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The National Road


Purpose of Lesson: This lesson (1) introduces students to a primary document that traces and describes the path of the National Road through Indiana and (2) familiarizes students with the experiences of westward-moving settlers.

Objectives: At the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Analyze primary source materials pertaining to the National Road
  • Locate the National Road in Indiana on a current map
  • Describe the importance of the National Road to Indiana
  • Perform simple mathematical functions

Correlation to Indiana Standards (for Fourth Grade Social Studies)

Social Studies

4.1.15 Using primary source and secondary source materials, generate questions, seek answers, and write brief comments about an event in Indiana history.

4.3.4 Locate Indiana on a map of the United States; indicate the state capital, major cities, and rivers in Indiana; and be able to place these on a blank map of the state.

4.3.8 Create a map tracing the routes and methods of travel used by settlers to reach Indiana and identify ways in which settlers have changed the landscape in Indiana over the past two hundred years.


4.2.1 Understand and use standard algorithms for addition and subtraction.
Example: 45,329 + 6,984 = ?, 36,296 – 12,075 = ?.

4.2.10 Use a standard algorithm to add and subtract decimals (to hundredths).
Example: 0.74 + 0.80 = ?.

Historical and Methodological Context for the Lesson:

The National Road, the nation's first federally-funded interstate highway, connected the eastern seaboard in Maryland to the western interior in Illinois. Initially conceived by George Washington, the road's creation was prompted by desires to facilitate settlement and the transfer of marketable goods and supplies.

The National Road became a reality in 1806 when Congress passed legislation during Thomas Jefferson's administration; path clearing began at Cumberland, Maryland in 1811. The road reached Indiana in 1827, and the 156 mile stretch from Richmond to Terre Haute was completed in 1834. Eventually the road would span 800 miles in length, running from near Baltimore, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois.

(**The National Road is also known as the Cumberland Road, the Cumberland Pike, the National Pike and the Western Pike. It should also be noted that the exact path of the original road is very difficult to follow today, as subsequent highway construction has so drastically altered the landscape. A careful review of the roadscape, however, periodically reveals traces of the original path, which follows, primarily, the route of Interstate 40.)

Even though the federal government did nothing more than clear a dirt path and cut trees just low enough for a Conestoga wagon to clear, the national road still brought thousands of travelers to Indiana each year. People from every social stratum walked or rode along its route, their wagons and coaches clogging the path. During many periods traffic was so constant a traveler noted that the wagons were so closely strung together they resembled a train upon its tracks. These travelers might be heading to or from markets in other cities, commuting between visits to relatives or friends in other areas, or migrating westward to begin new lives as homesteaders.

This lesson is based upon a primary source (several diary entries from Jane Voorhees Lewis) that illustrates this sense of wanderlust. (Jane's father is moving his family from New Jersey to Illinois.) Her diary can be used to trace the path of the National Road through Indiana and to give students a sense of how Jane understood her travels west.

**(The source is drawn from Travel Accounts of Indiana, 1679-1961, comp. by Shirley McCord, Indiana Historical Collections, vol. 47 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1970), pp. 194-95.) Please note that Lewis did not use periods, and they have been added. Her diary entries have also been separated into paragraphs, and some commas have been added for clarity.


Trammel: a hobble (connecting fore and hind feet) to prevent a horse from straying

Andiron: a means of support for burning wood. (Here, it is a group of stones; in other cases it may be a set of horizontal metal bars, often decorated with ornaments)

Mason: a person skilled in laying stone for buildings


Lesson Activities:

1. The teacher should introduce the National Road to students and, if possible, have a modern map to note its location.

2. Give each student a copy of Jane Voorhees Lewis' journal entries and read aloud the following introduction:

In the spring of 1847, Abraham Voorhees and his wife, accompanied by their married daughter Jane and her husband, moved from New Jersey to Illinois, traveling through the center of Indiana on the National Road. Jane kept a journal of their trip west. The families settled in White Hall, Illinois, and Jane's husband died two years after they arrived.

•  As a class, ask students to volunteer to read the following entries aloud.

May 27, 1847:

Mother and me walked 5 miles yesterday. I have walked no more since we crossed three brooks without bridges. One came up to the body of the wagon. The land is a little hilly here.

May 28:

We got off the turnpike at Richmond on the National Road. It is not finished but it is a good road. Only the wet places they are laid with logs and that is rough enough. There is no toll.

We can live good. Everything is cheap: eggs 3 cents a dozen, fresh beef 2 1/2 cents a pound, sweet potatoes as good as in the fall 12 1/2 cents a peck, the best of bread from 4 to 6 cents a loaf. They keep a large stock fat horses and fine carriages.

The roads are better. We crossed the Blue River. Some ride it and some are ferried over. We rode it and it did not come to the Body of the wagon. We have a fine place to stay all night in a beech wood on the green grass. We built a fire against a stump, stones for andirons, dog chains for trammels, and a table stands here for people to eat off. It is a great stopping place for movers.

May 31:

It was a very rainy day yesterday. We were caught in a hard dash and could not get the wagons under shelter. But at night we got the horses and wagons in a barn and we stayed in the house. They was a very clever family. We felt ourselves at home while there and had radishes as thick as my wrist for breakfast this morning. If the people in Jersey was to have everything to look as well in the spring they would be almost scared, and they say it is a backward spring here. I like Indiana better than Ohio so far.

June 1:

Came through Indianapolis, the capitol. There is a fine statehouse here and they are building a lunatic asylum. It is very large. Mason's wages are 1 1/2 dol[lars] a day and boarded.

We turned off the National Road to go by Clinton. The National Road goes to Terre Haute . We have to put up before night along Walnut Creek. It is so high we cannot cross it. It will swim a horse and runs swift. They are fixing the bodies of the wagons on blocks to cross in the morning.

June 2:

We got over the creek very well. Mother was so afraid she laid on the bed. She said if she must drown she would not look. I sat up on the bed and looked out. I could not feel afraid for laughing to see her.

June 3:

Today we crossed the Wabash River at Clinton in a ferry boat. I was more afraid than I have been at all. The river is deep and was very high and an old concern of a Boat.

3. Discuss the following questions after reading aloud the corresponding journal entry (recording the answers on the board if you wish):

•  May 27—How might a family traveling in a wagon cross a brook without a bridge? What were some of the difficulties they might have faced?

•  May 28—Jane mentions traveling on the National Road beginning in Richmond, Indiana . (Find Richmond on a map.) She mentions there was no toll. What is a toll and why might it be necessary?

•  June 3—Jane writes that the family left the National Road and crossed the Wabash River near Clinton . (Find location on a map.) Discuss with students the towns and cities the Lewis family may have passed while traveling on the National Road through Indiana. (Trace their trip.) What advantages could traveling on the National Road have given to the Lewis' trip?


1. After reading and completing the lesson, assign students to write 1-2 paragraphs describing the challenges and adventure of traveling along the National Road.

2. Focus discussion on Jane's belief that "we could live well here" and her mention of particular prices for staple items in Richmond. As a math exercise, have students complete the “Living Well in Indiana ” chart.

Optional Extended Lesson Activities:

There are various illustrations and photographs of the national road available through the Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collection.

Link to The Indiana Historical Society and search using the key words “National Road” to find several choices that might be used as lecture or discussion tools.