Thursday, April 24, 2008

Roads-Trails-Paths Finding Model

Finding old routes is remarkably simple. Finding remnants of the old routes is somewhat more demanding.

Arbitrary Definitions:

  • roads carry wheeled vehicles,
  • trails are routes used by quadruped/critter carriers, and
  • paths are the routes of bipedal/human cargo carriers.

Commercial transportation is a very rational and predictable activity governed by economics and physics. A column of burdened porters moved under the same imperatives as does an eighteen-wheeled truck. They and all other carriers seek the most efficient, fastest route from "A" to "B." Efficiency issues of importance to the operator of the carrier included:
  • security and
  • fuel costs, and
  • fuel/energy expenditure.
Questions drivers of men, animals, wagons, or trucks need to answer about route selection include: "Are there secure places at which to stop and repair gear along the way?", "Is there sufficient and cost effective game/fodder/diesel along our route to fuel the vehicle?" In these ways a porter column's route was influenced by fuel and security costs just as is the modern truck route, and probably varied from season to season, just like modern truck routes responding to variations in fuel taxes, seasonal impediments, and so forth. The important point to recall is that commercial travel routes have always been and will probably always be determined by energy intake and expenditure and cargo security.

One major difference between pre-modern carriage and modern carriage is that in pre-modern times, before mechanically powered carriage, movement ended at the end of the day; there was little or no night travel. The principle quality of a good camp site was fresh water. So, one result is that in the southeast the oldest towns are one day apart in terms of pre-modern travel and cluster around springs along ridge trails. So, knowing the location of one old site and knowing the location of the routes that came to that site, one can reverse engineer the location of other sites.

We know that in the epoch of muscle powered transportation virtually all terrestrial vehicles moved at the same speed over long distances; roughly 2.5 mph or, in the southeastern Piedmont, about fifteen miles. Along our oldest routes our oldest towns, in the Piedmont, are about fifteen miles apart. In the mountains the daily travel range was more like five to eight miles per day, and in the coastal plain a day's travel was about ten miles.

Knowing that the first Anglican parish in what became North Carolina was seated, I believe, in Williamsboro (Vance County), lay out a straight line (shortest distance to the Trading Ford on the Yadkin River. Be prepared to move the straight line to accommodate stream crossings and other choke points along the way. Make a mark every fifteen miles along your line and you will find the marks are never more than three miles from an old, old town located amongst branch heads. Your itinerary will take you to camps near: Kinton Fork or Berea, Mount Tirzah, (make a turn at Mt. Tirzah to access more fords on the Haw River than the straight line allows, and follow Highway 57 to), Hillsborough, Saxapahaw, Liberty, Randleman, Painted Springs (on the Davidson-Randolph County line near Pleasant Grove Church), and then Trading Ford.

For a variety of good reasons, commercial paths and trails, and roads stayed on or near ridge tops whenever possible. That is usually where one finds springs in the Piedmont, but it is also where travel is easiest as wind and gravity clean the ridges. So, when plotting the route from one old hamlet, village or town to another, find the barrier streams between them and the ridges that will carry your conveyance. Lay your course in to intersect the barrier streams at fording points that can be safely accessed from the ridge line carrying your route. The greatest challenges to laying out your route, in order of difficulty, will be:
  1. finding a fording point that won't degrade your conveyance or your cargo;
  2. getting on and off of your ridge; and
  3. getting in and out of your barrier streams.
To get in and out of barrier streams porters and pack horses use natural ramps, smooth and gentle slopes that allow stepping into the barrier creek without stepping off of a bank. These, though are exceedingly rare. On at least one side and quite frequently both sides of the barrier stream feeder creeks will serve as ramps to get in and out of your ford. Streams entering your barrier watercourse from opposite banks will each have dumped gravel at their mouths and that gravel will pave the ford. So, to find horse and human crossings look for opposing confluences. Wagons use man-made entrance ramps to get into and out of barrier streams. Having found the fords between you and your destination you can now lay in ridge courses to reach the fords.

An old Irish toast upon one's departure was, "May you find an easy way to the ridge." Having found the ridges that will take you most directly to your destination, plot how to get from the ridges to the streams and back on to the ridges. Bear in mind that people are more agile than horses, and horses are more agile than wagons. Each change in transportation technology required changes in climbing on and off of ridges and in and out of streams. In some really good fords you will be able to see all three conveyance channels separate from one another.

In the following map snippet you will see a modern road doing something really silly not once but twice. It makes ninety degree turns in the middle of nowhere. The road shown is on a ridge in a set of mountains. And at each of the ninety degree turns the wagon road that became the modern paved road had been laid down atop a packhorse road, and when the ridge petered out the wagoners had to find alternative ways to get off the ridge and down to the fords.

Following these basic insights into pre-modern travel will allow you to surmise a logical course of travel from any one place to another. To prove your hypothesis, "ground-truth" your route. Which is to say, go out and find remnants of roads, trails, or paths along the logical line of travel. If you find none, revisit your assumptions as this method has proven remarkably reliable in fact. Look for the earliest roads and trails and paths on the "military crest." The military crest is usually around ten feet lower in elevation than the physical crest of a ridge. Using the military crest insures only half the world can see you and then with difficulty as you are not silhouetted on the ridge line.

Now, if you find your route don't forget to tell us about it.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Technologies of Colonial Transportation: How people and cargo moved in pre-modern times

People, common people made commercial transportation work in England's southern colonies in North America. From over-burdened porters to vernacular engineers, people made it happen.

Before the invention of mechanized transportation cargo traveled on the backs of porters, on the backs of beasts of burden, in carts and then in wagons. Perhaps the greatest tonnage carried in pre-modern times, when muscles powered transportation was carried in water-craft. We will not deal with watercraft now, but limit this short note to terrestrial transportation of goods.

Before and immediately after the English invasion of southeastern North America at Roanoke Island and at Jamestown, Native Americans carried most commercial cargo. These porters carried tens of pounds over hundreds of miles. They were replaced by pack horses. Their replacement culminated with Bacon's Rebellion, the definitive moment of technological change. After 1676 there would be little porter borne commerce in England's southeastern colonies.

Pack horses carried hundreds of pounds for hundreds of miles, were less expensive to fuel, and almost never killed the boss. Horses carried terrestrial cargo from 1676 until the 1720s when they too were replaced. Wagons replaced pack horses because they could. Wagons carried thousands of pounds hundreds of miles with less fuel than a the number of pack horses needed to carry the same amount of cargo.

It is interesting to speculate on the costs of portering and pack horse transport. There are reports of pack horse trains of one hundred horses. How many horses could a hostler handle? How many hostlers could a hunter feed? How many cooks and bottle washers and other specialists did it take to move people or horses in large numbers through the forest primeval?

The US Army required a holder for every four horses in a cavalry column. When the cavalry dismounted to fight it sacrificed twenty-five percent of its manpower to hang on to its motive power. Is that the same ration used by pack horse operators? So far, nobody knows.

In Tecumseh: A Life by John Sugden the author describes an entire village making a seasonal move. The day before the move hunters and scouts laid out the course of the move and hung food sufficient for the village in trees at the first night's camp site. The morning of the young people moved out early in the day and spent the day improving the trail. When the dew had risen, the village rose, grabbed their burdens and moved out on a clear trail toward fresh food at a prepared campsite. He makes no mention of the ratio of hunters to burden bearers.

Clearly, moving burdened people or horses took a considerable support staff. Records are too sketchy to say whether or not carts were an interim step between pack horses and wagons. But it is interesting to not that some carts had their wheels "toed" in to fit in horse tracks. With each change in transportation technology there was an increase in capitol investment required to move the first item of cargo. Of all the terrestrial cargo carriers, wagons were the most expensive as they needed not only specialized vehicle construction, they also needed roads.

The answer to the greater cost of moving commerce by wagons was to legally extort enough money from the beneficiaries of commerce, consumers, to pay for the construction of roads. Road work was, for tithable males aged 16 to 60, which is to say militiamen, the most expensive tax they paid each year. English law (1555) required six days of road work per year. The same law specified that wagon roads would be 10 feet across at the rolling surface and have a decline of no more than five feet in one hundred.

Almost every colonial highway was made by militiamen, not engineers, not construction firms, but common soldiers. Let us call this vernacular engineering.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Migration into the "Backcountry" in Colonial Times - II

Geographic Barriers and the Politics of Conquest Directed Early Migrants from Virginia to the South and then the Southwest

Classic migrants, settlers looking for market opportunities in 17th and 18th century Virginia seem to have, as much as possible, avoided passage through market farming country. That is, smart migrants stayed as close to the frontier as comfortably possible to avoid paying market rates for provender. Frontier farmers, farming for subsistence, sold their excess to passing travelers at whatever rates that trade would bear.

In Virginia, the earliest routes of migration followed in the footprints of traders and explorers along paths and trails long known to prior residents. North from Jamestown in earliest times was a difficult option as stream after uncrossable stream flowing toward Chesapeake Bay intersected the way. These waterways forced northbound traffic westward, toward shallower fords, deeper into lands occupied by increasingly unfriendly Native Americans.

South of the James River, though, were passable streams and arable lands. Probably already in the middle decades of the 17th century the road from Bermuda Hundred to Norfolk was well traveled. By the last quater of that century, the roads to the Tuscarora west of the Chowan River were well known. And, after Bacon's Rebellion (1676) the trails into the central and western piedmont were all open for business.
Into them a trickle of desperate frontier migrants in the middle of the 17th century became a steady flow by the start of the 18th century and a flood by the middle of the 18th century. So, travel into the Carolina backcountry from VA spread like a fan with its base at the falls of the James River from south to southwest and then westward to the Blue Ridge where it stalled a while.

These people, the early, desperate, frontier subsistence folk and then the pioneer market farming settlers, 'without benefit of law or clergy,' made it up as they went along and created a multi-cultural, multi-racial society so vibrant, so authentic, and so effective that the good the bad and the ugly of it now comprise a large part of American identity.
It is for this reason and none other that we must save the archaeology of these early colonial years so that one day we may understand how it is we became what we have become. For, in the final analysis we each and every one and all of us are what we were.


Migration into the "Backcountry" in Colonial Times - I

Frontier Folk Were Seldom Settlers and Vice Versa

English colonists began migrating inland, away from their colonial plantations and settlements almost the instant they landed, first at Roanoke (1585-1587) and then on Chesapeake Bay(starting in 1607). These migrating emigrants were usually the invisible to historians and barely visible to archaeologist; indentured servants and other less affluent folk. Their motives for migrating away from their countrymen ranged from curiosity to animosity. Some went to see what they could see and never came back. Some went to escape an odious labor contract and others to escape debt or other inconveniences common in the English colonial settlements, like wholesale hunger. But, more or less, all escaped into the backcountry, the unmapped, unknown frontier lands away from the coastal enclaves.

In the earliest years of settlement this meant escape into Indian country. And it flies in the face of most conventional beliefs to say that English men, women, and children fled to the Indians. But some did. Others went unwilling and stayed with pleasure. It seems "escape" from Indian country was the exception, not the rule.

In part this reflects Indian societies open to non-Indian participants. It seems the eastern Indians, though they had well defined ethnic identities (ie. knew who they were and who wasn't them) but absolutely no concept of race. These Native American societies apparently had few if any absolute barriers to admission. This is a common feature in subsistence economies where what you can contribute to mutual survival is more important than one's blood lineage. In part, it also resulted from bone-headed Virginia labor policies.

Virginia's elites, always desperate for labor, early in the colonial process enslaved local natives and put them to work in their fields alongside English indentured servants. Labor solidarity, it seems, prevailed and when the Indian's took Dutch leave from drudgery, they often took their English work-mates along. Enslaving people who know the country better than you do was a desperate and ultimately foolish labor policy and it cost Virginia dearly but, on the other hand, added immensely to the rich diversity of what came to be called "the backcountry."

It is likely that very few people migrated freely into the backcountry as moving into a frontier is essential hazardous with little promise of return on the risk. Frontier migrants were thus, almost by definition, desperadoes for one reason or another. And they should be recognized as a special class of migrant and dealt with separate from the more classic migrants of the 18th and 19th century. Frontier folk were folk willing and able to live in a subsistence economy without the advantages of civilization so as to avoid the costs of civilization.

Later migrants increasingly tended to be market farmers seeking cheap land on which to grow market crops, ambitious folks with goals off in the future. They moved not to frontiers but to new settlements. The important point to bear in mind when considering these classic migrants with their wagons full of capitol goods is that they seldom, if ever, moved into frontier regions, regions characterized by lawlessness and subsistence economies.

Though there are examples of market farmers moving very near to frontier zones, these exceptions are rare enough to prove the rule. For example, the Moravian team who first moved into the Wacovia District in North Carolina actually had to cut the roads and fords for their wagons in the last leg of their trip. Similarly, Daniel Boone led Judge Henderson's settlers over the mountains into "dark and bloody ground" on foot, without their wagons, carrying their goods on pack animals as the Wilderness Road was still but a trail. As with the Moravians, this is rare enough to be of note. Most settlers carried their capitol in wagons and moved onto lands defined by law and into an economy defined by markets.

Both the Moravians and Boone's people met squatters on the land they would call their own. William Byrd met some of these true frontier folk along Virginia's southern border in 1728. He said they had remained outside polite society "...for generations without benefit of law or clergy....." His witty dig reveals at least as much about the nature of frontier squatters as it does about Virginia prigs. They were rugged and even rough, unpretentious, frequently enmeshed in multi-racial, multi-cultural societies a polite gentleman like Mr. Byrd would not have recognized even if he deigned to see them.

So, rule number one about classic migration in Colonial America is that migrants were settlers, not frontiers people, and they moved to settle on lands already under the aegis of some authority capable of transferring more or less clear title to the lands on which they hoped to grow their estates.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Why we look at dirt first, then paper.

A random concatenation of events got me thinking about why we do what we do the way we do. It all came together when a volunteer asked about what documents to look for in order to find a stage coach road. My reply, more or less verbatim, follows:

Muscle powered transportation is my definition of "pre-modern" and those are the defining technologies for the old traces the Trading Path Association seeks. But (and this is a major but) muscle powered transport persisted well into the industrial age and the farther into that age it persisted the farther the roads deviated from their original course. For example, railroads caused wholesale rerouting of local roads and extinguished many a town that thrived until snuffed by cessation of wagon commerce. So, by the time scheduled bus service (stagecoaches) entered the backcountry there is no knowing where the original roads went. This is one reason that I pretty much reject the normal process of history which consists of looking for documents and then finding whatever was referred to in the documents.

First, the historic document set is very incomplete. Second, what documents remain are scattered between various archiving authorities and it is not inexpensive to do an exhaustive document study. Third, documents frequent obscure more than they reveal and sometime outright lie. Documents are quintessentially secondary sources. They are mere description of a physical or legal fact. As you well know from your personal life, the vast majority of your most important activities, with any luck at all, never get recorded on a public document. Those same important acts, though, frequently leave marks on the ground.

Dirt never lies. It may be disturbed or incomplete but, marks on the land are more than anything else, primary resources. So, the TPA seeks the marks and only then does it turn to documents to explain what the mark might mean. That way we think we'll find and understand more than if we start with secondary materials and work back toward the dirt.

I hope this gives you an idea of our methodology and its logical underpinnings.