Colonial Roads

October 13 history blog post: One of a series of short essays to provide the cultural, political and geographical context for the 1766 travelers.

The first “roads” in the colonies were paths worn by wild animals seeking food or by Indians traveling for trade or warfare. In Virginia, European settlement was initially concentrated along the coastline, where navigable waters were plentiful, so there was not much need for roads. As the population grew and spread inland, roads were needed for commerce and migration. The first legislation concerning roads was passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1632. “Highwayes shall be layd in such convenient places as are requisite accordinge as the Gov. and Counsell or the commissioners for the monthlie corts shall appoynt, or accordinge as the parishioners of every parish shall agree.” Each man in the colony was required to work on the roads a certain number of days each year, usually six, or to pay another man to work in his place.

During the late 17th century, justices at the county courts in Virginia assumed the responsibility for roads, and laws were enacted to require roads be constructed to parish churches, the county courts, Jamestown (then the seat of government), and between individual counties. All males above the age of 16, whether free or slave, were required to work on the roads when ordered by their parish vestry. Fines were levied if men did not show up to work.

In the 18th century the laws were amended to provide for local surveyors and skilled laborers, as well as dividing the costs between counties if a bridge crossed a county line. Owners of mill dams were required to provide a 10-foot passage on dams, public ferries were authorized by the legislature, and counties with iron furnaces were required to provide “good roads.”

Virginia S. Hart A’75


A History of Roads in Virginia: “The Most Convenient Wayes,” Virginia Department of Transportation

A Brief History of the Roads of Virginia 1607-1840 by Nathanial Mason Pawlett

Early Roads in Orange County, from Remembering by Frank Walker: