J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Charles E. Frye on Rediscovering Colonial Roads

Charles E. Frye is writing the novel series Duty in the Cause of Liberty to share the story of his ancestor Isaac Frye of Wilton, New Hampshire. You can read more about the project in this interview at Written by Veterans.

Frye, a professional cartographer, is taking a very data-driven approach to this story. On his website he’s mapped out his protagonist’s home neighborhood in Wilton and the territory he traveled over as a Continental officer during the war. In this blog post Frye describes how he developed those maps and what he learned by doing so.

An extract:
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.
Frye aligned a modern digital base map with period maps by matching a handful of known points. But those period maps, while valuable, weren’t rigorously accurate or complete. You can compare a printed map of Wilton from 1784, showing four roads from the town center, to Frye’s map, with many more paths that Isaac Frye and his neighbors used.

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