National Road Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This trans-Appalachian highway provided both employment for new immigrants in its construction as well as a central artery for their westward migration, traveling across mountains and rivers and through the state capitals of Columbus and Indianapolis. Although originally planned to extend to St. Louis, political wrangling, the advent of the railroad, and the end of congressional support caused the road to terminate in central Illinois.

As early as 1802, U.S. Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin articulated the need for a National Road. In 1806, and with the support of President Jefferson, Thomas[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and National Road[national Road]Thomas Jefferson, Congress passed a bill that provided for such a highway between Cumberland, Maryland, and the Mississippi River with the provision that it run through state capitals along its route. In 1811, the work began on the western edge of Cumberland, Maryland, on a twenty-foot-wide roadway with a sixty-six-foot right-of-way, built initially of stone, earth, and gravel, and later of macadam. There was no provision for eminent domain and no compensation provided to landowners, since the course of the road itself was considered sufficient recompense.National RoadNational Road[cat]TRANSPORTATION;National Road[03730][cat]LABOR;National Road[03730]

Although local citizens and farmers were employed on the project, there was a significant coterie of recent Irish immigrants who followed the westward course of the road, some of whom worked as well on the building of the Erie CanalErie (completed 1825) and other canals. Mail delivery was facilitated as sections of the National Road were completed, connecting literate immigrants with family and friends on the East Coast and in Europe. The final federal appropriation was in 1838, and construction concluded in 1840 in Vandalia, Illinois.National Road

Further Reading
  • Dunaway, Wilma A. The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
  • Raitz, Karl B., ed. A Guide to the National Road. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.


German immigrants

History of immigration, 1783-1891

Iron and steel industry

Land laws

Mississippi River


Transportation of immigrants

Westward expansion

Categories: History