Pioneer Road

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As early as 1740, the Shenandoah Valley was the course of The Great Valley Road of Virginia, which continued as a wagon road as far as big Springs, Virginia (now Roanoke). During the middle of the 1700s, the route was often recognized as "The Irish Road," simply because the majority of the travelers were Scotch-Irish immigrants. At present, the trace of the Great Valley Road is practically the same line as U.S. Highway 11 (or I-81). In 1746, travelers on the Great Valley Road at Big Springs had to abandon their wagons and use pack horses to carry on, either due south into central North Carolina, or continue into the valleys of the Clinch, Powell, or Holston Rivers advancing into western North Carolina, now Tennessee.

The Pioneer Road first crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains from Alexandria to Winchester, Virginia, where it fed into the Great Valley Road.In just a few years after the opening of the Pioneer's Road the Upper Road became a wagon road as well. The first settlements of Virginians in Tennessee were associated with the end of the trail in that region in the 1760s. The Upper Road took off from the Fall Line Road (which is the same as U.S. Hwy 1 today) at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and paralleled the Fall Line through Virginia, eventually reaching North Carolina some 60-70 miles west of the Fall Line Road. A present map of North Carolina shows the chief population centers along Interstate 40 as Raleigh, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro and Winston-Salem -- all the villages that were first settled as a result of the Great Valley Road or the Upper road. The Upper Road is the only pioneer wagon road that does not survive today as a modern highway -- it crossed several streams and rivers that are now large man-made lakes. Very little traffic came through eastern North Carolina into the western regions, due to the lack of wagon roads. Practically all the entire Piedmont region of North and South Carolina was settled by means of the Great Valley Road during the latter half of the 1700s.

The first land grants in north central North Carolina were in 1746, conjoining with the advent of a wagon route (the Pioneer's Road) that became feasible in the same year. Before that date, land sales in North Carolina were limited to the coastal areas and up a few rivers. North Carolina's land grants came as a result of Lord Granville, the reigning governor, who opened the northern section of North Carolina's counties for sale in that year. The area became known as the "Granville District," which attracted thousands of migrants from the north, particularly people coming by way of the Chesapeake region of Virginia and Maryland.

Before 1746, travelers from the Chesapeake into western Virginia were obliged to first go north to Philadelphia, then west to Lancaster, then southwest on the old Philadelphia Road through York and on to the Potomac River, connecting with the Shenandoah River Valley. A major happening which influenced the migration of people from the Chesapeake to points west and southwest was the opening of a wagon road across the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1746. It became known as the Pioneer's Road, as noted earlier in this text, and permitted wagon traffic from Alexandria to Winchester, the westernmost town in Virginia at that time. Winchester was located on the Great Valley Road, and by traveling from Alexandria overland to Winchester, the route to access the Great Valley Road had been reduced considerably. The trace today of the Pioneer's Road is very close to that of the modern U.S. Hwy 50, which crosses the Blue Ridge Mountains via Ashley's Gap.

The Scotch-Irish ancestor who immigrated to America during the 18th century without delay headed for western North Carolina, now known as Tennessee. The first farming settlements in the interior of North Carolina were created by a group of people who came from the ocean side area of Maryland and Virginia. They brought with them a good understanding of how to raise tobacco, the principal crop of the tidewater region of the Chesapeake This in turn became a primary crop of North Carolina. Many of these people were second and third generation Chesapeake residents, however, a sizeable number of them were newcomers to America -- a group of people who are often called themselves Scotch-Irish.

As a result of the opening of the Pioneer's Road, thousands of Scotch-Irish immigrants to America changed their travel plans after hearing from relatives in America. Before 1746 the primary port of entry to the American colonies was Philadelphia. After 1746, Alexandria, Virginia on the Potomac River became a vital port of entry for the newcomers from the Irish Sea.

"Scotch-Irish" was a name given to the people who came to America from about 1717 to 1775 by way of northern Ireland, or Irish Seaports on either side of the border of Scotland and England. Although many had lived in Ireland for decades, these folks did not think of themselves as Irish. Beginning around 1607, thousands of border clan people were encouraged to leave their homes along the English-Scottish border and were transported to northern Ireland. The enticement was a parcel of land, which the borderers could have as their own for a lease period of 100 years. For the next hundred years, the system worked convincingly well.

The border clan people established thriving flax farms in Northern Ireland, and assembled a linen trade that was the envy of Europe. They didn't change their Scottish ways while they were in Ireland, and did not see themselves as Irish. In fact, most of the clans of the borderlands were more Scotch than anything else, whether their traditional lands were on the English side or the Scottish side-- they had a history of taking whatever land they wanted and were famous for their centuries of fighting Scottish kings, English kings, or each other--it really didn't matter.

A big change in the lives of the border clan people took place with the merger of Scotland and England into one kingdom in 1705. The border clans became an unbearable struggle to the English, and thereby, thousands were by force transferred to northern Ireland. This time, the clan people were treated adversely which encompassed higher rents and shorter leases; as earlier leases ran out, the tenants were replaced with new border clan people at higher rents. At the same time, dreadful droughts, famine, and the crumbling of the linen trade in Northern Ireland put the clan people into dismal situations, and living there became virtually impossible. By 1717, ejected Scotch-Irish began relocating to America.

During the next 50 years or so, it is estimated that over 275,000 of them went to the American colonies. Most of them found themselves traveling into the backwoods of colonial America and the Appalachian region, extending from western Pennsylvania to Georgia. These regions were settled almost exclusively by Scotch-Irish immigrants.

History of Virginia Roads[edit | edit source]

Waterways and crude paths met the transportation needs of the Indians and early settlers. The colonists discovered a crude network of paths made by Indians.

Colonists carved roads through the Virginia wilderness.

The word "road" probably was derived from the Middle English "rode," which meant a mounted journey. The companion word "highway" is believed to have come from the practice, hundreds of years ago in England, of building main roads higher than the adjacent land by throwing earth from side ditches toward the center, as the ancient Romans had done. Because they were higher, they were called "high wayes." This is a story of their development in Virginia.

The Virginia settlers, who arrived at Jamestown Island aboard three small ships on May 13, 1607, had little need for a road system. Barely more than a hundred in number, their first concerns were disease, hunger, shelter, and protection from the often hostile Indians who had lived on the land for generations. In those first rigorous years, survival itself demanded the full energy of the colonists in the wilderness.

The waterways were there for transportation-- the great rivers that emptied into the Chesapeake Bay and that were to become known as the James, the York, the Rappahannock, and the Potomac.
As the colonists hunted for food and cautiously began exploring the forest, they discovered a crude network of paths made long before by Indians and wild animals. The colonists used these, and many of the paths were to shape the Virginia road pattern for years to come.

The settlers also found roughly built bridges formed by the Indians from tree trunks and limbs, which the settlers at first believed to be Indian-planted traps rather than bridges. By 1610, with new arrivals from England, the colony numbered some 210.

The Rhoade along the River Bank, probably a former Indian path, was used to haul supplies from the ships to the Jamestown Fort.

The Greate Road appears to have been Jamestown's main street, and it was of early commercial importance. It crossed the isthmus connecting the island with the mainland at Glass House Point, where in 1608 and for a brief period afterwards, glass was manufactured for export. Faint traces of the road are evident today at Glass House Point.

Eventually, the Greate Road extended on the mainland to Middle Plantation, a settlement to become known as Williamsburg and destined to be the capital of the Virginia colony and the hub of the colonial road system.

The first bridge recorded as having been built by the English settlers was constructed in 1611 at Jamestown Island. It wasn't really a bridge, but a wharf about 200 feet long from the bank of the James to the river channel, where the settlers docked their ships. The colony's first agricultural crops raised for export were rolled to these ships.

John Rolfe had begun experimenting with the cultivation of tobacco in 1612 and two years later exported a shipment to England. In less than 20 years, tobacco exports had reached 500,000 pounds annually; tobacco would remain the foundation for the Virginia economy throughout the colonial period.
Inevitably, the success of the tobacco crop was to influence the colony's transportation needs as well.
The tobacco fields spread on the mainland, and a number of the old Indian paths became tobacco rolling roads. The name came from the practice of packing the harvested tobacco in barrels called hogsheads and rolling them to the wharves, frequently a distance of miles. The rollers ordinarily tried to follow the high ground and avoided the fords, or shallow stream crossings, because water leaking through the barrels would damage the tobacco. The practice of following the old paths and branching off from time to time on higher ground accounts for many of the early meandering country roads.
After two decades, the colony's population was near 5,000 and growing. The frontier had been pushed well beyond its original boundaries, and while much of the settlers' travel was still by boat, an increasing proportion was on land.

America's First Road Law
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The James River and the Kanawha Canal played an important role in increasing communications and commerce between commercial centers and rural areas of the state.

The need for improving roads to better serve the social and economic life of the colony was among the matters facing members of the House of Burgesses as they met in Jamestown in September 1632.

Before adjournment, they had passed the first highway legislation in American history, an act providing, in the language of the day, that,"Highwayes shall be layd in such convenient places as are requisite accordinge as the Governor and Counsell or the commissioners for the monthlie corts shall appoynt, or accordinge as the parishioners of every parish shall agree."

The first legislation also required each man in the colony to work on the roads a given number of days each year, a custom dating at least from the feudal period of the Middle Ages in England, or to pay another to work in his place. This labor law, to remain in effect for more than 250 years, provided the main source of workers for road and bridge construction.

Twenty-five years later, probably in March 1657, the colony's basic road law was broadened to provide "that surveyors of highwaise and maintenance for bridges be yearly kept and appointed in each countie cort respectively, and that all generall wayes from county to county and all churchwaies to be laied out and cleered yearly as each countie cort shall think fitt, needful and convenient, respect being had to the course used in England to that end."

In 1661, the surveyors were empowered to select locations for roads, choosing "the most convenient wayes to Church, to the Court, to James Towne, and from County to County."
By the end of the 17th century, many miles of primitive roads threaded throughout Tidewater Virginia. The colony's population had reached 70,000. While horseback was the most frequent means of overland travel, horse-drawn carts became more numerous, and some carriages and coaches gradually appeared.
In 1705, the legislature passed a new road act providing for "making, clearing, and repairing the highways and for clearing the rivers and creeks... for the more convenient traveling and carriage, by land, of tobaccos merchandise, or other things within this dominion . . . "
The new road act provided for further extension of the road system and required that the roads "be kept well cleared from woods and bushes, and the roots well grubbed up, at least thirty feet broad." The new law also provided for skilled labor to erect bridges larger than could be built by the local surveyors, and when such a bridge was to cross a county line, its cost would be divided "proportionable to the number of tithables in each county."
Other road laws came quickly in the early years of the 18th century. Owners of mill dams were required to provide a 10-foot passage on dams and spillways; it became mandatory for a county in which an iron furnace was operated to provide "good roads to be laid out and made from such works to the nearest place upon some navigable river or creek"; establishment of public ferries was authorized by the legislature.
In 1716, Alexander Spotswood, regarded by many as perhaps the best of the colonial governors, led his "Knights of The Golden Horseshoe" up the summits of the "Great Mountains," the Blue Ridge, and looked down in amazement at the splendor of the Shenandoah Valley. Spotswood, a former soldier, recognized that settlement of the valley could help protect eastern Virginia from hostile forces.
It was in the next quarter-century that the valley and much of the Piedmont, the rolling country between the mountains and Tidewater, were settled by pioneers moving inland and by many others who came down into the valley from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Extending north and south through the valley was a relatively good Indian path, called by various names including the Appalachian Warriors' Path and the Shenandoah Hunting Path. By the mid- 18th century, it had been developed into the Great Wagon Road, which eventually led from Pennsylvania southward through the valley and on to Georgia.
Toward the southern end of the valley, the Great Wagon Road separated into two branches near Big Lick, later to become Roanoke. While one branch left the valley and went due south, the other continued west and crossed Cumberland Gap through the Allegheny Mountains at what now is the junction of the Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee borders. After Daniel Boone and a band of frontiersmen cleared a path into Kentucky about 1775, the western branch became known as the Wilderness Road , and it was to become the main pioneer route along which traveled the first waves of the great migration to the West.
East of the mountains, two principal routes led from where Richmond stands today deep into the interior. One was a path to the settlements that were to become Lynchburg and Roanoke, a course now followed approximately by U.S. Routes 60 and 460. The other was the Three-Chopt Road or Three-Notched Road to Albemarle, where it connected with another path leading across the mountains at Afton and into the valley. Its name came from the way it was marked to guide travelers, with notches cut on the trees.
In his "Notes on the State of Virginia" in 1785, Thomas Jefferson described the approach to handling road matters. "The roads are under the government of county courts, subject to be controlled by the general court. They order new roads to be opened wherever they think them necessary. The inhabitants of the county are by them laid off into precincts, to each of which they allot a convenient portion of the public roads to be kept in repair. Such bridges as may be built without the assistance of artificers (skilled workers or craftsmen), they are to build. If the stream be such as to require a bridge of regular workmanship, the county employs workmen to build it at the expense of the whole county. If it be too great for the county, application is made to the General Assembly, who authorizes individuals to build it and to take a fixed toll from all passengers, or gives sanction to such other propositions as to them appear reasonable. Ferries are admitted only at such places as are particularly pointed out by law, and the rates of ferriage are fixed."
Turnpike Era
Much manual labor was the requirement for building and maintaining early roads.
Road building in the latter stages of the 18th century and much of the 19th century was marked by the development of many turnpikes or toll roads. As Jefferson observed, toll financing provided a means of building highway facilities for which there was a need but which were too complex and costly to be constructed by the counties alone.

For the most part, Virginia counties were impoverished and exhausted from their contributions of men, supplies, and other resources to the Revolutionary War. The turnpike era offered a new way of meeting road needs. The turnpike got its name from its toll gate. When first designed, the gate was a turnstile consisting of two crossed bars pointed at their outer ends and turned on a vertical bar or pole.

In 1772, the Virginia legislature cleared the way for what probably was the first toll road in America, when it authorized Augusta County to build a highway over the mountain between Jenning's Gap and Warm Springs and to establish a toll gate. The road, as outlined by the legislature, was to be financed with 300 pounds advanced by the colony and 900 pounds raised by a lottery. Revenue collected from travelers was to be spent for the upkeep of the road and "towards building... housing for the reception of the poor sick resorting to the said springs."

In 1785, five years after Richmond had become the state's capital, the legislature appointed a commission to erect toll gates on existing roads in the Alexandria area to increase road revenue. The Fairfax and Loudoun Turnpike Road Company was chartered in 1795 to construct an improved road between Alexandria and Little River in Fairfax County. It accomplished little, however, and was followed in 1802 by the Little River Turnpike Company which, in 1811, completed a 20-foot- wide turnpike extending west from Alexandria for about 34 miles. It operated as a toll road for nearly a century, and its completion touched off construction of many turnpikes in Virginia by the time of the Civil War.

Virginia's population by 1800 had climbed to 880,200, with settlers in most of the major regions that make up the present state. This growth and expansion led the General Assembly in February 1816 to establish the nation's first state board of public works and to create a fund for internal improvement. The board, with the governor serving as president, was empowered to appoint a "principal engineer" for the state, and it existed until 1902. Its formation coincided with the beginning of the nation's canal era.

The board was responsible for chartering, finding, and supervising internal improvements. The fund, amounting to more than a million dollars, was created to transfer shares, owned by the state, in the stock of the Little River Turnpike Company, the Dismal Swamp, Appomattox, Potomac, and James River Canal companies and in two banks. Money in the fund was to be used to match private capital in financing improvements.

References:[edit | edit source]

Much of the text for this article was repeated with permission from an essay by Dallas Bogan, VA Transportation Office of Public Affairs (1401 E. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219), who used material taken directly from William Dollarhide's Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815.