When I started researching Isaac Frye, I had the easy-to-say idea of tracing his path on a map as he made his way through the American Revolution.

So, how can you really know where someone walked, slept, or rode two hundred and forty years ago?  

In truth, most of the time you cannot. As I began to trace Isaac Frye’s path during the American Revolution, I needed to know where he had been, and how he got there. I also needed a map to “pin” that information to. To my surprise, many records only showed where he had been, rarely conveyed his mode of travel, and almost never indicated the specific route he took.

Thus, I undertook to find a preponderance of evidence to plausibly describe how and where he traveled. In my years of reading and research, I learned two most important things:

  1. Despite not having Google Maps, smart phones, or even a current printed map (which rarely had accurate roads) to get directions, colonial Americans made it their business to know the best and fastest routes between destinations. Time was money back then too, and nobody had enough of either to waste. Time and again journals kept by soldiers and and army suppliers described routes not shown on any maps, though these routes were are often described in town histories in the sections dealing with public improvements.
  2. The network of extended family and friends in the places where one often traveled mattered a great deal when it came time to plan to sleep each night with a roof over one’s head and draught animals cared for.

I also learned that roads today are not always where the roads used to be. A great many of today’s roads are possible because of advances in excavation and grading equipment. Thus, colonial roads were not nearly as level or straight as we are accustomed to.

To learn exactly where those old roads were located, there is no substitute for getting out on the landscape and walking the terrain. The remnants of stone walls (usually built in the early 1800s) are often the best clue. Once you know what you’re looking for, a sense for what a wagon or team of oxen drawing a sled could traverse in terms of slope and tightness of curves can be gained.

The map image featured in this blog shows roads I digitized using a ArcGIS. The locations are based on georeferencing scanned 18th century maps. Georeferencing is aligning a printed map to the GIS’s internal coordinate system.  This involves matching 3-5 known points on the scanned maps to the location for that point in a modern digital base map. Compare my modern map to this excerpt from Samuel Holland’s 1784 map of New Hampshire, entitled, “A Topographical Map of the Province of New Hampshire”

Wilton Excerpt from Holland 1784
Wilton as shown in Samuel Holland’s 1784 map of New Hampshire.

In addition to scans of 18th century maps, here are sources I used:

  • Town Histories:  for decisions by the selectmen to build new roads
  • Old Bridges: This is a fun day-trip/road-trip research activity. Many of the old bridges have signs near by telling their age.  Once you’ve seen a few, the construction methods become evident, and spotting more, say beside the main road, which runs beside an abandoned older roadbed, becomes easy.
  • Rock Shelves and Outcrops:  In the 18th century, bridges and ferries could not be located just anywhere. Outcrops of bedrock and and benches or shelves of exposed bedrock supplied the foundation for bridges.
  • Journals of Officers and Soldiers: In lieu of physical evidence, the fact that soldiers sometimes have time on their hands, and some of them take pen to paper to write about the landscape they are traveling through. Often, such accounts supplied me with a route that was not on any map.
  • Old Topographic Maps:  While these did not exist in the 18th century, in fact, did not exist in present form until the late 19th century, they do often show the older, in initial pre-automobile transportation network. While more research is needed to verify whether these routes were indeed in the Revolutionary time period, it is often a good start.
  • Best Guess: Based on the many journals I’ve read that described how others traveled to and from the same places Isaac did, I developed what I like to think is a good sense of how he would most plausibly have traveled.

-CEF

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