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Claiming the Paradise Land

Chapter 11 of The Wilderness Road by Robert L. Kincaid, 1947

A long wagon train rolled into Fort Chiswell one pleasant day in October 1781, when the southwest Virginia hills were tinted with a thousand shades of gold and crimson. The drivers brought their wagons to a halt in the clearing around the frontier post on the Great Road, and began to unload women and children. Riders tied their horses to near-by trees, and servants and slaves put up tents and prepared meals at campfires. The slopes were covered with more than five hundred people, talking, laughing and singing as they busied themselves in making camp. It was a welcome rest after a day's journey from Ingles Ferry on New River.

The leader of this large throng of travelers went among the family groups, made inquiries about their welfare and exchanged pleasantries. He was clearly much beloved and respected by the people, despite his unprepossessing looks. He was about forty years old, slight in figure, stoop-shouldered, and with black, curly hair and deep, burning eyes.

The Reverend Lewis Craig and the entire congregation of the Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church were on their way to Kentucky in spite of Indians, Tories, hard winters and the Revolution. For three weeks they had been on the road from their homes in Spotsylvania County. They had passed through the plantations and villages of eastern Virginia toward the misty peaks of the towering Blue Ridge wall, over the divide at Buford's Gap, and they were now upon the Great Road leading out of the Valley of Virginia into the west. Singing gospel hymns, holding nightly religious services and listening to fervent exhortations from Craig and other ministers in the company, they kept moving westward, a gay, congenial party bound for the "promised land" of far-off Kentucky.

This mass uprooting of a church organization for transplanting six hundred miles away into a frontier land of danger and hardship was inspired by the spirit and magnetism of Craig, pastor of the church for eleven years. As information came to him of the wild and riotous life of the settlers pouring into Kentucky, he felt a call to carry the gospel into the wilderness. With the characteristic zeal of Christian ministers seeking new fields to evangelize, he decided that Kentucky needed him.

Craig was especially fitted for such a mission. One of the early dissenters of the established forms of worship in Virginia, he had tongue-lashed the restrictions and formalism of the episcopacy and had protested vigorously against paying taxes for the support of a state church. Twice he had been thrown into jail because of his nonconformity. Singing with his companions while being taken to jail and preaching through the bars to all who would listen, he had defied the courts. Freed at least because of the rising tide of religious freedom brought about by such eloquent advocates as Patrick Henry, he had become the pastor of the Upper Spotsylvania Church, which prospered under his leadership.

When Craig had appeared before his congregation in early September 1781 and announced his intention of going to Kentucky as a missionary, hundreds of his members crowded around him at the close of the service and insisted on going with him. This spontaneous outburst was not wholly because of their love and loyalty for their pastor and desire to be with him wherever he went. They had heard many extravagant tales about the second Canaan beyond the mountains in the Bluegrass of Kentucky and had seen many of their neighbors pull up stakes and take the westward road. They longed to go, too. Their decision was an evidence of the restless spirit sweeping all the older settlements in the East.

When the news got around in Spotsylvania County that Craig and most of his church members were moving to Kentucky, many neighbors and friends not connected with the church also asked permission to go along. Craig welcomed them all and set a date for the departure. The whole countryside turned out for a farewell meeting. The families who were to make the journey brought their wagons, household furnishings, provisions and farm stock for the rendezvous. All day long, visiting ministers preached parting sermons. Finally Craig delivered his own farewell message. The vast company camped in the church grove, and early the next morning at the sound of the bugle, the wagons wheeled into line for the long journey.

Among the other preachers in the company were Joseph Bledsoe, later to be the father of Senator Jesse Bledsoe of Kentucky, Joseph Craig, brother of the leader, who once "laid down in the road" when he was arrested for preaching without a license, William Cave, a relative of the Craigs, and Simeon Walton, former pastor of the Nottaway Church. These men like Craig looked to Kentucky as a great field for their religious labors. Young Captain William Ellis, son of a patriotic sire who had also been jailed for nonconformist preaching, was in charge of the armed guards and arranged the wagon train.

The travelers had good roads and pleasant weather until they reached Fort Chiswell, a central gathering point on the Great Road for families and small companies moving into the West. Here a militia company was stationed for the defense of the frontier, and a store, tavern and other conveniences were maintained for the accommodation of the traffic. A minor road came across Flower Gap from North Carolina and joined the Great Road, and travelers out of the Great Valley in Virginia united with those coming from the Carolinas. The fort was a busy center. Final preparations were made here for the long journey ahead.

Much to their disappointment, Craig and his followers leaned at Fort Chiswell that they would have to abandon their wagons and transfer their belongings to packhorses. True, they could take the wagons for another hundred miles along the good road to Boone's Trace, but here at the fort they could sell or trade all the things that they could not take the rest of the way. The keepers of the store and tavern and the settlers in the neighborhood all carried on a big business in heavy household goods, food and supplies.

It was a crushing blow for Craig and his people to give up their wagons so early in their journey. The women and children hated to leave the luxury of wheels for a hard and uncertain horseback ride. But it could not be helped. Huge baskets and bundles of clothing, bed furnishings and household articles were prepared and lashed upon packhorses. Children were crowded on top, or rode in front and behind their mothers and relatives. The men and older boys who did not have mounts trudged along on foot. Thus accoutered, the company strung out on the road to the dark wilderness with its unknown terrors.

Slowly the pack train proceeded by easy stages to Black's Fort at Wolf Hills. Here Craig got disturbing information. He learned the Colonel Arthur Campbell, lieutenant of the newly formed County of Washington, had been busy all spring and summer trying to stop the Cherokee outrages on the road from the Block House to Cumberland Gap. Campbell had marched with a company of 150 volunteers into the Cherokee country and destroyed three towns, killed twenty Indians and rescued about fifteen captives, mostly children. Captain Joseph Martin, at Long Island, had also taken sixty-five men on a nineteen-day expedition against the Indian towns below Cumberland Gap to the mouth of Powell River and dispersed a body of savages who had been molesting the Road. But Craig was told that the ravages had not stopped and that it would not be safe to cross the wilderness at this time. He reluctantly decided to halt, hoping the delay would not last until winter--a bad time for traveling.

Craig and his men built temporary huts, molded bullets, repaired packsaddles, made moccasins and mended their worn clothing. Their livestock was kept in good condition on the extensive pastures around the settlement. Craig also labored at his religious work. A group of Baptists from Orange, County, Virginia, on their way to Kentucky had temporarily halted at Wolf Hills. He helped to organize them into a church of their own. He preached, prayed, exhorted and baptized at frequent gatherings, and kept the spirit of his people high.

A high moment came during their stay at Wolf Hills. They learned that Washington had capture Cornwallis at Yorktown. The war for independence had turned in favor of the colonists. The Spotsylvanians joined in the celebration at the fort, shooting off guns ad holding a mammoth service of thanksgiving and prayer. At last, word came that the Indians on the Road had gone back to their towns for the winter. Members of the congregation made hurried preparations to be on their way.

Early in November at the sound of the horn from the armed guards, Craig and his company broke camp and marched forward. Down the long road in a single file three miles long the company proceeded slowly, with a vanguard of horsemen alert for danger. They passed the Block House and entered the wilderness at Moccasin Gap where Boone's Trace began. In the Clinch River country they crossed marshes and sloughs, those on foot suffering from scalded feet, neuralgia and rheumatism. Women became weary from long hours on horseback. The children fretted. In camp at night, pickets stood guard and Negroes watched the horses. Craig held religious services and often recited the story of the Israelites in the wilderness seeking the land of Canaan. His strong and resonant voice echoed from the surrounding crags as he exhorted and prayed for strength for his own wandering pilgrims.

Drenching rains which turned to sleet and snow swelled the Clinch and Powell Rivers. The packhorses had to be unloaded, and rafts ferried over with the women, children and supplies. The slippery trace became a quagmire in which the horses sloshed and struggled. The men, boys and slaves, on foot, labored in knee-deep mud, their moccasins ruined and their feet torn and bleedings. The supply of hard biscuits laid in at Wolf Hills became moldy and the company subsisted on beef from their dwindling herd of cattle and the wild meat procured by the hunters.

The straggling caravan traveled three weeks over Boone's Road from Moccasin Gap to Cumberland Gap. They reached the gateway in the Cumberland range in December. A north wind sucked through the pass, driving hard snow into their faces. There were no more pleasant camps and religious meetings! Preceded by armed men bundled in heavy coats, the column pushed ahead as rapidly as possible. Babies whimpered in their baskets, little girls cuddled up in their wraps, older boys struggled over boulders on foot, and mothers were sober and tight-lipped as they clucked their forces forward.

Into Yellow Creek Valley, terrifying in the winter gloom, the long train disappeared. Through mudholes, big sloughs and canebrake marshes, the company toiled until they reached the ford of Cumberland River. The stream was high and full of floating ice. There was no time for delay. The women and children rode across on the horses and the men and boys waded waist-deep in the icy waters. Once across they pushed on ahead, their wet clothes freezing stiff in the bitter wind. Thus the slow-moving company sloshed on, across Stinking Creek, Richland Creek and Big and Little Laurel Rivers. At Hazel Patch, they turned westward on Skaggs Trace, fought off a stray band of Indians and came out of the Rockcastle country

The weather moderated when the company was within a day's journey of Crab Orchard. The travelers broke into song as the column wound out of the wilderness, and happy slaves snatched children from their cramped positions in baskets and carried them on their strong shoulders. The company trailed into English's Station east of Crab Orchard, happy that they were near their journey's end. Another day brought them to Logan's Station where they were received with rifle salutes from all the settlers. Broken families were reunited and old neighbors and acquaintances embraced one another. The newcomers were feted and entertained before blazing log fires. Log into the night the frontier post echoed with laughter and song.

Craig did not linger at Logan's Station. He sent out scouts to have a good location for his church. Their Canaan was found on Gilbert's Creek, a tributary of Dick's River, two and a half miles from the present site of Lancaster, in Garrard County, Kentucky. Here his people cleared the land, built a stockade and erected cabins. On the second Sunday in December 1781 in an open grove he held the first organized service of the transplanted church. The records were unpacked and the church roll and minute book brought out. Using the worn Bible he had carried through the wilderness, he preached to his followers and offered a prayer of thanksgiving for their safe arrival in the new land. They were welcomed by the Reverend William Marshall, the "loud thunder-gust" preacher of the Shenandoah who had come to Kentucky the year before.

In a few weeks a log house of worship was build on a rounded knoll a half mile from the clearing, and the Upper Spotsylvania Church became officially Gilbert's Creek Church, the third Baptist organization to be formed in Kentucky. It was preceded only a few months by the Severn's Valley Church near Elizabethtown, in Hardin County, organized June 18, 1781, and the Cedar Creek Church, five miles from Bardstown, in Nelson County, begun July 4, 1781.

The next year Craig moved to Squire Boone's Station on Clear Creek near the future site of Shelbyville. This weakened his old church on Gilbert's Creek, but it was soon strengthened by a new contingent from Spotsylvania County, led by the Reverend William Waller. Also in September 1783 the people from Orange County, Virginia, who had been organized by Craig into a church at Wolf HIlls arrived to swell the rolls of the church.

The migration of Craig's company was the forerunner of other large companies moving into the West on the Wilderness Road after the close of the Revolution. Still only a horse trail, it was crowded with endless caravans of homeseekers..

Although Craig's removal to the West was missionary in spirit, his followers came with many motives. The poor and the landless, the redemptioners and the persecuted, rich planters and lords of the manor, all were on the march to build new estates. Speculators greedily seized large boundaries for exploitation. Rough, unlettered frontiersmen with shabby household plunder mingled with courtly gentlemen and their entourages of slaves and servants. Some were fleeing from debts, troubles with the law and the hard existence in the mountains along the trail where they had eddied for a time. Some ventured out of curiosity. Some joined hopeful neighbors who believed in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.