Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Very Brief Note on Priorities in Research and in Constructing Infrastructure in Colonial Times

People Always Come First

Setting aside the issue as to whether or not people walked where animals broke the trail (which in most cases I seriously doubt), people come first. People occupied the southeastern backcountry long before the arrival of government agents to record deeds and courts to arbitrate road locations. As a rule, with some wonderful exceptions, maps come long after government.

It is quite likely that "road orders" were not orders for the construction of a road. Rather, they were probably orders to bring an existing road, trail or path into compliance with government road norms using government resources and authority. Before government intervenes, paths became trails, and trails became roads. Individuals vied with one another to attract traffic to their store, their ford, their bridge. Traffic meant business. Government poltiicized that fundamental business process.

As a rule, except insofar as ferries multiplied roads, over time there are fewer and fewer roads. As government assumes responsibility for upkeep, fewer roads are kept up. As road cost (macadamizing, bridging, installing culverts, paving) go up, the number of roads maintained by government resources goes down, or infrastructure deteriorates until it is impassable.

So, if you would understand early transportation infrastructure, look first at the ground. When you find something, use records to ascertain what it was once records were kept, but don't assume the records preceded the thing. Just because a trace doesn't appear on a map or a land grant or some other official or semi-official record, doesn't mean it wasn't there.