Indian Trails and Old Roads through Scott County

Indian Trails and Old Roads through Scott County

The very first thoroughfares of Indiana, while somewhat remote from interstates of the present day, have yet some relation to the later history of the state, as well as possessing a certain historic value of their own.

Before anything like permanent roads could be established in Indiana a considerable population of settlers had taken up lands in the interior of the state, and there had to be makeshift thoroughfares, not only for guidance to various locations, but also for transportation of the immigrant’s possessions.  These “traces” were the rudest of forest roads, sufficiently cleared away to permit the passage of the settler’s wagon and marked along the route by blazing (simply it is an intentional mark that you put on a tree to establish a direction of travel so that you can return or help can follow you. The traditional way is to cut the bark away leaving a scar on the tree that can be easily seen.) the trees with an axe.  These trails from the south and east, with various branches leading to this or that settlement, were well-known to the immigrants of those early days, but like the Indian trails, they mostly have been obliterated and completely forgotten.

The oldest road in Scott County is still in use today throughout its entire length was the Cincinnati Trace, or as it was also called, Captain Kibbey’s Road.  This east and west road, surveyed and cut out from 1799 to 1805 by Captain Kibby, traversed the entire Territory of Indiana from Cincinnati to Vincennes, a distance of 201 miles.  It ran through present day Rising Sun, Vevay, Madison, Lexington, Vienna, Salem, Paoli, French Lick and Washington Indiana.  Of course, when this road was laid out and built none of the towns mentioned were in existence except the ones at each terminus.  However, the route of the road played an important part in the eventual locations of the various towns in later days.

Regarding this old road we find in an early newspaper, “The Western Sky,” published in Cincinnati, July 23, 1799, a very interesting news item, as follows: “Captain E. Kibby, who sometimes since undertook to cut a road from Vincennes to this place, returned on Monday reduced to a perfect skeleton.  He had cut out the road seventy miles when by some means he was separated from his men.  After hunting them some days without success, he steered his course this way.  He had undergone great hardship and was obliged to subsist upon roots, etc., which he picked up in the woods.”

It was not too long afterward that the first white settlers’ cane to settle permanently in what is now Scott County.  In the spring of 1805 John Kimberlin, of Virginia, with his two sons, Daniel and Isaac, floated down the Ohio River from Pennsylvania in a flatboat and disembarked at the present site of Madison.  From there they moved westward over the Cincinnati Trace seeking greener pastures.  Apparently, they liked the lay of the land in what is now Lexington Township for it was there that they erected their cabin on the stream of what we now call Kimberlin Creek.  Then in the spring of 1907 the brothers, John and Jacob Stucker, settled on Stucker Creek.

In that year 26 roads were projected and as many sets of commissioners appointed to view the land and mark out the routes.  By 1835 at least two thirds of the state was pretty well crisscrossed with highways other than local or county roads.

The revenue and labor for the opening and maintaining of these roads were diverted from three sources.  The first was known as the 3% Fund and was a donation from the Federal Government.  Out of the sale of public land 5% was set aside.  Of this 2% was to be expended on works of general benefit, such as National Road (now US 40) and the remaining 3% was given to the state for improvement within her borders.

A special Agent was appointed for disbursing this fund.  The second source of revenue was a “road tax” levied upon real estate.  Such road tax the landowner was entitled to discharge in work on the roads at $1.50 per day, which was a great help in those days of scarce cash.  The third source of maintenance was a labor requirement which made it incumbent on all male inhabitants between the age of 21 and 50, except preachers and certain other exceptions, to work on the roads two days in each year when called out or to pay an equivalent, therefore.

In 1818 Christopher Harrison was appointed the first agent of the 3% Fund.  He received the money from the United States Government and paid it out according to appropriations by the General Assembly to County Agents, who used it in opening new roads through the forests of Indiana.  Such roads, know as “State Roads,” were 100 feet wide, but the money was not sufficient to do more than clear them of timber until the country settled more thickly and there were consequently more “hands” to work the roads, they remained little more than bridle paths.

Scott County’s oldest State Roads were the McDonalds Ferry - Brownstown State Road and the New London - Lexington - Salem State Road, which were both established by an Act of the Legislature dated January 22, 1820.  From Lexington to Salem the latter road followed the old Cincinnati Trace.  In 1833 the road from Madison through Lexington to permanent settlement that we know the date of was along Pigeon Roost Creek, where an ill-fated group of twelve families from Kentucky settled in 1809.

The county rapidly became populated with emigrants from Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as various states from the eastern seaboard.  The settlers from Virginia and North Carolina came through the historic Cumberland Gap and over the famed Wilderness Road through Kentucky to the points where they were ferried across the Ohio River to Indiana.  The settlers coming from the east came down the Ohio River, a great artery of travel in those days, in flat boats, or arks, as they were sometimes called, and made their way inland from various river landings such as Vevay, Madison, New London, McDonald’s Ferry (Charlestown landing) and Bethlehem.

It was not until four years after Indiana Territory had been admitted to the Union as a State that any definite system of roads was projected within her borders.

On December 31, 1821, the Bethlehem-Rockford State Road was established.  It was surveyed and built in 1822.  This was the road which was in 1825 declared a Post Road by the Government, and in 1836 this same road was incorporated and was further improved and operated as a toll road for an indefinite length of time.  Remnants of this old southeast to northwest state road are still used today as country roads in Scott County.  State Highway 203 coming north out of Lexington utilizes a part of this old roadbed for a few miles.

On March 3, 1817, a Post Road was established from Lexington to Salem and Paoli over the Cincinnati Trace.  In 1818 routes were established from Lexington, through New Washington and Bethlehem to New London on the Ohio River ten miles below Madison and from Lexington through Paris to Vernon.  In 1825 a Post Road was established from Jackson Post Office at Rockford, on the White River (Seymour was not laid out as a town until 1852), crossing the Muscatatuck at Slate Ford and going through Albion, New Frankfort, Lexington, New Washington to Bethlehem, where it ferried the Ohio River and continued on to new Castle, Kentucky.

Congress continued for a few more years to make special enactments whereby Post Roads were provided.  The roads of southern Indiana, however, remained practically unchanged from 1825 until the mail was carried by the railroads, beginning about 1850.  The report of the Postmaster General for 1825 states that “half of the intelligence of the country is still carried in saddlebags.” 

In the late forties a craze set in for plank roads.  They were made of heavy planks spiked together like a bridge floor.  These were good for a time, but after a few years would loosen, warp and rot.  In those days, the approximate cost of a road built of three-inch white oak planks was $2,000 per mile.  Old timers say that you could hear a stagecoach coming over a plank road a mile or two away, so noisy were the loose boards under the wheels of the vehicle and the feet of the horses.

The first plank road to be built in Scott County was the one built by the Madison-Lexington-Brownstown Turnpike company, following the incorporation of the company on February 16, 1848.  The lumber used to construct this road is said to have been cut off of the English Estate near Lexington.  On September 9, 1858, editor David Campbell, M.D., of the “Lexington Clipper,” made the following editorial comment in regards to this old road:  “we have often wondered whether the Madison, Hanover & Lexington Plank Road Company have any intention of McAdamizing the road as far as this place.  It surely ought to be done, as the plank is in a very bad condition.”

It was not until the late fifties that gravel became more procurable in Indiana and begun to be used in building roads and the entire state became well traversed with private toll roads with their little toll houses and long sweep poles of the toll gates.

Then in 1879 legislation was passed for the county control of free turnpikes and the authorization of tax levies for that purpose.  Toll roads in Indiana soon became nonexistent.

Lexington Township, being nearer the limestone quarries of Clark County, was the first to import that material for road resurfacing purposes.  It was in 1920 that a limestone outcropping on the Hardy Farm in Lexington Township was investigated and found to be suitable for the purpose of road building and a quarry was opened up, which is still in use today.  Then Scott County stopped the use of the slate and creek gravel on its roads and began using only crushed limestone.

Today the State of Indiana has one of the finest systems of public highways in the entire country.  Little Scott, Indiana’s third smallest county, is traversed by seventy-six miles of state and federal highways, and in addition, we have 266 miles of county roads which, except during periods of deep freezing and destructive thawing such as we had during the winter of 1950-1951, can usually be traveled by any sort of vehicle the year around.

Our present day transportation system is a far cry from what it was it was 150 years ago when Captain Ephraim Kibby undertook the almost hopeless task of cutting the Cincinnati Trace through the wilderness and made the first roads across Scott County.


 From an article by Dr. Carl Bogardus, Sr. printed in the Scott County Journal and Chronicle, July 23, 1970.

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