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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Colonial Roads & Trails
Before 1790 water travel was the preferred transportation because roads were little more than trails. Land transportation posed a major problem in the British colonies. Initially, the colonists simply followed the old Indian trails or more commonly used the waterways. Nonetheless, as people migrated into the interior, roads between the new settlements became necessary. Without these connecting links between the colonies, the new nation would never have developed. Only the most heavily traveled roads are discussed here. It should be clearly understood that lesser roads and trails were also used. The thorough researcher will seek out local histories and early records and maps which relate to a particular region of interest.
The King’s Highway 1636-1774 (Boston Post Road)
South from Annapolis the King’s Highway was often called the Great Coast Road. The road turned west through Bladensburg to the Potomac, where a ferry transported vehicles to Alexandria which at that time was a port nearly as active as Philadelphia, despite being a good distance inland. South from Alexandria the highway was for some distance called the Potomac Trail. Here in the tidewater area were located some of the largest plantations and finest mansions in America, but most were far removed from the highway because their commerce was primarily with England by means of ships which sailed up tidal inlets such as the James River and the Potomac.
A very poor road led on to Williamsburg, then capital of Virginia. From there it went off to Yorktown and Norfolk where swamps and rivers made land transportation difficult. Most travelers preferred the packet boats servicing the southern coast rather than take the rugged four hundred mile overland trail which had been opened to Charleston in 1738.
A continuous road existed from Boston to Charleston by 1750, linking all thirteen colonies. But it wasn’t an easy road to travel. With few bridges crossing rivers and streams and muddy roads in the Spring, many parts of the road were impassable for weeks at a time.
Douglas Waitley describes the King’s Highway quite vividly:
About the only persons who knew much about it (aside from the farmers and villagers familiar with the dozen or so miles in their own localities) were the post riders. For this reason anyone leaving Boston in the early days of travel made it a point to latch onto the mailman. One of those who did so was a courageous lady by the name of Sarah Knight, whose 1704 journal tells of experiences similar to those which must have unnerved most first generation travelers.” (Douglas Waitley, Roads of Destiny; the Trails that Shaped a Nation, 80.)
In 1772 the first stagecoach in service made the trip between Boston and New York City in just one week. By the time delegates made the trip from New York to Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress, the road could accommodate large carriages in reasonable safety. Of course during the Revolutionary War, stagecoach service and mail took second place to the maneuvering of soldiers and equipment. But after the war, the Post Roads became important links between the states of the new nation, and sections were improved.
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