Milligan professor Jim Dahlman near Cumberland Gap. (Contributed)
Jim Dahlman just spent a month doing what Daniel Boone did 238 years ago.
It was a bit different, of course. In 1775, Boone had to forge his own path through ancient forests to create what became known as the Wilderness Road. Dahlman generally followed modern highways that now run along this same route to the interior of Kentucky.
But he walked the whole way, meeting people, taking in the sights and gathering stories that make up this historic path as it is today.
Dahlman, a professor at Milligan College who teaches journalism and other mass media courses, said prior to embarking on this trek that he was going as a journalist more than a historian.
“I was able to talk to at least one person every day of my trip,” he said a few days after returning this three-week journey. “Often somebody would be out on their porch or yard working and I would be able to talk to them.”
These conversations will probably form the core of the book Dahlman plans to write from this experience.
Dahlman described his trip as challenging and very tiring, but he expected that. What he did not expect was to gain strength, which allowed him to walk farther each day than originally planned. He had to make himself slow down so he could take in everything and engage in conversation.
The Wilderness Road technically starts at the Anderson Blockhouse in Scott County, Va. For about 35 or 40 years after Boone cut his swath, settlers from farther east would gather at the blockhouse before heading on into the wilds of Kentucky.
But Dahlman started at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton May 22 because that is where the Transylvania Purchase was completed, and those men who made that purchase were the ones who hired Boone to cut the trail to the “west.”
“Basically, he was hired to prove it so settlers could begin making their way into what was then considered the wilderness, in Kentucky,” Dahlman said.
This frontier of wilderness belonged to Cherokee Indians. In March 1775, Richard Henderson, a land speculator from North Carolina, purchased around 20 million acres of land in Kentucky and Middle Tennessee from the Cherokee. This Transylvania Purchase needed to be settled, and to do that you needed a reliable and sure path to the area.
Boone and a group of men were hired to forge this path into the interior of this land, reaching what is today Boonesborough, Ky. Boone built a fort here.
“The Wilderness Road became the most traveled route into the west,” Dahlman said.
Now, most of the route Boone blazed is paved by roads — U.S. Highway 23, U.S. Highway 58 and U.S. Highway 25E to be specific.
Dahlman’s trek was prompted by a required project for his master’s of fine arts degree in creative non-fiction from Goucher College in Baltimore.
He plans to write a book this fall about his experience on the Wilderness Road, which he chose as a topic because of its accessibility to him and his interest in history.
The people he spoke to were largely willing to talk to him, even telling him their life stories.
“And I think part of that is these folks don’t often have a chance to tell their stories,” Dahlman said.
One man he met in Gate City, Va., befriended him and told of a life of hardship due to disability. But the man knew a lot about gathering plants and herbs that he had learned from his grandmother, who was Cherokee. The man also told Dahlman how he grew up with no electricity and plowed fields with mules to plant crops. The man was 38.
This man makes wooden jewelry and hiking sticks for sale, but Dahlman said it occurred to him that there is really not a place for him in the modern economy.
“I was really taken with him,” Dahlman said. “I really liked this guy.”
The last interview of his trip was conducted at the reconstructed fort that Daniel Boone built in Boonesborough. He arrived here June 14.
This man lived nearby in a cabin in the woods that he built.
“He basically lives as though he’s living on the frontier in the late 1700s, early 1800s,” Dahlman said.
While Dahlman did not exactly live the life of a mountain man while on this hike, he did spend about half the nights in a tent. The rest of the time was in hotels and in guest rooms of peoples’ homes.
“There was a lot of generosity along the way,” he said. “Everybody I met was friendly.”
The whole journey was close to 300 miles.
“My romantic notions about nature and getting back in the wilderness were shot down,” he said. “That would have been a tough life.”