Historical Marker #2177 in Stanford commemorates the Wilderness Road, the famous trail that brought thousands of settlers into Kentucky and set the stage for the westward expansion of the United States.
The route that eventually became known as the Wilderness Road evolved from several different earlier pathways. Originally, the trail was little more than a way through the wilderness for large mammals such as buffalo and elk, which once populated the area in large numbers and that followed natural paths of least resistance. On the heels of these large animals came the Native Americans, who hunted them for sustenance and used their paths for travel. Finally, early European-American explorers also used the game and Indian trails for hunting excursions and to seek out new lands for settlement.
When Richard Henderson purchased thousands of acres of what would become Kentucky land from the Cherokees in 1774, he commissioned Daniel Boone to build a route—Boone Trace—through Cumberland Gap and north into the Bluegrass Region. Boone and Henderson established the settlement of Boonesborough at the end of Boone Trace, in present-day Madison County, in the spring of 1775.
As more settlers followed Boone Trace into Kentucky, it developed various branches off the main route to diverse frontier stations and settlements. One branch forked from Boone Trace in present-day Laurel County and followed Skagg's Trace northwest toward Crab Orchard. That route was eventually extended to the settlement at Harrodsburg, and then to the falls of the Ohio River (present-day Louisville.)
Originally, Boone Trace was little more than a walking path, not large enough for wagon travel. The Wilderness Road, which developed from Boone Trace, was widened and improved in the 1790s. Before acquiring the name, Wilderness Road, the route was called by various names. John Filson's famous 1784 map of "Kentucke" labeled the road "The Road from the Old settle[ments] thro' the great Wilderness." One of the first true mentions of the Wilderness Road ran in the Lexington, "Kentucky Gazette" on October 15, 1796. It reads, "The Wilderness Road from Cumberland Gap to the settlements in Kentucky is now compleated. Waggons loaded with a ton of weight, may pass with ease, with four good horses."
Today, only a few original sections of the Wilderness Road survive. These relics of the past serve as a reminder of Kentucky's long history and the primary stages of America's westward expansion.