Road Orders

by Carolyn L. Barkley

When I was growing up in Massachusetts, I spent summers in Hampshire County. In those days, it seemed as if the roads were always being resurfaced. This worked occasioned many grumpy comments from my grandfather who would have preferred not to get the paint on his Buick Roadmaster nicked by the loose gravel or marked by the oil being applied as the new surface. He also explained that the large numbers of men who comprised the crews were often town citizens who were working off their annual taxes by working on the roads during the summer months as farming allowed.

I had forgotten about that summer memory until my genealogical research led me to discover road orders. My discovery was accidental. Rather, in tracking several individuals in the Northampton County records, I had exhausted almost all of the other sections of the file card draw when I arrived at records dealing with roads and bridges. I almost passed over these records, but instead, despite the lateness of the day (always the time when you discover something new and potentially useful) decided to be diligent and explore the scope of these records.

Care of roads and bridges was a community duty. Road overseers were appointed annually to attend the stretches of road on which they lived and were empowered to call on all eligible able-bodied hands from among their neighbors for the labor. Those who were not exempted or excused from road duty cleared obstructions, cleaned ditches, made minor repairs to bridges, and did such other work as was necessary to make the roads passable.1

What I discovered was that by consulting the county’s road orders, I could establish the approximate location of an individual and also identify his neighbors by the description of the section of road he was to maintain. By comparing the road order information with deeds and other county records, I could begin to create a more comprehensive timeline for an individual and perhaps differentiate among individuals with the same name living in the county within the same time frame.

When my later research turned to Virginia, I found that the community’s responsibility for road maintenance was well-established.  Hening’s Statutes at Large includes a 1632 act of the House of Burgesses pertaining to surveyors for highways that was the first American highway legislation enacted. It stated the following:2

WHEREAS through the frequent alterations of the highwayes by falling of trees over them, and the many times taking them into ffenced plantations to the greate hindrance of travellers and traders: Be it therefore enacted that the justices doe yearely n October court appoint surveyors of the highwayes who shall first lay out the most convenient wayes to the church, to the court, to James Towne, and from county to county…, and make bridges where there is occasion, and the wayes being once thus layed out, and the bridges made they shall cause the said wayes to be kept cleere from loggs, and the bridges in good repaire that all his majesties subjects may have free and safe passage about their occasions; and to effect the same, the vestryes of every parish are upon the desires of the surveyors hereby enjoyned and impowered to order the parishoners every one according to the number of tithables he hath in his family, to send men upon the dayes by the surveighors appointed to helpe them in cleering the wayes, and making or reparing the bridges according to the intent and purpose of this act, and if any court shall omitt the appointing surveyors, or they neglect the executing their office, or the vestry to order the worke, or any person to send helpe according to the said vestryes order, the said court, surveighor, vestry or person, shalbe amerced five hundred pounds of tobacco to the use of the county. And if any person shall contrary to this act fall trees upon the highwayes and not cleere the same, or inclose any parte of the said highwayes within any ffence, the grand jury shall present the same as a comon nuisance, and the inclosure shalbe thrown open, and the offender be fined one thousand pounds of tobacco to the use of the county; and if any countyes have creeke or swampe, lymitting the bounds betweene the said counties, It is enacted that both county’s bounding upon such passage shall contribute to the makeing of the bridge or the way over itt.

Roads and bridges were taken seriously from the very beginning of colonial life as they allowed for the passage of goods to and from ports and marketplaces; ease of movement to places of safety in case of attack; a means to build and sustain a sense of community; and a means to explore and acquire new land.

While many states will have road order records available in their archives, the access to Virginia records is exemplary and access is provided through the efforts of that state’s Department of Transportation, a very surprising source of genealogy-related records. I accessed the “VDOT” website and searched for the term “history.” This search identified a pdf document entitled A History of Roads in Virginia: “The Most Convenient Wayes (Richmond, Va.: Virginia Department of Transportation Office of Public Affairs, 2006). It provides an excellent overview. It is complemented by Nathaniel Mason  Pawlett’s A Brief History of the Roads of Virginia, 1607-1840, rev. ed., (Charlottesville, Va.: Virginia Highway & Transportation Research Council, 2003).

The most useful road order information provided by VDOT, however, is found in the approximately twenty separate county road order books compiled by various authors. These counties include Fairfax, Orange, Lunenburg, Albemarle, Fincastle, New Kent and Hanover, Augusta, Spotsylvania, Montgomery, Brunswick, Louisa, Amelia, Goochland, Culpeper, and Botetourt. The years covered varies(vary?) with some of the earliest orders dated 1722 and the latest 1816.

In the 1744-1748 Albemarle County road order book, the following entries illustrate the information that can be learned from these records (and, in some cases, questions that will be raised by the way the information was recorded):

27 June 1745 O.S., p.23 – Andrew Wallace is Appointed Surveyor of the High Way from D. S. to Mitchams River. and Archibald Woods, Jeremiah Marris, William Shaw, Robert Mannely, John Dickey William Wallace Mirlock Mcdowell Micah Woods junr. Anthony Osbrook John Lawson John Cowan William Little and Robert Anderson Are Ordered to Assist the said Wallace in clearing the same./.3

13 Nov. 1746 O.S., p. 202 – Ordered a Road be marked from Slate River to Glovers Road by Samuel Jordan Gent. in Stead of a Road formerly marked by Scruggs and that the said Road from the County Line at Phineas Glovers to Buckingham Path at William Webbs be Cleared by the Male Tithables of Isaac Bates James Daniel James Nivels and Richard Taylor Abraham Childers Overseer. And from the said Path to Slate River by the Male Tithables of William Cannon John Cannon Richard Cocke and All Other the Male Tiths between the mouth of the Slate River and Isaac Bates that are not already imploy’d on some other Road. and that Thomas Fouts by Overseer./.4

Pawlett’s Albemarle County Road Orders 1783-1816 includes similar entries, such as:

3 December 1811, Order Book 1811-1813, p. 103 – On the petition of John Watson for the view of a road from the road leading from Charlottesville to Moors Creek the nearest & best way to Milton the road to be Conducted on the lands of Charles L. Bankhead & Thos. Jefferson on the south side of the north river Dabney C Gooch Matthew Rodes George Gilmer James Lindsay Jessee Lewis John Coles & Tucker Coles or any three of them being first sworn are appointed to view the proposed road and report to this Court the conveniances & inconveniances to the public and individuals that will attend the establishment of the same.5

The Albemarle road orders refer to roads for which plats may be found in three Surveyors Books (1744-1853). As Albemarle served as the parent county for several later jurisdictions, some of the roads mentioned in the road orders are now located in Amherst, Buckingham, Fluvanna and Nelson counties, as well as parts of Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell. An index to the roads in the Surveyors Books indicating the modern county location was compiled by Nathaniel Mason Pawlett as An Index to Roads  Shown in the Albemarle County Surveyors Books 1744-1853 (Charlottesville, Va.: Virginia Highway & Transportation Research Council, 1976) and provides a useful companion to his road order compilation. Plat maps are difficult to locate in the colonial South and so these Albemarle Surveyors Books are all the more interesting.

Used in combination with deeds, tithable lists and other such records, road orders prove particularly useful in recreating a colonial community and identifying its residents. If you have Virginia ancestors during the colonial period, you can access compilations of these records from the comfort of your own home thanks to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s recognition not only of the importance of the records themselves, but also of the value of convenient access to their contents. Look for similar records in your counties of interest.


1 Raymond A. Winslow, Jr., “Roads and Bridges,” in Helen F. J. Leary, editor, North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History. 2nd ed. (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996), chap. 22, p.276.

2“Hening’s Statutes at Large…,” database, Virginia Genealogy Research, VaGenWeb ( : accessed 20 September 2012), Laws of Virginia, March 1661-2 – 14th Charles II, Act LXXIX: “Surveyors for Highways.”

3Nathaniel Mason Pawlett, Albemarle County Road Orders 1744-1748 (Charlottesville, Va.: Virginia Highway & Transportation Research Council, 1975), 6.

4Pawlett, Albemarle County Road Orders 1744-1748, 16.

5Nathaniel Mason Pawlett, Albemarle County Road Orders 1783-1816, rev. (Charlottesville, Va.: Virginia Highway & Transportation Research Council, 2004), 197.

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