Monday, December 14, 2009

Road Orders

By Terry Gruber

During the colonial period, the most important political body, as far as the general population was concerned, was the County Court. The governor, Council, and House of Burgesses made general laws and regulations for the colony that obliquely impacted personal lives, but the regulations that directly effected the day-to-day living of the population were performed by the County Courts. The chief members of the court, the Justices of the Peace, appointed the sheriff, levy collectors (taxes), road surveyors, and other officials. They were also responsible for issuing ordinary licenses (18th century equivalent of hotel licenses), regulating numbers and placement of mills, setting prices at public houses (such as ordinaries), calling grand juries to hear criminal and civil disputes, approving and regulating road construction and maintenance, and various other administrative functions.

The County Courts kept a record of their proceedings called Order Books. From these court records, a researcher can obtain a solid feeling for the pulse of everyday life. Servant indentures, orphan placements, estate appraisals, prices for food and lodging, the nature of civil disputes, road locations, mill placements, and ferry prices are but a few pieces of information that can be gleaned by reading the books.

One of the frequent entries in Order Books are those concerned with road maintenance and construction. In the various road related records are names of local inhabitants charged with the various duties involved in the construction and maintenance of roads. Usually the single largest source of names are those listed on petitions for road construction.

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Note: This article goes on to give specific examples from Hampshire County, Virginia but the general principles involved applied throughout Virginia and to other colonies, and later to states throughout the Southeastern United States and beyond. Since road orders identify county residents at a given time and their location within the county, they constitute a valuable genealogical and historical resource.

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