Movin’ on Down the Road: Thoughts on Highways and Our Ancestors

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

At a recent book fair, I purchased a copy of Eric Jaffe’s The King’s Best Highway: the Lost History of the Boston Post Road, the Route that Made America (Scribner, 2010). An impulse book buyer, I often buy books that grace my book shelves at home for many months before I actually read them. This book, however, was one that I began soon after purchase. My connections with the King’s Highway/Boston Post Road are several. I grew up just outside of Springfield, Massachusetts, one of the terminuses of the old post road, where a section of Rte. 20 is still called “Boston Road.” I attended college outside of Boston, and my bus trip home followed much of the old post road from Boston to Springfield. I have ancestors who lived in New Haven and Branford, Connecticut, also located along the King’s Highway as it moves southward toward New York City.

Jaffe, a journalist and former editor of Smithsonian magazine’s website, has written an interesting, accessible history that I happily read at bedtime over the course of several nights. I came away with an understanding of the importance of the King’s Highway’s several segments in connecting the various communities situated along by its route. Not only did people in colonial and Revolutionary-era America want to travel more comfortably and more quickly between locations—an impetus for the road–they needed to communicate effectively and this communication was facilitated by the rapid movement of mail and newspapers among the politically and economically important cities of Boston, Springfield, Hartford, New Haven and Providence. I also learned about the progress of transportation from horse to stagecoach to train to bicycles to automobiles and the modern interstate highway. The occupations of my ancestors, coach painters and builders in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 18520s, but who by the 1860s and 1870s were working for such railroad-affiliated companies as American Express Baggage in Springfield, Massachusetts,  reflect the progress and transformations that occurred along the King’s Highway. Even earlier, in the mid-1700s, Levi Pease of Enfield, Connecticut, described at retirement as “Father of the New England Roads,” may well be a part of the Enfield Pease family that is one of my maternal collateral lines.

As I read, I began to see how learning about the history of roads and their successors, the railroads, can assist us as we try to locate and our ancestors as they migrated across country, and to learn about their lives. If for example, you have located a colonial ancestor in Boston, but cannot locate him at a later point in time, you might want to look for him in the towns that began to spring up along the post roads. People lived right on the road, in many cases, to facilitate the shipment of goods to markets and the receipt of mail and other items in return. If you had an ancestor living along one of the New England railroads that paralleled the old King’s Highway, reading books such as Jaffe’s can also provide a flavor of their lives. Here is an example from 1835, describing the arrival (in Worcester) of the first Boston & Worcester Railroad train during the summer of 1835: “As the trains entered Worcester, people from neighboring towns lined the track for miles just to catch a peek at the hissing steam engine. (At least one horse bucked wildly as the train passed by, though there is no evidence, as farmers had feared, that the steam engines frightened their hens out of laying eggs.) The railcars themselves were less of a spectacle. They seemed rather ordinary with good reason. They had been built by Osgood Bradley, a carriage maker in Worcester, and had many of the features travelers had come to expect in a stagecoach, except that their rounded bodies looked unnatural atop the flat gear frame – a bit like an ark out of water.” On that day, four eleven-car trains each made two round-trips from Boston to Worcester. “During the ride conductors walked along planks outside the cars. They gripped an iron bar mounted above for support, collected fares, occasionally ducked sparks. In all, some fifteen hundred passengers rode that day. To many it must have seemed unreal – must have felt, in the words of one man upon his first ride into Boston, ‘like a dream.’”

The King’s Highway would later be extended past New York, passing through Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Annapolis to Alexandria (the Great Coastal Road); then on to Norfolk (the Potomac Trail) passing by Mount Vernon, Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, and Richmond; and finally on to Charleston (1,300 miles south of Boston), and Savannah. You may be able to use maps of the routes of these highway sections as geographical guides to the migration of your ancestors.

Just as I was completing Jaffe’s book, I received notice of an Augusta County (Virginia) Historical Society program on another road – this time the “Great Valley Road” through the Shenandoah Valley. (After many years of living near the King’s Highway in Massachusetts and then in Tidewater Virginia, I have moved to within a thirty-minute drive of another seminal American road.) The topic of the evening’s program was a book, edited by Warren R. Hofstra, Stewart Bell Professor of History at Shenandoah University, and Karl Raitz, Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor at the University of Kentucky, The Great Valley Road of Virginia: Shenandoah Landscapes from Prehistory to the Present. The book contains eight essays and accompanying photographs depicting the history of the great wagon road. The presentation was quite enjoyable, the room was full of interested listeners and commenters, and I left happily in possession of one of the few copies of the book available for sale that night. I must admit, however, that I have not yet finished reading the book. It is much more academic in tone than Jaffe’s The King’s Best Highway, and I find it is not conducive to bed-time reading. A review in the most recent issue of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography stated, “Casual travelers may find in The Great Valley Road of Virginia more than they want to know…”

That being said, however, I have read enough to learn that this road did not serve to connect people as did the King’s Highway, but rather served to facilitate their movement to another location. Various Native American tribes used the road, sometimes known as the Great Warriors’ Path, to avoid the never-ending warfare of the Iroquois; settlers in Maryland and Pennsylvania used it to escape from epidemics, or to move further from the constraints of government, to find new land, etc. As such, it was instrumental in opening up the frontier and the eventual settlement of the lands beyond the Alleghenies. I will keep reading as the old highway, largely the path of Rte. 11 and Interstate 81 today, is virtually at my backdoor. Moreover research into my son’s paternal lines indicates their movement from Frederick, Maryland, up the Valley (that is moving south through the Valley) to new locations throughout the Shenandoah Valley prior to their movement into West Virginia.

Reading about early migration paths, the roads that replaced them, and the railroad tracks that paralleled them is important background research for our family research. In addition to the King’s Highway/ Boston Post Road, and the Great Valley Road of Virginia, there is the Lancaster Road (Philadelphia to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania); the Fall Line Road (Fredericksburg to Augusta, Georgia); the Pioneer’s Road (Alexandria to Winchester, Virginia); the Upper Road (from Fredericksburg across Virginia to North Carolina); the Wilderness Road (extending the Valley Road into Kentucky); Forbes’ Road and Braddock’s Road (leading to Fort Duquesne/Pittsburgh); the Hudson River Road (New York City to Albany) and the Mohawk and Catskill Turnpikes in New York State. Elsewhere, as the frontier was pushed farther and farther west, the National and the Nashville Roads as well as Zane’s Trace were built through what would become Ohio, and in the old Southwest, the Natchez Trace and the Federal Horse Path facilitated travel, and major routes like the Oregon Trail led settlers to the great northwest.

A good beginning source to consult for anyone interested in the roads our forefathers traveled is William Dollarhide’s Map Guide to American Migration Routes (Precision Indexing, 1997). Other “road books” include Parke Rouse’s The Great Wagon Road: From Philadelphia to the South (Dietz Press, 1992), Thomas B. Searight’s The Old Pike: a History of the National Road (1894, reprinted Heritage Books, 1990), Robert Bruce’s The Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania; Old Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Pike, and Douglas Waitley’s, Roads of Destiny: the Trails that Shaped a Nation (Robert B. Luce, 1970).

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