Ellen Eslinger has chosen a representative sample of thirteen travelers' accounts to illustrate the journey to Kentucky. The accounts are roughly divided into those that followed the Wilderness Road and those that floated down the Ohio River. Parties following either route were subject to ambush, inclement weather, and accidents. The Wilderness Road was often little more than a trail during the years covered by this volume and, as the Indian threat was reduced, more migrants opted for the Ohio River route.
Included among the thirteen chroniclers are Virginia planters, English tourists, a Boston merchant, ministers, agents of the state and federal governments, young men out for adventure, and a wealthy Philadelphian traveling with her family. Several of the parties included slaves. Unfortunately, the diarists rarely commented on the experiences of their unfree travel companions. Eslinger has divided the accounts into three sections: "The Revolutionary Era," featuring William Calk (1775), Nicholas Cresswell (1775), James Nourse (1775), James Smith (1783), and Peter Muhlenberg (1784); "Postwar Expansion," including Samuel Shepard (1787), Mary Coburn Dewees (1788), John May (1788), and Joel Watkins (1789); and "A New Era of Peace," with Moses Austin (1796), Francis Baily (1796), David Meade (1796), and Andrew Ellicott (1796). Each selection also includes a brief introduction and conclusion that provides context and briefly summarizes any omitted portions of the account. A few of the diarists journeyed beyond Kentucky to Louisiana and Illinois, but Eslinger has edited those accounts to include only that portion of their journals devoted to the Kentucky leg of the trip. [End Page 318]
The individual journals are fascinating to read in part because each clearly reflects the personality of its author. An unusual aspect of the collection is the parallel accounts of Nicholas Cresswell and James Nourse. Cresswell, a young Englishman who spent five weeks traveling with the Nourse party, included many details not found in the journal of the older Nourse. For example, on May 5, 1775, Cresswell "Got up very early and went to view the [ancient] Grave" (81). He composed a lengthy journal entry describing the Indian Mound's appearance and possible origin. Nourse, who had remained at the boat, dismissed Cresswell's "artificial mount" in a sentence, devoting his entry instead to a "most delicate" meal of fish with a sauce of "melted butter with walnut pickle" (95). On Sunday morning, May 14, Cresswell recorded that he and Edmund Taylor argued over politics. Taylor ended the discussion when he "threatened to tar and feather" (83) Cresswell. Nourse mentions nothing of this, limiting his May 14 entry to four words: "a very rainy day" (97).
Other accounts also dwell on food. John May recorded a Mrs. Hulen's recipe for bread, announcing that "it is as good as any that ever I tasted" (152). Young New Englander Samuel Shepard noted whenever he ate a new food such as venison or sauerkraut. Mary Coburn Dewees cheerfully acknowledged that she missed "Garlick...