Early Road Building in U.S. History


This is a case about the history of road building and maintenance in 19th-century United States. Through the use of primary sources, it introduces students to some practical lessons of historical methods and encourages them to think about comparative economic systems. Road work documents from Rockingham County in the 1830s are provided as sources that students can use to build their understanding of a 19th-century county road network.

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Click the links below to download the figures.

Figure 1: Handwritten receipt for $1.50 for supervising a half day of work on a country road in Rockingham County, VA, in 1834.


Figure 2: A Rockingham County court order for Jared Powell to work on a road in 1835.

Court Order_1835

Figure 3: An 1834 county court order from Rockingham. Wear and tear is apparent. The cotton-based paper has been creased and folded. Some water damage has occurred. 

Court Order_1834

Figure 4: An 1832 county court order. Orders to work on roads could be very precise and draw on local knowledge. In this order, John Landis is to work on “The Stage Road” beginning at “10 feet North of the mouth of the lane between [Kyser?] and Smith plantations where [survey precinct] No. 2 ends and ends at the run about a quarter of a mile south of George Clein’s house (where Sr. Clein formerly lived.”

Court Order_1832

Figure 5: An 1827 document recording road labor in Rockingham County. The laborers signed only with an “X”, likely because they were not literate. Literacy kept powerful people in power, and literate scribes were essential for the organizing system to function properly.

Timesheet_June 3, 1827

Figure 6: An 1827 document recording road labor in Rockingham County. German handwritten in the signatures indicates the foreign birth of many Rockingham County residents in the early nineteenth century.

Timesheet_June 4, 1827

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