The Great Road Came Through Henry County
By Dr. Barry Dorsey
Transportation has always been an issue in this country. Even today, individual states along with the national government can’t build or repair roads quickly enough to satisfy demand, given a growing population and the reliance on automobiles and trucks.
Most people in this area have heard of The Great Road, but few today understand that it came through what became Henry County.
When the United States was still a colony of Great Britain and before most colonists were aware of the vast, unexplored territory to the west, settlers had difficulty colonizing the frontier because of the mountains. Immigrants (especially the Scots-Irish and Germans but also the Welsh, English, and Swiss) arriving in the port of Philadelphia as early as the 1720s began traveling south along an old Indian path in search of cheap land. The flood of immigrants became so intense between 1740 and 1765 that their entry into this country could be described as the Great Scots-Irish Migration to the South. It wasn’t until 1744 that a treaty with the Iroquois Nation gave the colonists full control of the path in Pennsylvania, however.
The “road” was originally not a “road” at all. In fact, it was little more than a wide dirt path until settlers cut trees and found their way around other obstacles, including rivers, so that wagons could pass. In good weather, a horseman could go about 20 miles a day, a wagon about half that distance. The Conestoga wagon, which originated in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, was one of the means of transportation, but it was generally too large to convey colonists and their belongings over much of what became known as The Great Road. (The Conestoga was better suited to the later, westward expansion). As a result, the primary form of transportation down The Great Road, other than a packhorse, was a dray (a wagon of about 14 feet in length and 4 feet in width pulled by one horse or ox). A dray could reportedly carry more than a packhorse while still maneuvering the roads of the time.
The Great Road had numerous branches and was known by various names: The Great Wagon Road, The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, The Great Valley Road, The Great Warriors’ Path, etc. Perhaps the largest and most important section ran from Philadelphia through western Pennsylvania and down to Big Lick (now Roanoke, Virginia), where it divided into two parts. One part extended from Big Lick through Sapling Grove (now Bristol) to Knoxville, Tennessee, and became known as The Wilderness Road when it opened through Cumberland Gap into Kentucky in 1775. The second section went south into the Carolinas and eventually (by 1763) to Augusta, Georgia. It became best- known as The Carolina Road.
The Carolina Road ran through this area of Virginia, which was part of Pittsylvania County until Henry County was carved out of the larger county in 1777. (The county was further divided in 1790 when the western part became Patrick County and the remainder Henry County.) The Road went from Big Lick to present-day Ferrum to what’s now the Henry County Line to present-day Collinsville and thence near to what became—in 1760– Waller’s Ford (the village’s name was changed in 1916 to Fieldale to honor a large textile company which was then under construction by Marshall Field & Company). In good weather, travelers on the Road reportedly used a ford almost at the mouth of Blackberry Creek instead of at present-day Fieldale. From there, the travelers went through another part of this area, Horse Pasture, and on down to eastern Stokes County and Salem, North Carolina. From there, the Road went farther south through North and South Carolina and later into Georgia. Perhaps the Road’s most famous travelers were the Moravians, who settled around what’s now the Winston- Salem area.
Known as the original Wachovia settlers, the Moravians camped for the night of November 6, 1753, near what became Henry, Virginia, and for three days (November 8, 9, 10, 1753) on the east bank of the Smith River ford waiting for floodwaters to recede at what is now Fieldale. They then rejoined The Great Road (“through a swamp and up a rough hillside”); they next camped at Horse Pasture on November 11, 1753, before entering Stokes County, North Carolina, and traveling on down to the Salem (now Winston-Salem) area.
Although The Great Road especially hosted the Scots-Irish settlers between 1740-1760, it continued to be important throughout the American Revolution and beyond. One of the members and supporters of the Martinsville- Henry County Historical Society and a restorer of the Old Courthouse in uptown Martinsville, Virginia King, lived with her husband Mervyn for 45 years along The Great Road (the actual name of the road west of Fieldale). Their home was Hillcroft, which was built around 1760. Hillcroft later included a Traveler’s Room on the second floor which was open to the outside to enable colonists to enter the house and stay for the night without disturbing other guests or the home’s owners.
One source consulted for this article described The Great Road as the key supply line for American resistance in the western colonies during the Revolutionary War, especially in the south. Lord Charles Cornwallis, the second in command of the British armies, marched his army from the port of Charleston to The Great Road at Camden, South Carolina, and on to Charlotte and Salisbury in an effort to destroy Gen. Nathanael Greene’s Continental Army and to weaken support for the Revolution in North Carolina. Unsuccessful in all of his efforts, Cornwallis eventually surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the American Revolution.
Lord Cornwallis along with many others certainly understood the importance of The Great Road. In fact, it has been described as “critical to the development of North Carolina.” The cities of Salisbury and Charlotte apparently owe their existence largely to the creation of The Great Road. It became important as a means of transporting colonists’ goods such as deerskins to markets where they could be exchanged for items needed by the settlers, especially salt and firearms. Livestock was often herded down The Great Road to markets.
The Great Road was the first of many roads over the mountains or into the wilderness. In 1746, for example, The Pioneer Road first crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains from Alexandria to Winchester, Virginia. In the late 1770s, explorers from Staunton, Virginia, began using the Kanawha Trail over the mountains and into the Kanawha Valley of what’s now West Virginia, which then was a part of Virginia. In 1811, primarily through the efforts of Henry Clay in Congress, construction on the National Road began at Cumberland, Maryland. The National Road, which mainly follows today’s U.S. Route 40, was the first major highway in the U.S. built by the federal government. Although it was supposed to connect the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, construction was stopped at Vandalia, Illinois, in 1837 after congressional funding ran dry. The states then picked up part of the cost of developing and constructing roads.
The roads pre-dated the railroad and certainly the superhighways and interstates of today. Americans’ perspective on the nation’s geography changed with the advent of each form of transportation.
Sources: Funk @ Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia, Volumes 18 and 20, 1987; Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 2006, 2010, 2015; Family Search Wiki, 2017, Fieldale, Wikipedia, 2017; John D. Hicks, The Federal Union, 1957, pages 65-69.