The Trail that Connects America’s Founding Cities

March 23rd, 2021 Uncategorized

John Trumbull’s depiction of the British surrender at Yorktown hangs in the US Capitol Rotunda.

Our Build-Back-Better Stimulus Proposal

Can you name the twelve Founding Cities” of the United States?

Most of them were settled in the 1600s, over a century before American independence was declared in 1776.  What these twelve cities have in common—besides their age—is that they witnessed thousands of American and French troops who passed through on their on the way to and from the decisive Battle of Yorktown that won American freedom on October 19, 1781.

The cities* are Boston, MA; Providence, RI; Hartford and Waterbury, CT; White Plains, NY; Newark, New Brunswick, and Trenton, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Wilmington, DE; Baltimore, MD; and Washington, DC, which was merely a marsh along the Potomac River at the time of the march to victory

The trail stretches from New England to Virginia, passing through hundreds of diverse, urban neighborhoods, whose residents today are mostly unaware of the historic significance of their well-worn streets. Indeed, all these cities are in desperate need for the “building back better” economic stimulus funding for infrastructure promised by the new Biden-Harris Administration.

Today, these cities have a combined population of 4.5 million people, few of whom are aware of this historic trail that passes through their communities.

The Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route

The Comte de Rochambeau

The trail’s formal name is the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail (WARO), the most urban trail in the National Park Service, established in 2009.  In addition to the dozen Founding Cities, the trail passes through hundreds of other small towns and villages. It was on this trail that approximately 3,000 American troops marched to victory and back, accompanied by over 5,000 troops belonging to our indispensable first ally, France.

Americans were commanded by General George Washington, while the French were commanded by Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau and other French noblemen such as Marquis de Lafayette and Marquis de Chastellux, who were committed to helping the Americans achieve victory from a common enemy, Britain.

A Story of American Diversity—Then and Now

The Americans’ Continental Army consisted of a wide cross-section of patriots committed to the revolutionary ideas of human freedom and democratic republican government. Approximately one-quarter of the Americans were of African or Native backgrounds. Notably, the 250 men in the Black Rhode Island 1st Regiment included more than 140 free and formerly enslaved black men. They marched the route to help achieve the freedom they would not realize for themselves, even on paper, for another century.

1781 watercolor by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine DeVerger shows a soldier of the Rhode Island 1st Regiment at the left.
Original held in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection at the Brown University Library.

The residents of America’s Founding Cities along the route cheered the passing armies as they marched to and from their historic victory in 1781.  Over the centuries, these cities have grown and changed and now boast some of the most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods in America. Collectively, these are minority-majority cities where over 70% of residents are people of color.

Trenton area residents reenact the story of the mostly Black 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

However, these Founding Cities are suffering from substantial social justice inequities as economic vitality has shifted to the suburbs. Accordingly, the average poverty rate in these twelve cities today is 25%, double the national average. The largest, Philadelphia, has 1.6 million residents and the highest poverty rate (24.9%) among America’s top ten cities.

Building Back Better with Our Founding Story

In 2021, a Federal economic stimulus effort known as Build Back Better likely will be passed to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, with a major focus on alleviating poverty, and raising up disadvantaged communities of all kinds. No communities are more deeply in need of building back better than these long- overlooked Founding Cities of America.

A delegation of Oneida was received with distinction by General Rochambeau upon their arrival in Rhode Island. Painting by David R. Wagner, available at davidrwagner.com.

The National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association (W3R-US) is advocating for an infusion of resources along this historic route not only to commemorate the founding of the nation, but to spark an economic and spiritual renewal in diverse cities that have fallen behind the affluent suburbs that surround them.

Along the 700-mile route—but with the focus on urban communities—the Federal government should fund public art, parks, greenways, green infrastructure, street trees and lighting, and visitors’ centers, while repairing and upgrading roads, sidewalks, bridges, and utilities. It should be designed to serve pedestrians, bicyclists, the handicapped, and electric vehicles.

The Washington-Rochambeau route today as it passes through Wilmington, DE.

Each community along the trail should choose the stories of American freedom they wish to tell, with funding for local artists to create the murals, sculptures, and other art that will tell our founding story. The voices of immigrants and communities of color are crucial, as demonstrated by Lin Manuel Miranda in his historical musical, Hamilton. The story should acknowledge what was not fully achieved in 1781, as does Miranda’s lyric in the song Yorktown: “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom. Not yet.”

This reimagined national trail will pass through neighborhoods in nine states and the District of Columbia, bringing our founding story to Americans’ doorsteps.

Our plan complements other excellent proposals before Congress that also will promote access to the outdoors to trail communities throughout the country. These proposals include the Revolutionary War-related South Carolina National Heritage Corridor and the trails of the Southern Campaigns, and the African American Burial Ground Study, among others.

The cast performs “Yorktown” in the musical Hamilton.

If successful, the Washington-Rochambeau initiative would not only build back better urban neighborhoods with profound needs, but it would restore the narratives of our Founding Cities, helping to inspire the return of residents, businesses, and tourists.

In 2026, the world’s oldest democracy will celebrate the 250th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, and five years later, it will celebrate the date that independence was effectively won. In the run-up to these great anniversaries, let us return the Founding Cities of America to their proper place in the American story, and let us shine a light not only on their histories, but also on these diverse communities who are—and forever will be—the stewards of our American story.

*Our criteria for this list of Founding Cities on the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route is settlement before 1776 (except Washington, DC), 50,000+ population, and poverty rate at or above national average. With adjustments to these criteria, other cities might be added, such as Newburgh, NY; Chester, PA; Newark, DE; Alexandria, VA; and Fredericksburg, VA.

Our Legislative Proposal:

Honoring Our Trails to Independence

W3R-US is advocating for significant new investments to honor the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail, and the cities and town through which it passes. Specifically:

  1. Increased funding for the Trails system with a line-item increase for the WARO Trail, from $310,000 to $700,000, for staffing and operations to include increased partner support (W3R).
  2. New funding of $4.5 million annually for planning, education, and interpretation.
  3. A multi-billion-dollar Build-Back-Better infrastructure investment for FY 2022 through the Transportation, Interior, Environment, and Related agencies appropriations, focused on the Founding Cities, while also providing resources to trail communities along the entire corridor.
  4. An URBAN park corps, within the proposed Climate Conservation Corps, to provide jobs in environmental stewardship, maintenance, and security along the trail.

We also support new investments in sister trails of the Southern Campaigns, including the Overmountain Victory Trail (TN, SC, NC, VA) and Liberty Trail (SC) and:

    • Transit to Trails Act (T2T)
    • National Scenic Trails Parity Act
    • Outdoors for All Act
    • Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP)
    • H.R. 8917 South Carolina National Heritage Corridor
    • Recreation Trails Full Funding Act
    • East Coast Greenway Stimulus
    • African American Burial Ground Study Act