Trans-Appalachian America and the National Road
Southern New Hampshire University
Following the Revolutionary War, the British ceded the Northwest Territory to the United States. This territory was the land north and west of the Ohio River to the Mississippi. The territory corresponds to the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and an eastern portion of Minnesota. With Britain controlling the Great Lakes to the north and Spain to the south and west, this remained a landlocked territory whose only access to the eastern seaboard was over rugged mountain trails. In 1784, George Washington wrote of the need to link the western territory to the eastern states. He proposed an improved road to link an eastern river with the Ohio. Washington’s vision was accomplished as Congress enacted legislation during the Jefferson Administration for this infrastructure project. In 1811, work began at Fort Cumberland on the Potomac River in Maryland. The road conquered the mountains and reached the Ohio River in 1818. Originally known as the Cumberland Road, the National Road was eventually extended to Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Indiana and finally Vandalia, Illinois in 1837. The federal funding and oversight of the road faced challenges from narrow readings of constitutional authority. Proponents of the road resorted to alarmist rhetoric, portraying the road as necessary, even vital, to prevent the nation becoming divided and separated by the mountainous terrain. This paper will evaluate the alarmist rhetoric in relation to the potential threats of disunion. Primary and secondary sources will be used in an ethnographical analysis of western culture and nationalism to demonstrate that the western settlers were patriots. The threat of disunion was used to justify federal control and funding for the National Road.