The Old Wagon Road
Young Adam Mitchell handed the reins to his sister Mary and climbed down from the wheel horse.1 He helped his father remove a pile of fallen trees and large boulders from The Great Wagon Road.2 That sounded like a grand name for the buffalo path that had been enlarged into a trail by the Indians and settlers who had moved west before them.
Adam rubbed his back, but he wouldn't let the aches that came from long hours sitting on the lazy board3 or the broad back of the wheel horse and the hard labor of moving the obstacles in their path dampen his natural zest for life or his excitement over their journey this fall of 1762. They were finally moving to North Carolina to join other members of the ScotsIrish4 Mitchell clan after many months of preparation.
Robert Mitchell, Adam's father, mounted his horse to lead the way again. Adam climbed back onto the wheel horse and took the reins back from his sister.
“Good job,” he said.
“You did a good job of teaching all of us,” his older sister Jean said. “As always, Dad's right hand ...” Her voice trailed off, and she wiped a tear from her eye.
Adam knew she was thinking of all of the friends they'd left behind in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. As excited as they were about moving, the thought of never seeing the friends he'd grown up with and the farm he'd lived on all his life might have brought a tear to his eye if he hadn't been a man grown at age seventeen.
The trip didn't allow much time to think about what they'd left behind or what they'd find when they got to their new home. They always seemed to be fording a creek, climbing a peak, dealing with rocks in the road, making camp, breaking camp, tending to the team, or doing something they hadn't imagined doing when they left Pennsylvania.
Thank heavens for the new Conestoga wagon that was built to deal with the rough terrain, so unlike the gentle rolling hills the Mitchells were used to. The new wagon was built by German immigrants in the borough of Lancaster in the Conestoga region of Pennsylvania. It was designed to carry heavy loads over great distances. When Robert bought the wagon, his wife had complained about the cost, but now Margaret realized the importance of the four broad wheels that prevented the heavy load of housewares and farm implements from getting stuck. She appreciated the white canvas cover that protected her cherished belongings from the rain and the three girls' light Scots-Irish complexions from the sun. The wagon also sheltered the family during the night, with the women sleeping in the wagon and Robert and Adam sleeping underneath.
The adventures of the days on the road west worked up hearty appetites. Every evening the womenfolk cooked a hearty meal of beans and salt pork over the campfire. Sometimes Adam shot a squirrel or a rabbit, and they ate fresh meat. Robert had taught Adam to make every shot count with the family musket -- ammunition was scarce in Pennsylvania but they knew from everything they'd heard it would prove to be more so in North Carolina.
After Margaret and the girls washed the Dutch oven and cleaned up the campsite, the family gathered round the fire. Robert read passages from the family Bible. Margaret and Mary sang the familiar hymns from the Presbyterian Hymnal. Often a smile or a tear would appear as Margaret or one of the girls remembered that the hymnals had been given to them as goodbye gifts from the congregation of the beloved Nottingham Church in Lancaster.
Adam and Robert discussed Benjamin Franklin's recent electrical experiments that they'd read about before embarking on this journey. They also had long discussions about whether the new King, George III, was really insane and about his new British Prime Minister, Bute. The events of the next few years would soon turn the Mitchell family into Whigs, who resisted the Crown's control over the colonies and opposed the Tories or loyalists, who supported the Crown's rights to control the colonists.
As the oldest, twenty-year-old Jean often had the privilege of reading aloud the letters from Uncle Adam Mitchell, Robert's older brother, for whom Adam had been named. Their new home would be five miles west of Uncle Adam, who had moved to North Carolina some ten years ago to homestead a land grant from Lord Cateret, Earl of Granville.
More excited by the day at seeing their new home, the Mitchells loved hearing the letters over and over again, even though they were months old. The letters told of the Nottingham settlers starting The Buffalo Creek Presbyterian Church in a log cabin near Uncle Adam's home on the Buffalo Creek some six years earlier. Before this cabin was built the congregation had met in Uncle Adam's home. The actions of the new King George III affected this small clan of Scots-Irish settlers; as the entire congregation of the Buffalo Creek Church spoke out on the subject of colonial resistance, the British loyalists and Tories harassed many of the families for their political beliefs.
The Nottingham Group of settlers was an independent group, to say the least. Their free-thinking spirit and 150-year history of persecution had created a very strong-willed group of Scots-Irish Presbyterians who were predisposed to embrace the revolutionary movement and declare openly that they were Whigs. The Nottingham Group was made up of farmers, tradesmen, and trappers who had moved west to avoid the impositions forced on them by Parliament. In the backwoods of North Carolina, they felt they were far removed from the problems of this conflict. Time would soon prove them wrong.
As the Conestoga wagon and its team inched its way toward the Potomac River and the Evan Watkins Ferry at the mouth of Canacocheco Creek in Maryland, the activity around the Hamlet of Hagerstown amazed the Mitchells. Hagerstown was just now being formed by German immigrants led by Jonathan Hager who settled there in 1739. Adam stopped to stare at the impressive house built by Mr. Hager for his wife Elizabeth - Hager's Fancy, the locals called it. The young Mitchell lad wondered if he could achieve such success in the backwoods of North Carolina and someday own such a home of his own.
One week had passed since leaving Lancaster County; they could move only about four miles a day on The Great Wagon Road. Adam had started to keep records of the parties they met; they averaged five to six groups per day now. Most of the weary travelers were of Scots-Irish heritage like the Mitchells, and many of the settlers had young sons and daughters the ages of the Mitchell children.
“It's going to be all right,” Robert said as he patted Margaret's hand. “Our children will have ample opportunities to marry into good Presbyterian families even in this vast wilderness we're moving to.”
Margaret smiled and said, “I am relieved.”
They reached Williamsferry,5 the ferry crossing of the Potomac River founded by Otho Holland William, on the eighth day.
At the crossing, a line of wagoners, pack horses, carts, and travelers on foot and horseback were anxiously awaiting their turn to take the ferry across the river. Few travelers were going east; most like young Adam and his family were headed west toward the new frontier and the hope of cheap land.6 It took several days for the Mitchell family's turn to load their large Conestoga wagon on the ferry for the trip across the river. Once across they worked their way down the east side of the Shenandoah Valley to Fredericktown, Virginia. This portion of the trip took another week to traverse.
The family had heard about the Opequon Presbyterian Church, named after a nearby creek. The church -- the first Presbyterian congregation in the Shenandoah Valley -- had been established by the first Scots-Irish settlers to arrive there in 1737. Margaret looked forward to going to church as it had been several Sundays since the family had attended a real service. Robert and Adam felt they were very close to God in the great outdoors and on the road. The women wanted to hear a real preacher and a choir that might even have an organ or piano to accompany the choir and congregation. It would be just like it had been in Lancaster at the Nottingham Church.
After two weeks on The Old Wagon Road, the Mitchells made camp near the Opequon Creek within sight of the church, some three miles south of Fredericktown, Virginia. The area had been a Shawnee Indian camping ground before the arrival of the first Pennsylvania Quakers in 1732. The Mitchells arrived on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Margaret, Mary, and Jean set about washing clothes, baking bread, and getting caught up on chores. Robert and Adam allowed the team of horses to graze the lush grass on the banks of the creek. Twelve-year-old Rebecca set about gathering firewood and finding Indian arrowheads around the camp.
They could all bathe tonight for the first time in many days. Robert had bought soap from a drummer7 while awaiting the ferry at Williamsferry. Margaret and the girls were excited about using the store-bought soap, as it smelled so different from the soap they made from hog rendering and lye. Tonight it would be put to good use ensuring the family would make a proper impression at tomorrow's church service.
A man walked up to the camp. They could tell from the way he was dressed that he hadn't been traveling in a wagon for days. The women looked down at their simple homespun dresses, wrinkled and dusty from travel, then at the portly gentleman in his tailored clothes, nothing like what the farmers in Lancaster wore.
“Hello. I'm John McMachen.” He reached out and shook hands with Robert.
Robert introduced himself. “This is my wife Margaret and my son Adam. My daughters -- Jean, Mary, and Rebecca.”
“Welcome to Frederick County. I came to invite you folks to church. That is ... if you're Presbyterian.” McMachen's voice went slightly higher at the end of the sentence, turning the statement into more of a question.
“Yes sir, we are,” Robert said. “And we're planning to go to church in the morning. We've heard a lot about the Opequon Presbyterian Church. You been going there long?”
“As a matter of fact, my family founded the church and the county too. Why don't you folks come have supper with my wife Isabella and me? We're always glad to meet good Presbyterians.”
The Mitchell family walked the short distance to the McMachen home. Margaret whispered to her husband, “I'm glad we bathed and put on our best clothes. Look at this elegant house! I'm not sure we belong here.”
It didn't take long, though, for everyone to feel right at home. The house might have been more luxurious than they were accustomed to, but the McMachens were Scots-Irish Presbyterians, just like all the Mitchells' family and friends.
After the days of eating beans and salt pork, the meal of chicken, vegetables, biscuits, and pie was a treat. The food was served on pewter plates decorated with the letter “M” for the McMachen name. Even better, no one had to build a fire, unpack or pack up anything, or cook anything in a Dutch oven. The womenfolk felt almost guilty for being so pampered.
“Adam, how old are you?” Mr. McMachen asked.
“The same age as Johnny,” Isabella whispered as she dabbed a tear from her eye with a lace handkerchief.
Mr. McMachen explained, “Our son John drowned three years ago. As a matter of fact, it happened near your campsite.” He paused for a moment. “He was barely fourteen at the time, but he was already showing signs of being a fine young man. Like Adam here.”
Adam hardly heard Mr. McMachen -- he was busy looking at the lovely raven-haired Elizabeth McMachen. He'd never felt like this before. His knees were weak, and he knew he must have a silly grin on his face, but he couldn't help himself. She kept looking at him, too, and smiling. Did she feel the same way? he wondered.
“Girls, why don't you show Adam around the farm?” Mrs. McMachen asked.
Elizabeth and Adam walked side-by-side, followed by Elizabeth's sisters -- Sarah, Rosanna, Nancy, and Jame -- and Adam's sister Rebecca. Elizabeth must have told him about the farm because she was talking to him and pointing things out, but Adam didn't hear anything but the sound of her voice and the giggling of the younger girls.
John and Robert moved to the large front porch overlooking the creek for a lively discussion of politics, farming, and the other things that men discussed after the evening meal. They talked about books, and John told Robert about his father, William McMachen. “He was one of the Justices of Frederick County, and he helped organize Fredericktown -- you know it's the county seat?”
John also had his own still for making whisky and offered some of his special corn whisky to his new friend.
Robert took a swig and smiled. “I prefer my corn in the bottle rather than on the cob.”
They agreed they never knew a Scots-Irish gentleman that didn't enjoy a good drink of whisky.
Right after the men left the table, Isabella McMachen rose and said, “Ladies, let's retire to the parlor.”
Margaret Mitchell said, “Let us help clear the table and clean up in the kitchen.”
“Oh, the servants will take care of everything. We can visit and enjoy ourselves.”
The women walked to the stately parlor. Margaret and her daughters were not accustomed to being served and at first felt uncomfortable sitting and talking when other people were working in the kitchen. However, Isabella was so gracious they soon found themselves visiting with her and enjoying themselves just as they had with their friends back in the Nottingham community.
When they joined the men on the porch, Robert and Margaret agreed it was time to head back to their camp. They sent Jean and Mary to call Adam and Rebecca; the older girls returned with Rebecca, but no Adam.
“Where's Adam?” Margaret asked.
Rebecca answered, “He said he'd be here in a minute.”
“Did you tell him we need to get home so we can sleep and get to church in the morning?” Margaret asked.
“Yes, Mother,” Jean answered. “Mary and I both told him.”
Robert looked around and frowned. “It's not like Adam not to come right away.”
“I think our Adam is smitten. Here he comes now, but he sure looks like he'd rather keep walking with Elizabeth.” Margaret smiled.
Adam didn't want to leave, but he could see everyone else was ready, so he and the rest of the Mitchells said goodnight to their hosts and went on their way. He didn't pay attention to the conversation on the way home -- he was thinking about Elizabeth. She was just about the prettiest girl he'd ever seen.
He did the chores he had to do when the family reached the camp, but he couldn't stop thinking of her pretty black hair and her green eyes. When he closed his eyes to sleep, he saw her smiling lips and dancing eyes and tossed and turned in his bedroll. Would those church bells ever ring? He couldn't wait to see her again at Sunday services.
Finally Sunday morning arrived, and the service that seemed to last forever ended.
After church the congregation held a potluck dinner in honor of the Mitchells' visit.
Adam, his mother, and the girls loved it in Frederick County and tried to persuade Robert to homestead in the Valley close to the church and the McMachen home.
However, Robert was a man of his word. He'd already committed to buy 560 acres from Robert Donnell in Rowan County, North Carolina.8 He would be joining his brother Adam from The Nottingham Colony there. He would not violate his own conscience or embarrass his brother's family by backing out of the sale.
The Mitchell clan stopped by the McMachen house to say their goodbyes. Isabella and Margaret each wiped tears from their eyes as the Mitchell women and Adam started down the lane toward camp.
John clapped Robert on the shoulder. “We have a lot in common and agree on many things. I wish you could stay here, but I know you're a man of honor and have to meet your obligations. I hope to see you again.”
Robert answered, “Of course we'll see each other again. We need strong Scots-Irish Presbyterian families. Let's agree that Adam and Elizabeth will marry and bear us many grandchildren.”
“I will provide young Adam with a generous dowry9 to marry my eldest daughter, and I will forbid any other man to court her, telling them she is spoken for.”
Both men smiled and shook hands in agreement, and the Mitchells walked back to the camp.
On Monday morning, the Mitchell family broke camp and headed southwest on the road to North Carolina. They wouldn't see civilization again until they reached Roanoke, Virginia -- a good thirty days ride over some of the roughest road they had yet to encounter. The Indian summer was over, and fall was in the air. The family had to get to Rowan County before the winter set in. They passed many settlers that had homesteaded along the Shenandoah Valley who were already preparing for the coming winter.
Robert was not only a good farmer, but he was also a shrewd businessman. His brother Adam had written him about the shortage of salt in the backwoods of North Carolina and Virginia. He'd loaded a wooden barrel with salt for the trip. He also had with him all the money he'd acquired over the forty-nine years of his life. The money wouldn't buy much on The Great Wagon Road, but he could trade salt to hunters and trappers for meat, hides, or whisky. In the wilderness salt was medicine and a preservative for curing meats and hides. Everyone needed salt, and Robert was prepared with several hundred pounds on the wagon.
The Mitchell family arrived in Roanoke, Virginia exactly six weeks from the day they left Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Now they would get needed provisions and head due south at least two more weeks on the trail. The leaves were turning early, and Robert and Adam had noticed that the bears were very active and foraging for the winter. The family had to keep moving, not even taking off the Sabbath, which upset Margaret immensely.
On the last day of September, 1762, the tired and weary family rolled into the farm of Uncle Adam Mitchell on the watershed of Buffalo Creek, in what was then Rowan County, North Carolina.
Author: David Bowles
Web site: http://www.westwardsagas.com
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