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The Marshall Expedition of 1812

In 1812, a group led by John Marshall crossed the Allegheny Mountains and traveled by wooden boat down the Greenbrier and New rivers in Western Virginia. Their 227-mile, six-week journey two centuries ago helped lay the groundwork for the canals, roads, and railroads that would open up the west.


Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, had been asked by the Virginia General Assembly to chair a commission that would determine the feasibility of opening the James River to trans-Appalachian commerce. Marshall decided to lead the surveying expedition himself. According to biographer Jean Edward Smith, Marshall was thrilled with the prospect. His own father had been appointed in 1780 by (Governor) Thomas Jefferson to survey the Kentucky territory, and Marshall believed, as George Washington did, that strong economic ties would bind the new nation east and west.


Marshall, surveyor Andrew Alexander, and others left Lynchburg on September 1. They traveled by batteau, poling up the James and Jackson rivers to present Covington. From there they hauled the 60-foot wooden boat over the mountains to enter the Greenbrier River at present Caldwell, near Lewisburg. The Greenbrier was experiencing a serious drought, so river travel was difficult. Eventually, the group reached the New River at present Hinton. Progress was far swifter on the New. Marshall’s party noted the velocity of the current, long rapids, and waterfalls along the river. They reached Kanawha Falls, at present Glen Ferris, on October 9, 1812.


Marshall expedition map


After his return, Marshall reported that he was optimistic about the potential for a trade route along these rivers, but the War of 1812 took precedence over the need for internal improvements. The pioneering survey, however, established the general route that would be followed by the James River & Kanawha Turnpike, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, and even Interstate 64.


For many years, the cliffs at Hawks Nest were known as Marshall’s Pillars in honor of the trip. Marshall University in Huntington is named for John Marshall.


View Andrew Alexander's map of the route and read notes about the journey.

Andrew Alexander's map of Marshall Expedition

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