Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Great Wagon Road: Colonial-Era Interstate

By Shannon McNear

How did the early explorers and settlers navigate our country? Did people just strike out in a particular direction and settle wherever they wound up, or what?

While researching for my first novella, Defending Truth, I was given a transcript of a diary written by William Alexander, a colonial wagon master who fetched goods on a regular basis from Philadelphia to his home city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Among many other interesting things, I learned about the road which served as the main artery from north to south along the frontier during the colonial era. Another such road was The King’s Highway, begun in 1673 and finished 1735, linking Boston, Massachusetts, and Charleston, South Carolina. 

While the King’s Highway was a deliberate effort, first conceived by King Charles II of England, NCpedia  tells us that the Great Wagon Road traced what was originally the Warrior’s Path, so named for its use by Native American hunting and war parties. (Anyone remember the Louis L’Amour book of the same
name?) During the colonial era, explorers and settlers used the trail, treacherous on horseback in places and impassable by wagon. (A good description of travel in the wilds of western Virginia can be found in Waddell’s Annals of Augusta County.  Colonists gradually widened and refined the road until it was usable by wagon, and it became the most important trade and travel route along the back-country.

 Trade in particular was the focus of William Alexander’s diary. With my second novella, the diary provided both inspiration for a main character and source of research, as obtaining a picture of life on the Great Wagon Road became vitally important. Taverns and inns (known during that time as “ordinaries,” distinguished from taverns by their ability to provide overnight lodging) sprang up along the way, becoming local hubs of social, political, and economic life. A man who traveled such a road often enough might become fairly well known by those who worked or frequented the local taverns, and thus The Highwayman was born: a humble wagon master-turned-vigilante finds his true courage when the girl he secretly loves is threatened by a local bully.

Though at first glance the diary was some mighty dry, dull reading, lacking proper punctuation and full of spelling errors (as we know modern spelling), I soon realized it offered valuable insights about colonial living and culture: what people bought, what they imported and exported up and down the colonies, what monetary payments they used, how long travel took by wagon, what sorts of things might delay travel, how long they might stay in a given place and why. What a young man in his twenties thought of life, the universe, and everything, and how he liked to spend his spare time. I found one reference especially amusing, in the middle of an otherwise spare account of a journey north, of a “pretty young Virginia woman” who ran the ferry on the Yadkin River.
Curiosity about the wider history of the man himself led me via online search to scanned pages of the original Alexander diary, and this bit:

One volume, a diary of about 130 small pages, kept by William Sample Alexander (d. 1826), of Mecklenburg Co., N. C., 1770-1778. [Other accounts say the diary only covers 1776-78.] Alexander was the son of Hezekiah Alexander (1728-1801), a prominent settler of Mecklenburg County. William Sample Alexander operated a wagon train between Mecklenburg County and Chester Co., Pennsylvania. The diary provides a partial description of his wagon train journeys and includes a record of accounts which he maintained with friends and family members, as well as descriptions of a few “home remedies.”

The first substantive entries in William Sample Alexander’s diary are from 1774, when he left Mecklenburg County on a trip northward. Philadelphia and Charleston served as Mecklenburg County’s main trading centers, and traders
such as William Sample Alexander traveled to these centers quite frequently by wagon train. Alexander operated a wagon train to the Philadelphia area, and one author reports that he “would haul the pelts and produce of the farms and forests to Philadelphia and would bring back all sorts of goods ordered by the ladies and men of the community.” [Victor C. King, Comp. and Ed., Lives and Times of the 27 Signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775: Pioneers Extraordinary (Charlotte: Anderson Press, 1956).]

I was able to find out exactly how old William was during the time he kept the diary, make a decent guess as to whether he was married yet (one source says not, but then another source says he and his first wife married in 1770), what rank he held in the local militia (and which one he served in), even a nickname and a fair guess as to his activities during the latter part of the Revolution. It was also fun to find connections to Augusta County, Virginia, where much of The Highwayman is set, and a transcript of his will.

I'm indebted to his diary to help me figure out not only the route my character Sam Wheeler and his cousin Jed might take, but what distance they might cover on a good day and what sorts of issues they might run into. Tracing the actual journey from Charlotte to Philadelphia proved fascinating as well, and the discovery that Thomas Jefferson's father Peter helped draft the earlier map of Virginia, above. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d been lacking in knowledge of period roadways, but after, of course, I wondered how I’d ever done without it. :-)

Recently transplanted to North Dakota after more than two decades in Charleston, South Carolina, Shannon McNear loves losing herself in local history. She’s a military wife, mother of 8, and a member of ACFW and RWA. Her first novella, Defending Truth, in A Pioneer Christmas Collection, was a 2014 RITA nominee, and her second novella, The Highwayman in The Most Eligible Bachelor Collection, released May 2015. When not sewing, researching, or leaking story from her fingertips, she enjoys being outdoors, basking in the beauty of the Dakota prairies.

The Most Eligible Bachelor

Samuel Wheeler is an ordinary wagonmaster by day, a masked vigilante by night. It started as a lark, but has gotten out of hand. He hardly sleeps, his secret identity has taken over his life, and the girl he loves barely notices him while his alter ego sets her aflutter.

Sally Brewster works hard at her parents’ inn, nestled in the lower Shenandoah Valley, along the Great Wagon Road that runs from Philadelphia down through the Carolinas. She pays little mind to the gossip about the mysterious highwayman who lately makes life difficult for the redcoats—until the night when the heroic figure saves her from brigands.


  1. I really enjoy collections in many novels. I have not heard of the Wagon Road, so that is interesting too. sm CA wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  2. I hadn't heard about this road before reading this post and it was very interesting. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thank you for a great post, Shannon. With family in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, I'm always interested in history in their neck of the woods. Looking forward to the next visit out that way and traveling along the Great Wagon Road.