The following article was written by my friend, Bill Dollarhide:

Do your ancestors have you stumped? Well, it could be that some of your ancestors were stumped too — on Zane’s Trace. Here is a bit of history on the earliest wagon roads your ancestors used to travel to their new lands in the Ohio Country.

The First Western Migration Routes

After the Revolutionary War, emigrants discovered the Ohio River as a convenient highway to the newly opened public lands in the west. Brownsville, Pittsburgh and Wheeling became the first gateways to the west, where a migrant family could stop and built a flatboat to float down the Ohio River to their new lands. The main overland routes to access the Ohio River were roads built during the French and Indian War; and routes developed during the Revolutionary War. Virtually all of the western migrations overland to the Ohio River were along one of these routes during the last half of the 18th Century. There were four (4) main routes:

1) Braddock’s Road, constructed in 1755, followed the same path as today’s U.S. Highway 40 from Cumberland, Maryland to Uniontown, Pennsylvania; then PA highway 51 into Pittsburgh.

2) Forbes Road, built in 1758, followed a route nearly the same as today’s Pennsylvania Turnpike from Harrisburg to Bedford, PA, then along the present route of U.S. Highway 30, also terminating at Pittsburgh.

3) Allegheny River. This water route began at Olean, NY, and led to Pittsburgh, PA. The Olean landing saw travelers arrive from northern points (such as Buffalo) as well as from eastern points (such as Albany).

4) Gist’s Trace/Monongahela River. Gist’s Trace began as early as 1782, as a wagon road that left Braddock’s Road at Uniontown, PA, and followed the same route that Interstate 70 follows today to Brownsville, PA, located on the Monongahela River. Brownsville was the first waterborne access point to the Ohio River, by floating north on the Monongahela, some 35 miles to Pittsburgh, the start of the Ohio River.

A By-Pass Route

In 1796, Gist’s Trace was extended overland to Wheeling, located on the Ohio River. Wheeling, VA, now entered the picture as a new gateway to the west, with a new route that by-passed Pittsburgh as another way to the Ohio River. Generally, people leaving Philadelphia, Lancaster, or Harrisburg, all points along old Forbes’ Road, now called the Pennsylvania Road, continued to follow that route as the most direct way to access the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. But with the new by-pass route in 1796, wagon traffic from points as far east as Baltimore or Alexandria could take the old Braddock’s Road, now called the Cumberland Road, and continue using the same wagon all the way to Wheeling, VA.

The Wheeling Ferry and Zane’s Trace

Ebenezer Zane was a Virginian who established Fort Henry on the Ohio River in 1769, the site of what was to become the city of Wheeling, Virginia, now West Virginia. Zane and his brothers defended Fort Henry during the Revolutionary War, and he was given the commission of Colonel by the Virginia Militia for the duration of the war. After the creation of the Northwest Territory in 1787, Zane ended up with control of both sides of the most advantageous ferry crossing site on the Ohio River for emigrants moving into the new Northwest Territory. Most locals still referred to the area as “the Ohio Country,” which became the focus of the first western land speculations in America. Initially, the Ohio Country was promoted by private land developers with large tracts of land along the Ohio River. After some ten years experimenting with a new land surveying system, the federal government got into the land sales business in a big way. The first federal tracts of land opened for public land sales and settlement in 1796. As a result of his strategic location near the first public land sales, and with a monopoly on ferry crossings, Ebenezer Zane would soon become a wealthy man.

Colonel Ebenezer Zane was known for another accomplishment as well. He was in charge of the construction of the first wagon road into the Ohio Country, which became known as Zane’s Trace. In 1796, Zane made a deal with the U.S. Federal Government to construct a road, beginning at his ferry landing across from Wheeling, and heading west into the public land areas of what was to become the state of Ohio. Zane said he would build the road from Wheeling, Virginia to Limestone (now Maysville, KY), in exchange for land grants where the new road intersected the Muskingum, Hocking, and Scioto rivers.

In 1796, Zane’s Trace was created as a rough path, and first amounted to a horse path cut through the giant trees of the wilderness, following an existing Indian path. Zane built ferries at each of the river crossings. After Zane built a ferry at the mouth of the Licking River, a small town developed, eventually named Zanesville, which is today the county seat and largest city in Muskingum County. Later, Zanesville’s most famous native was author Zane Grey, a descendant of Ebenezer Zane.

Getting Stumped

In 1800, the road was widened from Wheeling to Zanesville, but it was steep with deep ruts, making travel difficult. However, the Trace was the only major road in Ohio until after the War of 1812. Ebenezer Zane’s woodsmen cut down trees to make a trace of a road. But, there was not a lot of care in the tree felling, and stumps of the fallen trees still remained along the entire route. After 1800, Horse-drawn wagons could negotiate the trace, but often the tree stumps were so high or close together that a wagon would become high centered, or stuck between stumps. Travelers began calling the experience of getting stuck on left-over tree stumps as “getting stumped,” a term which continues today — when we are stuck on something.

In 1803, after Ohio received its statehood, the state legislature set aside money to improve Zane’s Trace and make it accessible by wagon. Trees were cut down to make it 20 feet wide and bridges were built. Soon travel by wagon from Wheeling to Chillicothe was then possible. Settlements sprang up along the way, with businesses such as taverns and inns that catered to the travelers. Farmers used the road to transport their crops to market.

The very first public land sales in America took place near Zane’s Trace — it is how your ancestors gained access to their new lands in the interior of the Ohio Country. Zane’s Trace was the primary access to the entire U.S. Military District and the upper portion of the Virginia Military District, two reserves of public land set aside for bounty land given to soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Although many of the soldiers sold their bounty land grants, many of the people who used them to acquire land in the Northwest Territory followed Zane’s Trace to get there.

In Lancaster, Ohio, Zane’s Trace crossed the Hocking River. German settlers used the road for their westward travels, many arriving from Pennsylvania. The Trace provided the way for such a large population of German settlers that by 1809, Lancaster was publishing a Germany language newspaper, Der Ohio Adler.

The Line of Zane’s Trace Today

Going west from Wheeling to Zanesville, the line of Zane’s Trace is identical to what became part of the National Road by 1820, then U.S. Highway 40, and today, very close to the path followed by Interstate 70. From Zanesville, the route followed a southwestern direction; the first portion along the same route now called U.S. Highway 22; and from Lancaster, Ohio, close to what is now OH Highway 159 into Chillicothe. From Chillicothe, the roadway continued southwest on what is now OH Highway 104, which merges with U.S. Highway 23, then south to Waverly, and back on OH 104, continuing southwest to OH Highway 32 (the James A. Rhodes Appalachian Highway), passing by the village of Elm Grove, and continuing to the junction with OH Highway 41, just south of the town of Peebles. Continue southwest on OH Highway 41 to West Union, then Bentonville, and finally, the Ohio River. The 1796 route connected to the Ohio River again at present-day Aberdeen, a ferry-boat ride across the river from Limestone (now Maysville, Kentucky), where one would find a wagon road to Lexington, Kentucky.

Dollarhide’s Rule 17: Finding the county where a person lived may lead to finding that person’s arrest record.

Since the original trace of the first wagon road into Ohio can be followed by using a modern map, take these descriptions of the routes to Google Maps or your Rand-McNally Road Atlas. Find the modern routes mentioned and then find the modern counties the trace runs through today. If you think an ancestor may have traveled this way, the county list is a “to do” list for looking at the records available for each county. Go to the FHL catalog (www.familysearch.org) and see what records for that county have been microfilmed. If there were a lag between the time your ancestor was known to have been in a Pennsylvania county and later shows up in an Ohio county – you now have the route the family followed, the counties they passed through, and, a method of finding the right county where they may have stopped for some time en route.

The entire length of Zane’s Trace covered about 220 miles, passing through the 1796 Northwest Territory counties of Jefferson, Washington, Ross, and Hamilton. Today, the line of the same route passes through the modern Ohio counties of Belmont, Guernsey, Muskingum, Perry, Fairfield, Pickaway, Ross, Pike, Adams, and Brown. If your ancestors moved into these areas early, the route they followed to get there was undoubtedly the wagon road known as Zane’s Trace. If they stopped en route, one of the counties mentioned may have records of their stay in that location.

Dollarhide’s Rule 47: Your ancestors may have you stumped. But, if your ancestors traveled on Zane’s Trace, they may have been tree stumped!

Zane’s Trace vs the Ohio River Flatboats

Many of the first migrations into the Ohio Country were via Zane’s Trace, but another large group of migrations never left the Ohio River. While Zane’s Trace was being developed, and continuing on for the next twenty years, the flatboat era saw thousands of people use the Ohio River route to access their new public land grants.

The Flatboat Era

From about 1787 to 1815, the main family transportation on the Ohio River was by a flatboat designed for a one-way trip. The first flatboat in America was built by Jacob Yoder of Brownsville, Pennsylvania. In 1782, Yoder proved to the world that America’s waterways could be efficient transportation highways. He began his first commercial flatboat voyage loaded with flour at Brownsville, located on the Monongahela River, and floated north some 35 miles to Pittsburgh, where three rivers merge to form the Ohio River. He then floated down the entire length of the Ohio River to the Mississippi, and then all the way to New Orleans. His commercial venture was a huge success, and within a few weeks, dozens of flatboats were making the same journey.


Ohio River Flatboat. From a drawing in 1796 in Victor Collot’s Voyage dans l’Amerique Septentrionale, published in Paris, 1826.

The commercial applications of the flatboat caught on immediately, but migrating families soon discovered their value as well. After the creation of the Northwest Territory in 1787, migrating families heading to the Ohio River via horse-drawn wagons might stop at Brownsville or Pittsburgh. There they would construct a custom-built flatboat capable of holding wagons, household furniture, barrels of food and commodities; plus horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and children. They would first hire a boatman, usually recruited out of a local tavern.

The for-hire boatman would supervise the construction of a large, steerable, flat-bottom vessel. The flatboats were constructed of lumber and nails that would later be disassembled as building material. The boatmen were experts in navigating streams, and provided another long-rifle to ward off bandits en route. After arriving at his client’s destination, a boatman would walk back up river to his starting point (or to the closest Tavern). The migrating families would use the flatboat lumber for their first shelters upon their arrival at their new homesites along the Ohio River and tributaries.

Whole new industries and occupations were created to cater to the building and outfitting of the flatboats, and specialists in the building and handling of the boats were in great demand. The main flatboat towns of Brownsville, Pittsburgh, and Wheeling, developed sawmills, ironworks, and fabricators – producing lumber, nails, tools, cooking utensils, barrels, wheels, and other manufactured products that led to the town’s rapid industrial growth. Pittsburgh contributed the most, and after greatly benefiting from the flatboat boom era, Pittsburgh became the steel capital of the world.

The Ohio River water route from Pittsburgh to Wheeling first flows northwest, followed by an 180 degree bend that comes back southwest to Wheeling. During the flatboat era, that stretch of the Ohio had sections where the summer water levels were often too low for boats to navigate. During the times of low water, the flatboat traffic out of Pittsburgh came to a halt. As a result, there was a need for a way to by-pass the low water sections. The answer was to use the route of Gist’s Trace, extending that wagon road overland from Brownsville to Wheeling, an extension that by-passed Pittsburgh altogether. The Gist’s Trace extension was completed in 1796, allowing Wheeling to become a new Gateway to the West.

With the construction of Zane’s Trace soon after the Gist’s Trace extension, western migrations could continue overland directly into the interior of the Ohio Country. The new wagon road was a great attraction to those who had military bounty land warrants from the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Military District and the Virginia Military District were both accessible via Zane’s Trace. But, flatboat voyages along the Ohio River was still the preferred method of travel if the destination was to points in the southern portions of present Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Although the first steamboats were introduced on the Ohio River in 1812, they did not dominate river transportation until the classic flat-bottom steamboat design took hold in 1815. That was the end of the flatboat era.

For additional information, see:
Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1820, by William Dollarhide.
Highway History, U.S. Department of Transportation. For a short history of Zane’s Trance, see
www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/back0803.cfm.