Artifacts on the Haw River between Swepsonville and Saxapahaw
Paddle Tour on the Haw River: Swepsonville to Saxapahaw, the middle fords
November 27, 2010
Touring rivers is new to the Trading Path Association. We've walked plenty of river banks, before, looking for remnants of riparian commerce and looking for stream crossings, but the idea of searching a river from the water just hadn't caught on with us, perhaps, because so few Piedmont streams will float a vessel. We knew, though, a number of stream crossings on the Haw any one of which could be visited in a single afternoon, but to see more than just the one would take far too much time, hence the paddle tour.
In the course of the tour we saw five fords, at least a half dozen dam sites, a couple of power houses that once housed turbines, some sort of occupancy site that may have been a mill prior to government records in the area, and a canal and lock in good enough shape to know what it was even though we couldn't figure out how it work.
In other words, paddling proved to be a most efficient and rewarding mode of study. Besides the artifacts, we saw a number of delightful critters; deer, cormorants, mouthy great blue herons, a kingfisher, and an adolescent bald eagle. We had the river to ourselves, and on a sunny, cool autumn day all six miles of the reach was a joy to behold.
Fords are where you can cross a stream on foot, and the shoals at Swepsonville invited fording long before Europeans arrived. At the bottom of a fall, they are a natural fording place requiring only a convenient way in and out. Similarly, the shoals at Saxapahaw undoubtedly served the same purpose. The middle fords of the Haw River lie between the towns of Haw River and Saxapahaw. In the 17th and 18th centuries those fords carried most commercial native and newcomer traffic. One of those fords carried John Lawson, a writer who told us most of what we know about the Piedmont in the Contact Era. Historically, these river crossings are among the most important in early American history. To the left is a map first published in 1798 and then republished in 1808. It shows Great Alamance Creek joining the Haw, the location of R.L. Christmas' mill and ford that later became Swepsonville, then Island Ford and Hunters Ford, then Cedar Cliffs and just upstream from Mary's CReek it shows the future site of Saxapahaw.
Fords frequently took advantage of exposed bedrock on the down-stream end of falls or shoals. That way if you were to slip and fall in the ford, the river would spit you out in a pond rather than tumble you through a rock garden; it was safer. Fords, especially horse and foot fords, are also associated with stream influences where feeder creeks have dumped their load of gravel when they lost energy upon colliding with a larger stream. The spilled gravel thereby created a bar in the river. There are several of these potential crossings along the section of the Haw we toured but the reach we were on is a dam pond and whatever gravel bars there once were are long gone under the unnatural pool.
European use of these crossings spanned almost three centuries and, of course, European travelers learned of the fords from Indian guides whose people had used the fords for hundreds and even thousands of years. When Europeans first set foot in what they called the Backcountry it was not, as many say, ‘a trackless wilderness.’ Trails used for porter borne Native American commerce crisscrossed the countryside. The first Europeans to penetrate the Backcountry did so guided by Indians who used these well established routes. Generally, the first Europeans in the Backcountry, traders and surveyors, were mounted on horses. These first horsemen not only trampled porter roads into quagmires, they set the road matrix for all who followed. The horsemen followed footpaths, and wagons later followed horse trails. In time the first guides disappeared, victims of disease or slaving but also there were survivors who took on European names and trappings and melted into the new majority population. They probably were the pack horsemen, and it is likely that they evolved into wagoneer too but it is hard to tell from documents as the last Indian name appeared in Carolina records just after the Tuscarora War (1715).
On the map to the left, published in 1833, Swepsonville is shown as "Murphy Mill", and the parallel lines of Island Ford and Hunter Ford just below it are almost stylized. The road descending from "Mt Willing" descends to Cedar Cliffs. It is the main line of the upper trading path and, in fact, it defineses almost a straight line as it runs northeast to Petersburg. It crossed the Roanoke at "Moniseep" ford, a horse ford over that river.
Wagons first appeared in the Backcountry as early as 1704, following Thigpe's Trace. Economies of scale had first replaced native bearers with pack horses (ca 1676) and then, when sufficient draft horses were available, replaced pack horses with wagons mainly after the Tuscarora War (1715). With each change in transportation technology river crossings changed. Each increase in cargo capacity required changes in routes. Places that one thrived died. Places of little importance became critical transportation nodes. Fortunes were made and lost betting on the next essential place. But some crossings persisted and retained their value. Swepsonville and Saxapahaw are two such places.
There will be value in explaining just why these two places persisted while other transportation nodes, like Cedar Cliffs snuffed out and sank back into the forest soil. Understanding these changes is part of the Trading Path Association mission. To the right we see an 1893 map of our reach of the river. "Mt Willing", once a thriving truck stop for wagoneers has disappeared, snuffed out by railroads (ca 1860) but Cedar Cliffs still has a crossing for a road we call "the lower trading path" which crossed the Neuse at a town called Fish Dam. At the time of the map, there was a dam at Cedar Cliffs, the place had its own Post Office (much as Mount Willing once did) and it seemed to have survived the impact of railroads. Alas, that was not the case. All that remains of Cedar Cliffs are some foundations on the hillside above an old canal and lock that once carried cargo bateau between Haw River and Saxapahaw mills.
We work toward understanding how transportation technologies changed settlement patterns by mapping stream crossings and the roads that connected them. We do this because we know that in the Piedmont during the age of muscle power, paths, trails and roads went not from town to town but from river crossing to river crossing. By finding the river crossings we find the road matrix for any given technology. And along those roads will be found the artifacts that will allow us to rewrite our history without the dead weight of Jim Crow and past hatred bearing us down. That is our mission, our goal and purpose. And we appreciate your participating in it with us.
[Any reader with HTML skills who is willing to help cleanup my code, please, step forward; you can't believe how much time was spent not fixing the code in this piece.]