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Southern Cultures 8.1 (2002) 8-20

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Through the Cumberland Gap

Doris Betts


These days most American teenagers have traveled in Europe, but I still haven't crossed an ocean. I was already middle-aged before I got more than one or two states away from home. Then my family and I crossed the country so we could ride through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River in a rubber raft. This journey was my first sight of the far American West, where, said another North Carolina writer, Thomas Wolfe, "all the states are square."

I've now published two novels about what the arid stone-and-sky landscapes of Arizona and Nevada did to this native of North Carolina's green piedmont Iredell County. Researching both books made me explore what southerners and westerners have in common, how perhaps psychologically we are second cousins once removed. Many of us southern writers, Clyde Edgerton, for example, have written about both regions.

My first impression of the friendly people out west was that my speech sounded more like theirs than like that of the average Brooklyn cabdriver or Boston blueblood. They drawl, too.

And despite the discovery that westerners serve fried potatoes for breakfast in the spot on the plate where grits belong, many turn out to be the descendants of early southern settlers who kept moving the frontier west as they left Carolina's coastal plain for the piedmont and foothills, then walked through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee, gradually crossed the Mississippi, climbed more and rockier mountains, until finally some of them metamorphosed from farmers into ranchers and cowboys.

A little history, first.

The Cumberland Gap was formed by the natural erosion of a stream that once flowed there. Buffalo later traveled it. Folklore says that mountain laurel and wild rhododendron grow south of Chapel Hill between the Deep and Rocky Rivers because buffalo followed the ridges and rivers east, carrying seeds in their manure. If buffalo also went through the Gap, so did Indians; then, by the mid-1600s, white hunters brought the news to eastern settlements that a notch beyond the edge of the frontier led through the Appalachian Mountains.

In the earliest written record, a Virginia doctor, also an explorer, named it "Cave Gap" when he traveled the region in 1750. He also called the river north of the pass Cumberland, in honor of the son of the British king.

At the time of the Revolutionary War, a North Carolinian and former judge named Richard Henderson hired Daniel Boone to mark a trail through the gap so settlers could cross into Kentucky. The Boones had lived in the Yadkin River valley of piedmont North Carolina, which typified the backcountry or upcountry that then edged the southern frontier. In the spring of 1775, Boone and thirty woodsmen worked for a month marking a two-hundred-mile trail from Virginia to the bluegrass region of Kentucky. [End Page 9]

Travelers can visit the town of Cumberland Gap today, eighty miles northeast of Knoxville. Tourists often drive over some of it on U.S. Highway 25 until they look down from a mountaintop into three states. Others pass through the twin mile-long tunnels beneath it. The tunnels, opened in 1996, cost 250 million dollars, but Boone and his men never got paid for their roadwork.

But their efforts had marked for others what became known as the Wilderness Road, the interstate of its day, along which pioneers moved west out of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas, usually collecting in large enough groups to defend themselves from Indian attack. They formed such groups in supply centers like Richmond and Harpers Ferry and then set out walking on a path only wide enough for packhorses, not wagons. Frederick Jackson Turner, turn-of-the-century historian, called this "the process of civilization marching single file."

Indian attacks were not the pioneers' only difficulties. It sometimes took a week to go ten miles through mud, snow, and flooded streams. Not until 1796 was the trail made wide enough for wagons. Among the southerners who...


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