"Walking Ancient Kentucky”
An essay on travel across the Kentucky landscape
September 19, 2014
We know little about the lives of the Native Americans at the time of first contact, and even less
about their lives in the preceding 15-30,000 years. We can offer some reasonable speculations.
It is generally believed that eastern Kentucky was never the permanent home of large numbers of Native Americans.
The land offered little more than abundant wild game. Arable land is limited to the flood plains of the
few major rivers of the region. The western Bluegrass region and the flat lands of central Ohio would have
been much more appealing. There are few archeological sites that offer evidence of permanent settlements.
Villages that existed may have been constructed close to rivers and creeks which were subject to flooding.
Not only would that have made our hollows less desirable as long term building sites,
the regular flooding would also tend to erase any archeological record of habitation.
One might guess that the creek and river bottoms were also less secure from attack. Sight lines are quite
restricted and even a stout fortification would suffer under the disadvantage of high ground (the hills)
nearby from which attacks could be launched. Also, the major river bottoms which offered level land for
agriculture and homes would also be the most likely route that strangers would follow through a region.
A resident population would need to be forever on guard against interlopers entering the settlement while
the male residents were away hunting game. The land would never support a population large enough to
maintain an adequate defense against those who would do the residents harm.
It would be a mistake to think that there was one, single routing of the Warrior's Path throughout
Native American history. Over the course of thousands of years, the optimal paths through the hills
would have been discovered, forgotten and rediscovered many times. A community of people who possessed
special knowledge about the trail might disappear or migrate to a new area, and those that came later
may have very well had to find their own paths through these hills as best they could using their own
resourcefulness, interests and available time. Just by fate and circumstance, generations of aboriginal
people might use a less than optimal route just because it was familiar and did the job "well enough".
Some routes might require less time or energy to follow, but a route that was easier to follow might be
chosen instead. We must keep in mind that these were non-literate peoples, and we know from out own
historical experience that even things that are written down hundreds of times can be lost and forgotten.
The pre-contact Kentucky landscape was in no way a mysterious land to Native Americans.
Walking across the length and width of Kentucky was probably not unlike driving across it today
with the aid of a good map. Kentucky had been thoroughly traveled by individual clans for
generations, and by Native Americans for hundreds of generations. Such an historic experience
inevitably instills great familiarity.
Although the Europeans who first made contact with Native Americans learned of some of the
pathways across the Kentucky landscape, and a few of them were preserved in the form of these
maps, the actual number of known trails was no doubt only limited by human recollection.
The hills and hollows of Eastern Kentucky were as familiar to the Native American hunters of
Eastern Kentucky as our local modern day parks and neighborhoods are to us. They were not
limited to crossing the land on the narrow strips of public highway we use today,
and they did not pass through it at 70 miles per hour.
Their knowledge was based on an intimacy gained by walking freely across a land without
fences or private property line boundaries. The freedom of movement that they experienced
without question, is nearly incomprehensible to us today.
"Finding" the path ahead
In the real world, energy and directional efficiency relies on being able to repeatedly and reliably
follow what has been identified as the best way across the land. This is an absolutely essential
fact of survival.
As the Kentucky landscape is viewed from the perspective of the walker, a directed trip across
it must contain a certain timeless rationality to it. A hunter may wonder the hills randomly
in search of game or refuge, but the traveler will seek out the most efficient course through
the land. There will be a balancing between seeking the most direct route to a destination
against the need to avoid unnecessary expenditures of energy and risk. One will tend to walk
along streams, not so much in their meanders, but surely along their floodplains, because climbing
and descending hillsides demands more energy and increases the risk of injury. Long distance
walking requires regular hydration and even small quantities of water are heavy to carry.
Pathways would surely follow along every watercourse that led in the general direction of the
The earliest travelers would have taken advantage of any animal trails that tended to lead in the
desired direction. Animals apply some of the same logic that human beings use to find their way
forward. They too tend to seek the course of lesser resistance, although they commonly have no
particular destination in mind, ancient man understood that animals seek out meadows to graze in,
salt licks streams to refresh themselves and recourse to seasonal homes.
Aboriginal man had no aerial photos or topographic maps to help him chose the most efficient
route to his destination. A traveler in a new land will naturally seek high vantage points
to plan the route ahead. In some cases, these vantage points will become landmarks that
subsequent travelers will use to assure themselves that they are "on the trail" to their
destination. Hills with distinctive profiles would be most useful for that purpose, but unusual
vegetation or local geography (cane lands, marshes, exceptionally large trees, etc.) or places
where some remarkable past event took place, could all serve the purpose. Each of the
established trails no doubt evolved over time. We must always keep in mind that these people
had no written language, but that fact did not prevent them from being able to successfully
share their knowledge of their environment for 15,000 years.
Modern hikers naturally prefer to walk the land in the pleasant seasons of the year.
Our walking is for recreation and health. The ancient long-distance walker, in contrast,
traveled through these hills purely out of necessity, and necessity often dictates travel in
all seasons. Travel in the winter has several advantages when it comes to trail breaking.
When there are no leaves on the trees or tall brush obscuring the landscape, one can see
greater distances ahead, and it is far easier to find the most efficient path to ones destination.
For many years, it was assumed that the earliest Native American trails followed the seasonal
American bison migration routes from the Kentucky southeast into the broad grasslands of central
and northern Ohio. This was based on observations of the vast herds of the Great Plains west of
the Mississippi, and early European discoveries of deeply warn pathways through the wilderness
that they found great beasts following to and from salt licks of Eastern Kentucky. More modern
research has concluded that the arrival of the American bison actually post-dated
human habitation of the area.
Paths along Kentucky's Waterways
The trails on these maps were analogous to the interstate and state highways of today.
These were the pathways between relatively distant points. We can see that many of the
ancient paths followed a north – south orientation through Kentucky. This was in part
dictated by the need to traverse Kentucky to and from the more heavily populated areas
of Ohio, but also because the watershed of the river that dominates this part of America,
the Ohio, flows from northeast to the west. Dozens of the Ohio’s tributaries flow into it
from the south and from the north. Many of the known Native American trails followed
along these same Kentucky tributaries that to this day find their way northward into the
Ohio River from the interior of Kentucky. In our part of the state, these include the
Big Sandy River, the Little Sandy River, Tygarts Creek and the Licking River.
From the standpoint of travel efficiency, all other things being equal, travel by canoe
was always preferable to walking. Movement by canoe is faster, less energy is expended,
far greater burdens can be transported by relatively fewer individuals and many dangers
are avoided on the water.
That said, not all waterways were equally useful to the ancient traveler. A watercourse
that had depth sufficient to allow movement by canoe was preferable to one that did not.
The Eastern Kentucky rivers and creeks that empty into the Ohio increase in water flow
volume as one moves closer to their confluence with the Ohio. With the exception of the
Big Sandy, Eastern Kentucky watercourses are all characterized by points where upstream
travel by canoe becomes untenable due to low water. We may assume that some walking paths
would tend to converge on navigable waterways at the point where water depth was
sufficient to support canoe travel. Obviously there could be a degree of variation
depending on seasonal rainfall and its effects on stream flow levels.
Managing the Pre-Contact Environment
It seems that its earliest inhabitants experienced Eastern Kentucky as a nearly
impenetrable wooded wilderness, full of small game, but not a favorable environment for
sustaining significant numbers of large grazing animals. The consensus is now that early
man managed his environment not unlike the way it has been managed by European-Americans.
Native Americans no doubt recognized the limitations of our hilly terrain and used fire
to create open grassy meadow-lands that attracted large game animals, and facilitated the
hunting of them. Before Native Americans were driven from Eastern Kentucky,
many areas may have been nearly as treeless as the lands of small farms and meadows
that we are so familiar with today. Fire would have been a powerful device for environmental
management in the hands of intelligent and motivated tribes people.