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By Sam Perry
Note: This is an abridged version of an article I wrote for The Journal of the Early Americas and that appeared in the October/November 2012 issue. For a more scholarly presentation of this subject, I refer you to that periodical
I was born near Cumberland Falls and make fairly frequent visits to the site of my nativity. I usually travel over State Highway 1045 to get there. So, the announcement that a new bridge had been built over Cogur Fork and that Highway 1045 is, again, open to through traffic came as good news to me. Now, I can steer my pickup fairly safely along that sharp defile between Indian Creek and Vanover Ridge and give free rein to my imagination as it drifts back in time to when Highway 1045 was the longhunters’ way west.
Of course, during the heyday of the legendary longhunter, (a period in American history that lasted, roughly, from 1748 to 1775), there was no Highway 1045. Instead, there was only a primitive road that had, originally, been carved through the wilderness of southern Kentucky by the cloven hooves of thousands of woodland bison as those massive animals made their way to the salt licks on the Big South Fork River. Hundreds of years of subsequent use by native peoples had resulted in a major east-west thoroughfare that connected the rolling cane lands of present Wayne County to the famous Warrior’s Path and the gate through the mountains at Cumberland Gap.
In the 42nd Report of Bureau of American Ethnology, William E. Myer describes the extensive trail system of the pre-Columbian Southeast. Of the myriad Indian trails that crossed that region of North America, one was called by him, the Great Lakes Trail. The Great Lakes Trail traversed the present state of Tennessee from north to south and followed the high ridge east of the Big South Fork River into Kentucky. After entering what is now Kentucky, it proceeded northward to Long Shoal (later called Smith Shoal) on the Cumberland River, crossed the river, and continued on into the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky.
According to Myer, two important side trails bisected the Great Lakes Trail from east to west. Myer does not describe them in detail or give them names, leaving that task to future historians. Fortunately, for students of the longhunter era, the job has been done by Charles Mayer Dupier, Jr.
In his groundbreaking, Prehistoric Trails in the Upper Cumberland River Basin, Dupier notes that one of the trails mentioned by Myer connected the ancient Warrior’s Path through Cumberland Gap with the rolling hills of south-central Kentucky. This trail originated near present Barbourville, Kentucky, where Dr. Thomas Walker built the first cabin in Kentucky, and meandered west until reaching present Rockholds, Kentucky. Dupier calls this portion of the longer trail, the Meadow Creek Trail. From Rockholds, the trail continued on west until reaching a wide expanse of shallow water on the Cumberland River. For reasons yet unknown, this natural ford on the river became known as Thunderstruck Shoal. Crossing the river, the trail climbed out of the river gorge, through gaps in the cliff line, until topping out on a long, narrow ridge that ran due west. There, beneath a canopy of shortleaf pine, chestnut, and numerous species of oak, the trail continued westward until arriving at the Great Lakes Trail. Dupier calls this part of the trail system, the Thunderstruck Shoal Trail.
In 1769, a large party of professional hunters from Virginia picked their way cautiously through Cumberland Gap and made camp at Flat Lick on the Cumberland River. They were on horseback and each man led a string of sturdy pack animals. The hunters were enroute to the cane lands of Kentucky, where they hoped to enrich themselves by harvesting deerskins and selling them to satisfy the demand for leather breeches in European markets.
Most historians agree that this party of hunters split up into smaller units at Flat Lick, with each group going its own way and fending for itself. Whether plans were made to get together later is not known, but they ultimately did at a large station camp in Price’s Meadow, west of the Big South Fork River.
Harriet S. Arnow, in her Seedtime on the Cumberland, quotes Judge John Haywood, saying that one group “went down the river and crossed at a remarkable fish dam—where briars, brush, vines, and limbs of trees were heaped up and grown together, and nearby immense hills and cliffs of rocks. Following for some distance, and then crossing the South Fork of Cumberland, they came to Price’s Meadows.” Judge Haywood does not tell how far the “some distance” was, or, exactly where they crossed the South Fork of the Cumberland. Although Arnow tries to make the case for this crossing being at Long Shoal, she is apparently unaware that a journey down the Cumberland from Flat Lick would have taken the hunters to Thunderstruck Shoal long before they would have reached Long Shoal.
At Thunderstruck Shoal, the hunters would have been pleasantly surprised to encounter a well-defined trail that ran off in the direction they wished to travel anyway, which was due west. They had already spent arduous days of threading their way through difficult terrain along a twisting river. Logic insists that they would not have sought more of the same when an alternative was available. The Thunderstruck Shoal Trail would have afforded them a straight line to the salt licks on the Big South Fork River and the dense canebrakes west of the river, where wealth beyond imagination awaited them in the form of the coveted whitetail deer.
When ownership of the land south of the Cumberland River was ceded by the Cherokee to the United States in 1805, the state of Kentucky authorized the building of a road over the old Great Lakes Trail. This new road eventually became known as the Jacksboro Road and was the forerunner of present U.S. Highway 27. The Thunderstruck Shoal Trail remained in use for more than a century, but when a new highway, connecting U.S. 27 to the Cumberland River, was built, use of the Thunderstruck Shoal Trail declined until, eventually, parts of it simply disappeared. Today, that portion of it that is still in use is maintained by the state of Kentucky as State Highway 1045 and is known, locally, as the Beulah Heights Road. The Meadow Creek Trail, however, is almost completely gone, the victim of changing demographics and advanced engineering.
By the time the Jacksboro Road had been laid down over the Great Lakes Trail, the narrow ridge that extended from that road to Thunderstruck Shoal had acquired a name. For many years, the ridge was called Bullet Mold Ridge. At a time when the relationship of a longrifle to a bullet mold was analogous to that of a lock to a key, or a fiddle to a bow, is it beyond the realm of possibility that the name derived from the loss of a precious bullet mold by an unlucky Virginia longhunter as he made his way across what would, in 1912, become McCreary County, Kentucky. I know it’s weird, but questions like that that keep me awake at night.