Friday, September 15, 2017

The Way Leading to That New Home

It took a long detour through the colonial history of Virginia in the 1700s just to figure out the way my Tilson ancestors may have taken to move from their settlement in southwestern Virginia to their new home in northeastern Tennessee.

Actually, the way wasn't very far—at least, that is, if I correctly identified the modern locations for those three hundred year old geographic identifiers.

The place where the Tilson family had settled, after leaving their parental homes in Massachusetts some time after William took Mary Marcie Ransom as his bride in 1762, was somewhere near a spot called Saint Clair. That, in turn, eventually became part of Washington County—which, as you can guess, has been carved up countless times since that 1763 arrival date.

At any rate, wherever the place was, it was on the south fork of what I've finally figured out must have been the Holston River. Finding all this out has taken several painstakingly tiny steps, of course, but still doesn't answer my question of how the family got from there—wherever "there" actually was—to the family's ultimate settlement in Washington County, Tennessee.

However, wandering around the Internet for the past few days, I've run across some details of the history of colonial migration. I became fairly certain my hunch to zero in on what was called the Wilderness Road might lead to some answers to my research questions.

Even trying to find out more about the Wilderness Road has been challenging. For one thing, the route went by more than one name. According to one resource, the route was also known as the Great Road or the Great Philadelphia Road.

Can you imagine telling people how to find your home—naming the street bearing your address—and then giving the name of two or three other streets, as well? If that sounds confusing, that about explains how I feel, trying to discern exactly where this ancient route once led.

There might be a reason for this confusion. For one thing, one researcher theorized that, depending on the destination of a traveler, the route might be called one thing, while those heading in the opposite direction would call it something else. Kind of like saying, "I'm on the road to Philadelphia" when heading north, yet, "I'm headed west" when traveling to those new settlements in the wilderness.

Or just go ahead and call it the Wilderness Road. After all, that was the point of the route: a way to access the new lands opening up for colonial settlement.

There was another problem about trying to figure out where this route once was: even academic researchers dispute this road's location. If the experts can't be certain where the route led, how can I determine whether this was the winding road that led my ancestors away from their Virginia door?

According to at least one report, the Wilderness Road leading west began at what is now Kingsport, Tennessee—close to the Washington County area of the state where my Tilsons settled, but certainly not what would convince them to leave their home in southwestern Virginia.

However, there may have been an entirely different route—or possibly just a different name for the same path—forming the basis for the road enticing my ancestors to leave their hard-won settlement in the Virginia wilderness. The foundation for this route, as it turns out, may have been a system of ancient pathways worn by generations of native people, now called by some The Great Indian Warpath.

In an annotated reprint of a 1937 article published in the William and Mary Quarterly containing satellite images on which are superimposed locations from the old trails, an explanation on page 506 of the original text delves into the geographic points on one branch of the Great Indian Warpath which likely led close to the Holston River settlement where the Tilsons had lived.

While this may help me understand just how my Tilson ancestors arrived in Washington County, Tennessee, the rest of this lengthy reprint also helped describe what else might have been happening at the time which might have encouraged people to move to these wilderness locations.

Even in colonial times, the government was offering land grants in the hopes of enticing immigrants to move farther west to form a buffer zone around the more established towns to the east. It would be well worth the research detour to examine just what else was going on in the colonies during the time when William Tilson married in Massachusetts in 1762 and moved to Virginia by 1763.   

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