During my research of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina, I was gently nudged into the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh. There, in the county records, all of the original county petitions reside. However, they are un-indexed other than by county and era (year range). Researching Orange County seemed like a hike up Mount Everest. It quickly became apparent that I was not going to have time to read every piece of paper while searching for names and locations without many visits to the archives. Therefore, I opted to photograph the papers and read them at home at my leisure.
It didn’t take long before I realized there was a lot of information embedded in these records such as names of people residing near the roads, bridges, or mills; names of neighbors; former owners of land; creek names; distances from towns; crops grown; distance to the nearest railroad station; and the list goes on. Not every slip of paper had this type of information and very few drawings or maps were included with these petitions. Nevertheless, these records are a rich source of information for historians and especially genealogists.
What is a petition?
During British Rule, laws were established in order to create the infrastructure necessary to promote growth in the colonies. Roads, bridges, and ferries were required to transport people and supplies from coastal cities to inland communities. Commerce was important to the establishment of these communities and to enable them to sever ties to the coastal communities. However, this independence of certain goods (such as flour, meal, and lumber) demanded water-powered grist and saw mills to be established. Mills were strategically located so that travel was convenient, thus more roads and bridges were petitioned to access these commerce hubs. The British developed a process of petitioning local courts (County Court of Pleas and Quarter Session) to allow citizens to mange the unique infrastructure requirements in their own district. Mill owners had to petition the court for the right to dam a stream or river. If they did not own the land on both sides of the waterway the court invoked eminent domain to condemn two acres of land (a requirement later changed to one acre) for the subsequent mill pond that would be formed from the dam. These records show land owners and locations of rivers and streams as well as economic information pertaining to a mill’s operation (such as grain type). In fact, the Wake County mill petitions document complaints from local citizens (near a proposed mill dam) that another grist mill was not required as the cost to buy the completed product (i.e., flour) was cheaper than growing corn or wheat for the mill. This is just one example of many issues buried in these records. Mill petitions can provide a genealogist with insight about a town’s growth (why did people move to this location), names of the mill owners, neighbors, and landmarks in order to establish more precise locations.
A petition was required to be filed in the county court in order to develop a new road, alter an existing road, or discontinue a road. Petitions typically included reasons for the request, a description of the proposal, and signatures of the people supporting the petition. Of course, there were counter petitions filed by those against petitions, and on goes the legal system. Once again, these documents provide names of people who lived along a road. When a proposed route (new road) from one place to another is provided, the description of where the road is to traverse will include every land owner by name where the roadbed will cross or impact their plantation. These records can contain a lot of family names in either the route of the road or those in the general area (as evidenced by their signatures, either for or against the proposal).
As the highway system grew, the need for new roads diminished and the requests to alter the direction of the roads became more numerous. Simplistically, the evolution of the laws regarding roads, bridges, ferries, and mills expanded infrastructure such as wider roads and bridges, safer ferries, safer roads, signage, and mile markers for travelers. Have you ever wondered how travelers in the 1770s knew where they were traveling and how far they traveled without maps and an odometer? The Road Act of 1765 demanded every road overseer to measure the distances and place mileage markers per the county court’s requirement. Further, this new law required signs to the largest town at all forks in the roads including the distance to the next largest town. Not only did these laws enact new requirements, they included new penalties for enforcement. Numerous court records document arrests and subsequent fines for disobeying the laws or for dereliction of duty.
You might think “time equals money” as a modern issue, but it became paramount as the population grew in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Competition demanded produce and products to be delivered in a timely manner. Postal delivery delays were a serious issue. Laws were enacted to ensure that ferries had dedicated boats for mail delivery (for those key and contentious locations only). Rain caused swelling of rivers thus flooding fords and stopping commerce. Courts were petitioned for more and more bridges to overcome this inconvenience. Once bridges were established to ensure passage for travelers, roads were altered to these key crossings thus creating more road petitions.
As you can imagine, there wasn’t a Department of Transportation filling pot holes or grading clay roads after rain storms. Citizens were responsible to provide labor twice a year to keep the roads in usable condition. Overseers were men that supervised a road route and rounded up those people who lived in or near his road district. He was responsible for the condition of the roads and ensured everyone assisted. Overseer appointments provide dates and names of those landowners (freeholders) in his area and create another document that assists genealogists in searching for people.
As you can imagine, road maintenance labor was in addition to the citizens’ other laborious activities (e.g., farming). Complaints and petitions against a new road were primarily based on insufficient time for keeping up “another” road. This issue forced the overseer and his “hands” system to be discontinued and replaced with county and/or state road maintenance functionality.
Do not overlook the information located in these records. As with most research, you shouldn’t underestimate what you might find. Some petitions have pages of local citizen’s signatures. (Some petitions contain the person’s actual signature or “x” as opposed to the lawyer or a neighbor writing the name.) Couple this with a date and you have a good idea that they owned land in the general vicinity of the petitioner’s subject (road, bridge, route, ferry, mill, etc.). All these legal documents were based on land owners, not renters or squatters. Never overlook lawsuit documents within the petition folders as they tend to provide great historical information. One mill law suit in Wake County had the deposition of an expert witness who defined all the mills by their name (e.g., Moss Mill) specialization (timber, grist, etc.), and the distances (mileage) between each mill. In Person County, a mill increased the height of a dam causing the surrounding area to flood. The depositions document the complete history of the mill, who owned it, when it was sold, how the surrounding land was developed, and even what spring was being impacted and how everyone used it for potable water.
Finally, remember, as with most collections, if the petition did not survive and is not found in this collection at the archives, it does not mean the road, bridge, or mill did not exist but belongs in the category of “darn, no information found.”
Because these documents are not individually cataloged in the archives (although the boxes are catalogued by county and include basic date/range criteria), this author has embarked on cataloging them, one piece of paper at a time. Each book (some counties require several volumes) includes a picture of the original document and a short transcript of the pertinent information which is then cataloged and indexed for quick reference. Over 15,328 records have been photographed and cataloged. These books can be purchased online (www.lulu.com/Sedunaway) or by contacting the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.