The National Road & The True Gateway to the West


George Washington on his mission to deliver a message to the French from Governor Dinwiddie in 1754.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Steubenville, OH and how it was, according to present day Steubenville residents, the real gateway to the west, long before St. Louis adopted the title. I heard from several readers that Steubenville couldn’t lay claim to the title, either, and the “real”gateway to the west was Pittsburgh, PA. So, I’m revisiting this obviously touchy subject.

Today, a road stretches from east to west across America from Maryland to Missouri. It has been called, since its inception, the National Road. Today, it’s also called Route 40 and is nicely paved, with rest stops along the way, and signs directing a driver to points of interest. It wasn’t always so civilized. It was once a vast forest that needed to be hacked out, and the actual road which stretches west from Maryland to Indiana and beyond was not accessible until well into the early 1800s.


The Allegheny Mountains, through which part of the National Road was carved out.

However, it was the road used by millions who were making the trek from the original eastern states to the west. About 620 miles long, it was begun in 1754. This was the first major highway funded by the Federal Government. The road begins at Cumberland, MD, over the Allegheny Mountains, through southwestern PA and on to Wheeling, WV. Plans were to continue the road as far as St. Louis, MO, but Federal funding ran dry, and construction was halted at Vandalia, IL. The full road, which today stretches from east in Baltimore to west in St. Louis, was designated “The Historic National Road” in 2002.

Before the road, though, people were using waterways to traverse the area. The Ohio River was a main conduit. Lewis and Clarke set off on their Corps of Discovery expedition on the Monongahela River, which merges with the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River. So technically, their voyage did not set out from St. Louis, as is claimed. It starts much farther east. And Pittsburgh was a much earlier “gateway”to the west.

Let me take you back to the year 1754 for a moment. The Ohio River Valley was a vast wilderness and was considered the western frontier of the United States. The country was divided up between the English, the French and the Spanish. Settlers on the east coast wanted more land to settle, and wished to move west. But the land was harsh and lawless. A young major named George Washington was sent on a diplomatic mission by the governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie. The French, with whom he was meeting, politely told Major Washington they were not giving up their territory, which spread from the Great Lakes to New Orleans. Dinwiddie needed to put boots on the ground, and quickly, if Americans had any hope of expansion beyond the east coast. In March, 1754, a fort was erected in The Forks, which is better known today as Pittsburgh. In April of that year, Dinwiddie sent George Washington out with orders to make the fort secure, and to build up supplies. As part of his mission, he was charged with building a road that could handle heavy wagon traffic and artillery.

The road did not come easily, however. The terrain was rough, mountainous and covered in woods and brush. The men building the road quickly exhausted themselves from the strenuous labor and short rations which they encountered. It took them six weeks to advance the road sixty miles, to the site of the Great Meadows, near present day Uniontown, PA. While they were camped out there, Washington got word the French were advancing upon his crew. By now, his rank had risen to Lt. Colonel and Washington decided to take the battle to the French. He met their commander, Joseph Coulon de Villieers de Jumonville, after a long night of trekking with forty of his men through the dark treacherous forest.


The plaque designating the site of the first skirmish of the French & Indian War.

Ten French soldiers were killed, 21 were captured. Only one man under Washington’s command was killed in the encounter. At least one French soldier escaped, compromising the mission. So, without reinforcements, Washington could not attack The Forks. The French were deeply entrenched in the Ohio Valley and had the assistance of the native Indians. He needed to finish the road.

This skirmish between George Washington and Ensign Jumonville was the precursor to the French and Indian War. Washington retreated to Great Meadows and set about building a fort, which he called Fort Necessity. When the rest of the Virginia militia arrived, along with British troops from South Carolina, Washington once again turned his attention to the road. Most of June was spent opening a road from Fort Necessity to Gist’s Plantation, in the direction of The Forks. However, a large contingent of French advancing on Fort Necessity forced Washington to move back to the fort, where he ultimately surrendered to the French after days of heavy fighting and casualties. The French burned Fort Necessity and Washington returned back east. This was his first taste of military battle, and was good training for the upcoming Revolutionary War.


A reenactment of the battle at Fort Necessity


The Great Meadows, near Uniontown, PA

In 1755, General Edward Braddock, joined by Washington’s Virginia militia and native American Indian scouts, returned to the road, chopping their way to Fort Pitt. Their mission was to take Fort Duquesne from the French. The fort was strategically placed at the confluence of the Ohio River with the Allegheny and the Monongahela. The going was rough, however, and the French got wind of the project. They attacked the road workers and mortally wounded General Braddock.

Work on the road west continued during the seven-year long French and Indian War. This first Federally-funded road was partly responsible for the Revolutionary War, as the British tried to recoup some of the money spent on the French & Indian War by increasing the taxes on goods coming into the country. Following the Revolutionary War, work on the road continued, sanctioned by our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. By 1818, the road stretched from Cumberland, MD to Wheeling, WV. In 1820, Congress authorized a continuation of the road to St. Louis, MO. This road eventually became the first leg of the long journey west through St. Louis and St. Joseph, MO and on to Oregon and California.

Here are a few websites for this topic: