As the holiday season arrives, we’ve begun to think about visits with friends and family complete with roaring fires, festive foods, and hot cocoa (or perhaps something a bit stronger depending how long your family has been in town…). Visiting family today involves a few hours drive or perhaps a flight, but generally most travelers need to budget a day here and there to hit the road. Not so in the 1700s.
When William Alexander (Hezekiah and Mary’s oldest son) planned his visits to Pennsylvania he needed 2.5 to 3 weeks, just to get to the destination. A trip to Salisbury was a day trip – as in it took an entire day on the road to travel what takes 1 hour today.
This is what’s known as the Collet map which shows the approximate location of some of the major wagon roads that connected Charlotte with other urban centers. William may have used these roads on his journeys almost 250 years ago. We’ve zoomed in on a particularly relevant portion, but you can explore more of this map thanks to the Library of Congress which holds an impressive collection of early maps, many of which have been digitized.
The distance traveled hasn’t changed all that much since the 18th century. Believe it or not, many of our modern roads in Charlotte follow the paths laid out by Charlotteans and Catawba people who came before. Trade and Tryon were originally Catawba trading paths and were established long before European settlers arrived in the area. Providence Road, Lawyers Road, South Boulevard, and others were wagon roads that connected small pockets of settlement. Today where we find paved asphalt and semi-trucks, in the 1770s, you’d see packed dirt roads traversed by teams of horses pulling wagons.
The Charlotte Museum of History is home to a diorama depicting early Charlotte. Seen here is the intersection of Trade and Tryon Street. The dirt roads would have been packed down over time thanks to horse, wagon, and foot travel.
William Alexander traveled throughout the Eastern Seaboard as a wagon master and merchant buying and selling goods requested by those throughout Mecklenburg County. Once a year he made the long journey from Mecklenburg County to the Philadelphia area, but he often made shorter trips to the next closest urban center: Salisbury. One particular journey in 1774 underscores the treacherous nature of this travel. William began this journey on Monday, September 19th and promptly “broke one stroke of one wheel.” A man named William Wallace fixed the spoke on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Will Alexander lost the seal of his watch and, you guessed it, broke another spoke. He apparently managed to limp into Salisbury where he mended the spoke with a clip purchased for 8 pence. Apparently, such an ordeal required a stiff drink as he also purchased 1 quart of rum for 2 shillings and 4 pence.
This is the original page of William’s journal describing his journey. You can read the entirety of his records thanks to the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill which is home to a number of pieces of Mecklenburg County history. The memorandum book has been digitized and can be read from the comfort of your couch – no wagon travels needed.
Next time you feel like complaining about the inevitable slow down on the way to grandma’s house for a family holiday celebration, remember that you can at least travel faster than one town in a day. And you have a spare tire!
A special note about William’s purchases: William Alexander kept meticulous records of items purchased during his journeys. These notes also include the names of places where enslaved people could be found for purchase. From these records, we are unable to determine if William bought these people advertised or if he simply made note of their existence to share that information with others. We know planters in Mecklenburg County often brought enslaved people with them when they moved to the area or purchased enslaved people in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, or South Carolina to bring to the Carolina Backcountry.
I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!
Charlotte Museum of History
Collet, John, J Bayly, and S Hooper. A compleat map of North-Carolina from an actual survey. London: S. Hooper, 1770. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/83693769/.
The William Sample Alexander Diary #1504-z, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/01504/
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass