First Major Route of The Colonies-The King’s Highway

The colonies were settled in America beginning with Virginia during 1607. As the immigrants landed, new settlements would arise along the eastern seaboard and by 1732, a total of 13 colonies were established. The growth of these settlements enhanced trade among themselves and countries overseas. The colonies were separated by three regions known as the Northern, Middle and Southern. The New England term was quickly given to the Northern Colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The next region was known as the Middle Colonies, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The last region was known as the Southern Colonies, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Georgia.

Virginia Beach

With the growth of the colonies and the new settlements springing up all along the coastline, ships were docking at the major ports almost daily. Trade had grown significantly during the late 1600s to the onset of the 18th century. This was mainly due to the tobacco industry. Major cities located throughout the colonies were Boston, Concord, Providence, New Haven, Dover, Albany, New York City, Wilmington, Trenton, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Jamestown, Baltimore, Brunswick, Charlestown and Savannah. Note: Charleston, South Carolina was known as Charlestown until after the American Revolutionary War. The need for a major route between the colonies was placed on demand due to various reasons. One, of course, was due to the delivery of mail correspondence from one area to another. Individual “post roads” were soon constructed within the perimeters of small communities. Another reason was brought about due to trading within the colonies, transporting goods, supplies and travelers from one settlement to another.

Herman Moll’s 1729 Post Road Map

The post map of 1729 by Herman Moll clearly shows the route of these roads during that time period. Majority of these were once Indian trails that were widened to accommodate stagecoaches and wagons years later. However, the beginning of America’s oldest highway was once an Indian trail known as the Pequot Trail. By 1673, the trail transformed into the first post road and served mail connections between Boston, Massachusetts and New York. Later the road would join Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and traveled south to early settlements along the eastern seaboard. Charles II of England ordered the road construction and between the years of 1673 and 1753, the road grew and eventually covered over 1300 miles from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina.

The King’s Highway was not the only established road during this time period. In fact, contractor’s in various locations would take on the task of upkeeping a particular road in their region and maintain it. Some of these lesser known roads were in much better shape versus the King’s Highway. In fact, documents prove that the King’s Highway was often referred to as a road in “poor condition”. Even the post riders were having difficulties while transporting letters and other correspondences. Journals document large stumps in the road and huge ruts as deep as 2 feet in many places. Reports of areas deemed as impassable for days and weeks at a time. Few bridges existed along the route which required a toll fee and the ferries that were in existence were few and rare during the late 1600s and early 1700s.

King’s Highway Courtesy of The History of the Boston Post Road)

The road has been proclaimed by past historians as the first major highway of the new colonies. But, if you look at the facts, you will quickly discover that this particular route may hold the title of first in recognition, but lacks the recognition as a “major” popular highway among the colonists. For decades it suited the larger plantation owners with a means of transporting their harvests, livestock to markets while also allowing needed supplies to be returned to the home. Depending greatly on the location and the area, tolls were charged for use of the road and fees were applied to any persons avoiding the road. This was met with frustration by the settlers and the maintenance of the road quickly deteriorated soon after it’s construction. This was due to various reasons, one pertains to the location of the road and the second was the lack of management between the colonies.

Milestone marker located on Route 1A in Massachusetts

The first highway legislation was passed in Virginia during the year of 1632. This placed church parishes to be in charge of road construction and maintenance. By 1663. the responsibilities were moved to the county courts and the court would designate an individual to oversee the road work. All males over the age of 16 were required to work a set amount of days during each year without pay. If individuals refused to work on the road, taxes were applied and ordered to be paid by the General Assembly. This action was carried on for over 250 years in Virginia. While the legislation greatly differed among the other colonies, the concept was basically the same, improved roads in exchange for manual labor.

If a bridge was needed to cross a river or stream, the county was required to build it out of their own man power and resources. If the county lacked the means for construction, the General Assembly would initiate the construction and upon completion, tolls and fees were charged for the use of the bridge.

During the year of 1700, Pennsylvania passed a law stating that all brush and trees were to be removed from the King’s Highway throughout the colony. This action allowed the road to be nearly 50ft wide in a few places. By January of 1730, a new petition was created to construct the highway from Philadelphia to the new settlement of Lancaster. This section was completed by 1741. Also, the extension of the road was finally constructed to Savannah, Georgia, but the conditions only worsened through the years. The colonists were creating additional routes near their settlements away from the coastal region. They would bypass the highway altogether and reach the markets, the ports and the cities without paying toll fees.

Stagecoaches were using the northern sections of the road providing services from Boston to New York as early as 1735. Extended service was not provided until the 1740s to Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. The complete highway services by stagecoach were not provided until the 1760s. By the time of the American Revolutionary War, using the term, King’s Highway, was not very popular. Many areas located near Williamsburg and Yorktown were virtually abandoned and not used at all during the war and afterwards. New routes were in progress more and more. These new roads were aligned to better suit the immediate local areas and allowed more interactions with citizens settling more inland away from the coastline.

Savannah River, Georgia

The road eventually connected to the northern sections of present day Maine. The winding path was marked with milestones giving mileage to the nearest town or city. These milestones were used more frequently in the New England sections versus the southern colonies. Travelers would often get lost attempting to follow the road through the Carolinas to Georgia, especially prior to 1750.

Present day US 17 and US 1 both align closely to the original King’s Highway. Later known as the Coastal Highway of the southern states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, the highway has changed drastically since the early 18th century. The ports and forts that once dotted the coastal landscape are still visible in certain areas. A few original homes and churches can still be viewed but the landscape overall is nothing in comparison of long ago. A secondary coastal road was constructed through the Carolinas and Virginia which became an alternate route advertising better taverns, inns, etc. This route was established during the mid 1730s and gave travelers a choice when traveling during the colonial period. According to research, the King’s Highway was the first route to completely link the 13 colonies together with one another; however it was not the most popular and soon after construction, it was not the only route available.

The King’s Highway holds a vast amount of history filled with folklore, legend and facts. It was successful in linking the colonies together but the overall maintenance conditions of the road left it abandoned in many locations. As settlement was allowed further west after 1763, the need for the coastal route became less and less. By 1770, majority of new community roads linked to larger wagon routes eventually led to the cities and ports along the coast. The old milestones stood alongside a route that simply no longer existed after the American Revolutionary War. The secondary coastal road became the more popular route in the regions while the King’s Highway was taken back to a more scenic route that we know today.

If you have enjoyed this segment of The Colonial Roads, be sure to visit the Migration Trails of the 18th & 19th Centuries page. We wish you well on your research and encourage you to share your comments and likes. Our ancestors left an amazing trail to follow. We hope you find their footsteps and new discoveries along the way.

Enjoy Your Journey To The Past !

Sources & References:

  • The Turnpikes of New England Marshall Jones Company 1919
  • Map Guide To American Migration Routes-Dollarhide Heritage Quest 1997
  • Old Roads Out Of Philadelphia J.B. Lippincott Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1917
  • The Story of America’s Roads Ray Spangenburg New York Publishing 1997

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