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Blazing Westward
August 29, 2006

Looking for something better—a new home, a more prosperous living, a second chance (or a third one)—it's an American tradition. Things may always look up if we will only move on. In the early life of our country, that promise generally lay to the West.

Even before we became a nation, there was talk of the bounty of the West. In those days, it was the land that lay beyond the Alleghenies, those high and rugged impenetrable mountains laying between the friendly (and navigable) waters of the Potomac and Ohio rivers.

A road! Build a road through the wilderness! A group of enterprising colonists (some of our first real estate developers?) formed the Ohio Company to explore the possibilities. One of the investors was a young surveyor named George Washington. The group employed a Delaware Indian, Chief Nemacolin, to blaze a trail.

The lure of the West Not long after in 1753, 21-year-old Washington found himself on the Nemacolin trail, but not as an investor nor as a surveyor, but as a soldier, as an officer, as a commander. Placed in charge of a small band of soldiers and accompanied by two translators (one for French and one for the Indian tongues), Major Washington led his force to warn the French to stay in their own territory—not to come from the Great Lakes, which they controlled, into British territory.

Later, in the spring there was a brief and brutal encounter with the French in the woods near what is now Uniontown, Penn. Washington led a surprise attack on a camp of 32 Frenchmen including a nobleman, Sieur de Jumonville, who was killed. Many date the beginning of the French and Indian War to this incident in the lonely woods.

Washington stayed, anticipating further encounters with the French. As protection he and his men erected tiny Fort Necessity.

On July 3, 1754, the vengeful French attacked. The battle raged on into the night. The next day, Washington signed a document allowing his troops to leave. Because his translator was Dutch and didn't know French well, Washington unknowingly accepted responsibility for Jumonville's death and returned home.

About a year later Washington was back serving as aide-de-camp to the British General Edward Braddock. They led more than 1,000 troops drawn from the colonies in construction of a road following Nemacolin's trail, determined to cross Pennsylvania and conquer the French held Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh).

It was not to be.

Unable to gain support from the area Native Americans, the colonists and Braddock were soundly defeated by the French. When Braddock was badly wounded, Washington took command of the retreat.

Near Fort Necessity, Braddock died.

Washington ordered him buried, but to prevent the defamation of the grave by their enemies, he ordered that the grave be dug in the roadway and that logs and rocks be placed on the site so that the exact location would be unknown.

After the American Revolution, the new national government rewarded veterans with land grants. The land lay to the west across the forbidding Alleghenies; the clamor for the road grew louder. When, in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson added the Louisiana Purchase to American territory it became a din, an uproar that was heard.

In 1811 construction began on the National Road (sometimes called the National Pike), the first highway in our nation to be built with federal funding. It began on the banks of the Potomac in Cumberland, Md. Following the old Nemacolin and Braddock roads, construction snaked westward across Pennsylvania to Wheeling, Va., (now West Virginia) and the Ohio River in 1818. The way west was open.

Conestoga wagons, carriages, stages, riders and walkers crowded the road, stopping at the rough taverns and marking their progress by the frequent stone mile markers. For the first half of the 19th century, the National Road was the way west for Americans. Then technology took over. The railroads opened a better way across the mountains. But the National Road is still an important national artery. The coming of the automobile in the early 20th century brought new travel to the road. Today it is United States Highway 40.

In July we visited the National Road driving from its starting point in Cumberland, Md., across Pennsylvania to Wheeling. I'll tell about our more recent experiences in the next Stirring up Memories.

I wanted to create a dish to commemorate the adventures and determination of all of the folks who headed west across the forbidding Appalachians from the intrepid Nemacolin, through the colonial soldiers and the pioneers in their Conestoga wagons.

I remembered that one of the guide books that I read stated that those colonials who widened the trail into something approaching a road—Braddock's Road—subsisted on wild game and rattlesnakes. I'm not cooking rattlesnake this summer; I'll buy it already cooked next year at Whigham's Rattlesnake Roundup. Instead I made a tasty stew.

Surveyor Stew
(honoring young George Washington)

Have the hunter clean and dress one or more young rabbits. Remove all shot. In a cast-iron stew pan or Dutch oven, brown some onions in bacon fat, lard or (for today's cook) canola oil, then add the whole rabbit and brown on all sides. Add about a cup of apple juice and enough water (or chicken broth) to cover. Cook over coals or on a low burner for about two hours or until the meat pulls away from the rabbit. Remove the rabbit and let cool. Meanwhile add two or more peeled and diced sweet potatoes and one peeled and diced apple to the broth. Cook until tender. Remove the meat from the rabbit and add back into the stew. Heat through.

Since this is a subsistence stew, all ingredients are up for substitutions. Turnips, rutabagas or carrots may substitute for the sweet potato. Squirrel or chicken may be used instead of rabbit. If you use a chicken, cook for only about an hour.

I really did make this stew. It's delicious. I used sweet potato and apple (Johnny Appleseed headed west along the National Road, after all). I admit we didn't stalk our rabbit in the woods. You can hunt one down at The Meat Shop on Louise Street in Bainbridge, or at Jones Country Meats in Climax.


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network