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Petitioning for "...the laying out and clearing of a public road..."

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As the population of colonial North Carolina increased, new settlements, mills, river fords, churches, and taverns created a need for more and more roads to connect them to each other. When the residents of an area decided that a new route would “…be for the convenience of citizens in general,” they would petition the local court with a request that such a road be created.

An expanding population needed more roads

Toward the end of the 1600s, settlers from Virginia began to migrate south, skirting the Great Dismal Swamp, into what is now North Carolina. Through the early decades of the 1700s, these mostly English immigrants continued to populate what was then known as Bath County, that territory essentially being the entire coastal plain between the current borders of Virginia and South Carolina. (Bath County ceased to exist in 1739, when it was subdivided into multiple county jurisdictions.)

As these colonists spread out across the heavily forested land, they created new settlement clusters as well as more isolated, but equally important social nodes in the form of river fords, gristmills, ordinaries (taverns), and churches. In order to link these nodes for social and economic interaction, roads were required. That is not to say that there was any real cohesion among the people of Bath County. Edenton, for example, had more in common with the colony of Virginia to the north than it did with New Bern to the south. And any connection between the two port towns would have been by water through the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and the Neuse River. No connecting road was needed.

But at a more local level, roads were necessary in order for colonists to carve a living out of the wilderness. The farmer needed access to a gristmill in order to turn his wheat or corn into flour or meal, and he needed to be able to take that grain to a place where he could barter his produce for staples such as salt, sugar and coffee.  The traveler needed a path to a river crossing point. And scattered settlers found cohesion and purpose in being able to gather for a dram and news-sharing, or for worship.

Where local settlers determined among themselves that a road was needed – or where an existing road should be altered to accommodate a new pattern of travel – they would petition the county court to have the necessary work done. It is worth remembering that in early colonial times, almost all travel was by foot. Only the very rich could afford horses for travel. So a road at that time was essentially a path. English law in 1715 specified that a road should be cleared to 10 feet in width. It was only as wagons became common several decades into the 1700s that road width specifications were expanded to 20 feet. As wagons came in, roads were also frequently altered to avoid steep hills or excessively rocky terrain, difficult circumstances for a rolling vehicle.

We your humble petitioners…

A 1779 North Carolina citizens' petition for a bridge
A 1779 citizens' petition

The document and its language

A petition for the creation of a new road was a simple letter to the county court explaining the need and demonstrating that the proposal was supported by others in the community. The letter could be written by any literate citizen, although sometimes a lawyer was enlisted.

Either way, the language used in the letter was critical to its chances of success. It was important that the petition be seen by the court as an initiative of the community rather than one individual. To that end, petitions frequently included phrases such as “…convenience of the citizens in general,” and “…for the benefit of travelers at large.” Multiple signatures on the document – as with the petition signature page shown at the top of the page – could show wide community support.

Petitioners also frequently were careful to state that the new or reconfigured road could be accomplished, “without a substantial change in distance.” The pace of life in 1700s North Carolina may have been slower than it is for us today, but our ancestors were very aware that an increase in road length meant more time away from their farm, more expense for travel, and additional time spent maintaining the road under the corvée system. The courts understood this, and they tended to look askance at any petition to lengthen an existing road.

The petition process

Once a petition had been submitted to a local court, the process for dealing with it was fairly standard. The court would consider the proposal laid out in the document, and if it found sufficient merit, the court would appoint some number of local freeholders (i.e. property owners) to investigate further. These committees ranged from three to twelve members, depending on the jurisdiction. Once sworn in, this jury inspected the proposed route and reported back with a recommendation. They also assessed any damages the new work might inflict on a property owner and recommend appropriate recompense. The court would then make a determination and communicate that to the petitioners.

Once the court had made a decision, the process usually allowed a period of time in which a counter-petition could be filed in order to challenge the original proposal. But because petitions were usually widely supported in a local, such counter-petitions were rare. When they did occur, they tended to be less about the justification for a new road, and more about the fact that a second road in their area would double their citizen’s obligation to perform maintenance work. Or, the counter-petition might be an attempt to get the court to reassess – and presumably augment – any payment for damages the new road would impose on a land owner.

A petition for every need

A petition could lobby for a new road.

This is an example of a 1795 petition for a new road in Guilford County:

We your humble petitioners… that you may grant an order for the laying out and clearing a Public road leading from the Court House of said County to cross Deep River at Joseph Closs’s Mill from thence to Guilford County line in a direct course two cross Haw River at the High Rock Ford; for you humble petitioners do think a road laid out as a aforesaid would be of public service…

And here is the February 7, 1776 recommendation of the jurors assigned to look into the proposed new road:

We the undersigned jurors being appointed to view and to lay off a road from Randolph courthouse to Closses Mill and from thence to the County find a direct course to the High Rock Ford on the Haw River. We agree that it shall go up the old Moravian Road to William Ferlow’s thence to Closses Mill thence to Joseph Elliot’s thence to Daniel Davis and thence to along the old Trading Road to Isaac Cassey’s fiat new road thence to Isaac Cassey’s thence a direct course to the Guilford line between Robert fields and Clemmons woods further we appoint overseers clearing out the road we appoint Joseph Colsses…

It is interesting that petitions in the 1700s were rarely accompanied by even the crudest, hand-drawn map to illustrate a road, old or new. Maps became common only in the 19th Century. It has been suggested that in a community where everyone knew every house and landmark, a simple description – as above – made the route clear.

A petition could ask that a private road be made public.

Many colonial era roads were private roads. They do not show up on early maps, nor do they appear in court documents. But even though they were private roads on private property, many were commonly used by the public. Occasionally, a land owner would attempt to stop public use of his road, in which case the community could petition the court to declare the road public. Here is one such petition having to do with blocked access to a church. It was against the law to obstruct access to a house of worship, but rather than bring charges, citizens frequently chose to petition to have the court declare the road public.

…that for the last fifty years there has been a rod leading from the main public road leading from Greensboro to the Hillsboro in Guilford County to Bethel Church three quarters of a mile in length… Said road has never been established as a public road, but is getting used by the people living north and east in going to Bethel Church and to the Depot at McLanesville. Within the last two years, Dr. S. P. McDaniel a portion of the time has obstructed said road…that to open and establish said road as a public road would be of great convenience to the public and would injure no person and be of little or no expense to the county of Guilford.

A petition could ask that a road by rerouted.

As time went on, there were fewer petitions for new roads and more asking for the rerouting of existing roads. The 1715 laws – “An Act Concerning Roads and Ferries” – mentioned only creating new roads; in 1756, wording was added to accommodate discontinuing or altering existing roads.

A frequent complaint was that a road that had been fine for foot traffic was unsuitable for wagon and carriage traffic – often because of hilly terrain. This is an 1809 court response to such a petition:

Whereas it is represented to this Court that the Old Trading Road about the foot of the Caraway Mountain is so rough and hilly that it is with difficulty a carriage of any kind can pass. Ordered that the within named persons be appointed a Jury to view and lay off a road the best way that can be found from where Bulla’s road turns out near the Caraway Mountain to or near where the same meets the Quaker Road near Josiah Humphrey’s plantation whereon John Gibson lives…

A petition could ask the court to close a road. Or to reopen one.

As new roads were created, older routes sometimes became unused, and the land owner might petition to have the road be “discontinued and put down.” That would mean less maintenance obligation to the land owner, possibly less fencing to erect, and it might help him avoid damages caused by travelers on the road.

This 1839 petition requested such a closing:

Your petitioners wish your Worships to dispense with the Fayetteville road from the Stage Road to the County line believing it to be useless and unnecessary and not used as a public road in little or no way and not kept up as such…

On the other hand, there might be someone who disapproved of a road closing and wanted the lane reopened, as in this 1812 petition:

…pray that your honors may renew the road leaeing from Thmas Cox’s old mill across the Deep River at the Buffalo ford to the forks of the Sand Creek Roads; the same was discontinued by some designing men that did not consider its public use at February Term 1812…

A petition could request a bridge over troubled waters.

Citizens could also petition for a bridge to be built. This became more and more common as wagons came on the scene in the first half of the 18th century, the wheeled vehicles not being able to negotiate many long-used fords.

Here are two such petitions, the first a 1787 request for a bridge across the Alamance River near Hillsboro, the second an 1831 petition regarding a bridge across the Uwaharrie River: 

…the water of said river are frequently so high and rapid as to stop travelers, and the inhabitants who reside near, from pursuing their necessary business…  The great conveniences that would attend the County in general by building said bridge would more than compensate the expense, exclusive of risking the lives of those good inhabitants who are frequently under the disagreeable necessity of passing.

Your petitioners would respectfully show to your worshipful body that a good and substantial bridge across said stream at some point at or near he place called Dunbar’s Ford, would produce a remedy for all their grievances. Further, we would show that there is an extensive and fertile section of country embracing parts of the counties situated to the west of us where citizens labor under much inconvenience in the transportation of their produce to market, having the deep and rapid stream to pass which is not susceptible of a Ferry and yet not supplied with any bridge… [and the road] …being rendered impassable by the eddy in times of freshets in the river, which is frequent in the winter and all rainy season.

The citizen road petition is not a relic of the past.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation today plans road additions and improvements according to a numerical scoring process known as the State Transportation Improvement Program. The STIP is designed to eliminate preferential treatment and to impose fairness on department decision making.

And yet, lest you think the citizen petition is a relic of colonial times, our current highway legislation contains this:

§ 136-62. Right of petition.

The citizens of the State shall have the right to present petitions to the board of county commissioners, and through the board to the Department of Transportation, concerning additions to the system and improvement of roads. The board of county commissioners shall receive such petitions, forwarding them on to the Board of Transportation with their recommendations.

The featured picture at the top is the signature page of a 1700s citizen road petition.

An indispensable source for understanding early transportation infrastructure in North Carolina – with special attention to original documents – is Stewart E. Dunaway’s book Historical Overview of Road, Bridge, Ferry and Mills in North Carolina. It is the source of all the quotations in this blog post.

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