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Overheard in GenForum: Migration Patterns - Tennessee to Missouri
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

October 21, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Does anyone know what the migration route was in 1850-1860 from Bedford county Tenn. through Illinois to Washington County, Missouri? -- Doris

A: Migration routes are those routes that our ancestors took to move from where they were currently living to where they would end up. For some of our ancestors, this was little more than a hard-to-follow trail, while others who would come later would have the benefit of much better roads. While these would be far from what we demand of our roads today, to those who were traveling by stagecoach, these roads would be considered a marvel.

Many of the trails that our ancestors would travel had their creation in history. Very often the earliest of roads were created for communication reasons. Others would be the result of military endeavors. The Army Corps of the Engineers are now responsible for getting the army from point A to point B. It was very much the same down through history.

Understanding the various migration routes and trails that existed is important to determining the paths our ancestors took.

Turning to Maps

Before you can begin to determine the possible migration routes, you will want to get out some maps and locate the counties in which your ancestors lived. You have supplied two of the counties, the starting county and the ending county. If you know that they stayed in Illinois for a little while, then that county may alter the migration route used. If you can, printing out county maps through AniMap or photocopying county maps can be useful. You can then use the copies to draw the possible migration routes.

Once you have compiled a timeline of the known counties, and the length of stay, and gathered together the maps you can draw on, you can then take the next step, learning about the various migration routes.

Migration Routes Through History

For as long as there have been settlers in the United States, and prior to that the American colonies, there have been migration routes. One of the first major routes would bring together various post roads in all the colonies together, making the King's Highway. Interestingly enough, had this highway not come together, it is questionable whether or not the colonies would have won the American Revolution.

For a look at some of the earlier migration routes, you will want to investigate William Dollarhide's Map Guide to American Migration Routes, published by AGLL Genealogical Services in 1997.

From Tennessee to Missouri

A look at some maps shows that Bedford County, Tennessee is just south of central Tennessee. In searching the various trails and routes that went into and through Tennessee, it is possible that your ancestor may have picked up one of the routes up to Nashville, including the Great South Trail, that actually went from Mobile, Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee. From there it is possible that they went south to Chattanooga then north on the Tennessee, Ohio and Great Lakes trail until it meets with the National Road.

The National Road

The National Road was the first highway in the United States. Today it can be traced by following U.S. Highway 40 and Interstate 70. It was begun in 1818 and went from Baltimore, Maryland to Wheeling, Virginia (what would become West Virginia). Many researchers will recognize this portion of the National Road as being the Cumberland Road.

The National Road would continue to forge west. By 1828 it was completely across Ohio and by 1832, it had crossed Indiana. By 1838 it would finish in St. Louis, Missouri. Two of the stops along the National Road in Illinois were Effingham and Vandalia.

Don't Forget the Railroads

Because of the time frame you are interested in, it is important to keep in mind the railroads. Many of these were built along the same routes originally used for the roads that were traveled by earlier ancestors. Therefore knowing the migration routes is still useful. For instance, in the eighth edition of The Handy Book for Genealogists, they include a map showing various railroads by 1860. I found it interesting that there was one that followed the Great South trail.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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