Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois: The First Roadways

The first white man came to the Illinois country on the lakes and rivers, the area’s natural roadways. With rivers on three sides, southern Illinois was easily accessible by floating downstream. Early arrivals came in this manner and settled along the streams at Vincennes, in Indiana, and New Haven, Shawneetown, Cave-in-Rock, Elizabethtown, Golconda, Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, and Cahokia, Illinois. 

Some trails had previously been made in the area by Indians and wild animals. The early animal trails generally were those between their seasonal feeding grounds or to those spots where buffalo, deer, and elk came to lick the salty earth. Older persons used to point out these distinctly worn trails that converged at the salt licks – trails that tended to vanish after the woodland was cleared for farming. These earlier pathways seldom were located to serve the best purposes of the settlers, however.

Some of the great animal trails like those of the buffalo around the southern end of Lake Michigan and similar ones that led through the passes in our eastern highlands were much used by the Indians and later by whites. There also were some trails made by the Indians as they passed between their villages and hunting grounds or went trading.

There still are small areas in the wooded hills of southern Illinois where bits of animal and Indian trails remain visible. One is among the hills lying south of the deserted roadway leading eastward from the vicinity of Potts’ Tavern, in Hardin County, to the crossing of Saline River near abandoned Saline Mines. A second place where one may see traces of old pathways is in the hills bordering Big Muddy River above Rattlesnake Ferry, in Jackson County. A third place is near Little Muddy River, southest of Elksville. This one leads toward a shallow spot where the stream could not be crossed more easily. The places mentioned are reasonably accessible, but it may be difficult for the unskilled stranger to find them. 

The first overland trails laid out by white men in this section of the state were those beginning at places already named along the Wabash and Ohio rivers and converging upon the Cahokia-Kaskaskia region or leading to Mississippi River crossings. Perhaps earliest of these was the one from Fort Massac to Kaskaskia. It achieved early importance and continued in use for a long time. As other crossing points were established on the Ohio, trails leading from them were merged with the one from Fort Massac to Kaskaskia making that trail increasingly significant. 

These trails or traces were hardly roadways. They seldom were marked in any way and often were so little worn that they could be followed only with difficulty. When roads and trails were marked, it generally was by infrequent blazes on trees along the route. Moreover, road locations often were changed with changing seasons and with shifting patterns of settlement. A seasonal change in location still is pointed out on the old Ford’s Ferry – Gallatin Salines roadway (…). The one on the lower level was the regular roadway, and the one on an upper level still is referred to as the “High Water Road.”

At first there were no bridges nor established ferries, and it was necessary to cross waterways at shallow places or on crude ferries or rafts built at the site. Early accounts tell of the difficulties thus encountered. John Reynolds, later to become governor of the state, tells of the grave situation that arose when an ax was lost in Little Muddy River west of Hurst while a raft was being constructed.

Following these early trails and pathways often was a difficult task. This is indicated by the fact that George Rogers Clark, and his band of expert woodsmen – guided by a man named Duff, whom Clark had engaged – became lost on the Williamson County prairie as they moved to capture Fort Gage, at Kaskaskia, in early July, 1778.

When men first began to lay out roads between settlements, the territory had not been surveyed and there were no land lines to follow. Trails wandered from point to point. Wherever convenient, roadways followed contour lines. Hills and swamps alike were avoided when possible and roadways were laid out to cross streams at the less difficult places. Ash Ford, Rhine Ford, Island Ripple, Fish Trap Shoal, and Pull Right are the names of a few of the early crossings. An occasional old ford, sometimes surfaced with concrete, still is found along the roadways in the Shawnee Forest. In a few places trails still follow along the beds of the streams. 

Sections of these very early roadways, deserted and overgrown, are in view beside the present paved highways. Some excellent bits of such an old roadway are seen on the west side of Highway 1 south of the Saline River.

“Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois” – John W. Allen

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