In 1860 travel in all this region (of Western North Carolina) was rarely undertaken except on urgent and necessary missions. Even fifty years later, conditions had improved but little. The chief reason was, of course, the lack of roads and the slow pace of getting about. A farmer going to market was all day on the road and more likely stayed over at least one night in town or on the road back. ……<
There is reason to believe, though there are no figures for it, that a hundred years ago there was more travel in canoes and flat boats along the French Broad River than there was in ox carts and wagons along the rough trails. The ways of this river are pictured in the writing of Wilma Dykeman in her “French Broad River” as a compelling factor and an exciting thing in the lives of the pioneers in this area, and that their first highway was on the river. Because travel on land was arduous, going either afoot or on horseback, and because there was not a great deal of wheeled traffic, people looked to the river. We know also from diaries and reminiscences that as late as 1860s people went to church in rowboats.
So, let us consider how long we’ve had our roads and, of course, if there were roads, if there were also bridges. Sometimes, yes, there were bridges, but more often our forefathers crossed streams by fords. Bridge building before the day of steel was complicated and costly and liable to be swept out in the freshets and floods.
It will be obvious to all historians that the first travel in this region was by the Indians. They were satisfied with the trails made by buffaloes through the laurel thickets, around the rocky mountain sides and following the mountain streams. The earliest organized expedition that came in this direction was the one led by DeSoto in 1540. It appears that it went a little south and west of our [Madison] county.