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Map of the Southern Indian District of North America

Lines that Fracture and Fade

Two Centuries of Travel through Georgia, 1775-1976

by: Robert Paulett


It is perhaps a problem with maps that, for objects so closely associated with human movement, they provide only a limited sense of movement themselves. They mark former movement, certainly, and they propose new routes, but to study a map is to study a portrait of the world at a moment in time. We can see the routes and roads of a particular era but we can gain little sense of how those travel corridors themselves moved and shifted across the landscape as humans changed and altered their world. Complex and fascinating as historic maps are, they can only provide a glimpse of the dynamic human movements that have crossed the landscape, particularly as most of us study maps within certain circumscribed time periods or regions. We specialize in area, time, and genre and leave it to our colleagues to provide backstory or codas to our work. Utilizing the written and visual records of our time periods, we can build some sense of the experience of moving through the landscapes that our maps depict, if we so choose. But we lose the longer picture that all human movements are part of ongoing and ever-shifting patterns in history.

Looking at maps in succession, however reveals in a powerful way how important human movement is to the landscape. Rather than adjusting themselves to an existing landscape, human movements shape, warp, and rearrange the terrain. Transportation networks have proven surprisingly ephemeral and mutable, even at the regional levels. These shifts and leaps across landmasses have made accurately recreating historic routes difficult, to say the least. But if specific routes are difficult to trace, historic maps do provide an excellent resource for tracing general corridors of movement and migration across a region. Despite maps’ disconnection from the actual experience of moving through the landscape at any one moment in time, historic maps viewed in succession can demonstrate how humans, towns, even states respond to the shifts in economies and cultures across time. There was very little “natural” about these routes; nor did they subtly fade into each other. While routes continued from era to era, they did not overlap as much as one might expect. Observing how a cartographic generation’s aspirations become the next’s secondary features, one can get some sense of how many dreams became reality and how those realities become memories. Moreover, maps tended to arrive in periods of transition—the circumstances creating new maps simultaneously creating the shifts in politics and economics that would demand new maps a few years later.

These shifts are most evident at a distance. Towns and cities of course change shape constantly even without significant changes in overall patterns of movement across a region. But at the state or regional level, one gets a much clearer picture of how long-distance travel arranged and shaped the overall face of the country. In the case of Georgia, it is possible to discern how peoples’ movements across the state responded quite sensitively to regional political, economic, and demographic shifts. They emerge as a slow shift of routes across time and across space, viewable only across decades, but viewable nonetheless. As Georgians oriented themselves from roads to rivers and then from rails to remembrance, they slowly changed the physical routes by which travelers could move through the state. A study of mapping in Georgia between 1775 and 1975 thus reveals something of how people of that region altered their travels through the state and, in doing so, altered and altered again the entirety of the southeastern corner of North America in the two centuries after independence. Beginning with maps of the Indian trade that shaped the colonial economy and proceeding through the era of plantations and on into the New South, the maps of Georgia show a region where travel changed quite a bit, not just in the technologies of conveyance but in the very different corridors through which people traveled.

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Map of the state of Georgia

Following the Paths of the Colonial Era

For most of the colonial period, maps followed in the wake of travelers. Explorers, voyagers, naturalists, and surveyors crossed the face of North America and drew their maps as records of their movements, seeking to lay imperial claims on both space and knowledge. But the corridors they traveled had been etched by centuries of Native American movements—the complex and changing networks of paths and trails that governed movement in the American interior. These mapmakers were thus circumscribed by what other humans had created. Shared pathways were the most effective means of long-distance, overland travel.

A pathway such as the main trading path between Augusta and the lands of the Lower Creek Indians was just such a deeply etched corridor of travel and a crucial transportation route in the colonial Southeast. The important combinations of geology, human technology, and Anglo-Indian politics defined the path’s route for most of the eighteenth century. Geologically, the path ran along the boundary between the rocky and hilly grounds of the Appalachian Piedmont and the softer and sandier soils of the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains. This geologic boundary proved important for human travel when the main modes of conveyance were by foot and by hoof. The fall zones of this geological boundary made for easier passage across southeastern rivers in most seasons (spring floods made crossing difficult even at these shallows). (De Vorsey 1986, 5-10)

But it was the Yamassee War of 1715 that made this travel route central to Southeastern affairs. The brief but destructive war rearranged the human geography of the Southeast, with a number of Creek villages removing westward to the Chattahoochee River valley and English traders establishing a new outpost at the falls of the Savannah River. From 1715 on, a regular movement of humans, horses, and trading goods followed the pathway along the fall line. Daily trade, war parties, and diplomatic missions all followed this same basic route for decades, creating one of the most important travel corridors in North America.

Important as it was, the route went largely unmapped until late in the colonial period. It appeared mostly as an abstract line on European and Indian maps alike. Only in 1775 did Europeans attempt to systematically map the pathways of the Southeast. Responding to British calls for greater oversight in the region and Indian acquiescence to the British demand for mapped boundaries, Superintendent for Indian Affairs John Stuart deputized a number of surveyors to travel southeastern paths and record their twists and turns as precisely as possible. (Paulett 2012, 55-56)

The result was one of the most ambitious and significant maps from colonial America. Never printed, the 1775 Stuart-Purcell manuscript map is a treasure trove for colonial scholars. The map covers the entirety of mainland North America south of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. On this map, Stuart had his deputies map as precisely as possible the locations and names of all political features within the region: colonial boundaries, roads, and towns; Indian villages and paths; and even proposed colonial settlement schemes west of the Appalachians. It also incorporated the major surveys of the East and West Florida coasts commissioned by the British government in the years after 1763. The product of a decade’s worth of surveys and negotiations, it was a major leap forward in the precise measurement and plotting of the Southeast and its peoples.

For all of its ambitions to be a total map of the Southeast, however, the Stuart-Purcell map could only be a detailed path map where the American interior was concerned. Revealing in stark detail the limits of European knowledge of the region, the mapmakers could only trace the steps of the thousands of people who had carved the route from Augusta to the Chattahoochee. (For whatever combination of political, logistical, or informational reasons, the map omitted the more heavily traveled branch of the path that connected the Ogeechee River crossing to the populous Upper Creek villages.) The surveyors could therefore only map what they saw as they moved along the paths. The large river systems of the Ogeechee, Ocmulgee, and Flint Rivers and their major branches were sketched in, but the most detailed hydrography could only be found at those places where these large systems intersected with the trading path. But, by following the paths of the traders, Stuart’s surveyors provided a helpful glimpse of the decades-old trade corridor at the very moment that it was about to begin to disappear as a major transportation route in the Southeast.

The circumstances that created the Stuart-Purcell map ensured that no further maps would be made for a long time. The series of land cessions and boundary lines that the map sought to define and depict also led to an unfolding series of conflicts in Georgia that would ultimately reorganize the Indian trade and lead to an entirely new nation. Beginning in 1774, factions of Creek warriors opposed the land deals that elder Creek diplomats had negotiated and began attacking settlers in the “New Purchase” lands north and west of Augusta. These conflicts would ultimately help determine the origins and course of the Revolution in Georgia. (Cashin 1985, 245-247) Traders, most of them Loyalists, abandoned Georgia and reestablished their businesses along the Gulf Coast. Increasingly the old trading path became an official link between United States and Creek Indian agents, but the changing politics of early America also altered travel routes through Georgia.

The Persistence of Paths in the Age of Re-Settlement

Somewhat surprisingly, these conflicts actually helped to preserve the old trading path as an important travel corridor well into the 1810s. Even though it took four decades for another map of Georgia to appear, Daniel Sturges’s 1818 Map of the State of Georgia revealed that the old cross-state travel route had not vanished entirely. Between 1775 and 1818, Georgia had witnessed the disruptions of the Revolution, the confusion of Creek-Georgia land deals in the 1790s, and a general uptick in hostilities between aggrieved Creeks and pushy Georgia settlers. Reforming its land policy in the wake of the Yazoo frauds, Georgia undertook a series of regular land lotteries and detailed surveys in the early 1800s under the direction of Sturges, Georgia’s Surveyor General between 1797 and 1809 and again between 1817 and 1823. Caught up in the cotton boom, Georgia’s boundaries shifted rapidly as the state steadily appropriated lands from the Creeks and Cherokees. Sturges himself was part victim of Georgia’s rapid changes, serving a brief stint in jail for debt, his economic woes further delaying the production of his state map, the first original state map since Stuart-Purcell. (Cadle 1991, 154-158, 168-173, 180fn.-181fn.)

Amid all this bustle in the map’s background, it would be easy to lose sight of the old trading path, but the old route still remained an imprint on Sturges’s map. Despite Sturges’s close ties to Georgia’s “cartography of settlement” which emphasized regular property surveys to affix permanent ownership, the map still revealed much of the old path-based “cartography of movement” that had characterized the Stuart-Purcell map. The inclusion of the old route no doubt had much to do with efforts to convert the old trading roads into federal roads in the early nineteenth century. US negotiations with the Creeks included much discussion of how to incorporate Creek territory into the growing national concern with maintaining an east-west highway through the Southeast. Florida remained a Spanish colony and the bulk of the Indian trade moved through British merchant houses perched at the Spanish mouths of Southern rivers. But the United States conducted its own business with the Creeks and national strategists such as Albert Gallatin believed maintaining the old east-west route was crucial to link the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Valley. (Hudson 2010, 7; Meinig 1986, 313-315) Although mostly restricted to official business, US agents, traders, and armies still used the old trade corridor.

This perhaps explains why the path could still be seen underneath Sturges’s colorful markers of American progress. Amid a tangle of roads in the eastern half of the state, a route still snaked along the southern edge of the Georgia Piedmont southwest to Warrenton, Sparta, and Milledgeville and from there on across Creek territory to the area just south of the Cowetas. It was just one among many routes but a close comparison of Sturges’s map with the Stuart-Purcell map reveals that the old path was still there and also reveals an interesting phenomenon in place names along the old route that helps the modern viewer make out the old trading path.

On the Stuart-Purcell map, the names of intersecting creeks were carefully labeled along the trading path. Leaving Augusta, travelers crossed Butler’s Creek, Boggy Gut, and Sweetwater Creek before skirting the headwaters of Rocky Comfort Creek, (where Warrenton appeared on Sturges’s map). The path then crossed Buffalo Creek (where Sparta lay) and headed for the falls of the Oconee River (site of Milledgeville). The path then skirted the headwaters of Commissioner’s Creek, crossed Oakhanlooga Creek, the Ocmulgee River, Rocky Creek, and the Little Tobasaughki River. Following the most direct roads on Sturges’s map from Augusta to Milledgeville to Fort Hawkins on the Ocmulgee River, the reader sees all of these places names in order and in the same relation to the path as on Stuart-Purcell. Despite Georgia’s rapid re-settlement of former Indian lands, these older place names survived, no doubt because settlement of these regions began while the Indian trade was still going on, meaning that traders and settlers occupied the same space and used the same routes. Thus the old trading path became absorbed into local memory and knowledge that would prove crucial for later researchers.

West of Fort Hawkins, however, the maps diverge in their place names. None of the names found on the Stuart-Purcell map can be found in western Georgia, aside from the major systems such as the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers. It therefore becomes much more difficult to trace the western half of the trading path across the 1818 map through place names, indicating that its importance as a travel corridor was beginning to fade. But Sturges did quite clearly mark the old trading path as a still-important link between Georgia’s settlements and the Lower Creek villages but in a way that separated it from its Indian past and linked it to Georgia’s political dominance.

Sturges made a careful and clear delineation between Georgia roads and Indian paths. A broad double line linked Milledgeville to Hawkins’s Indian Agency and Fort Mitchell on the Chattahoochee River. As this road crossed Cherokee territory, however, Sturges showed smaller, single-line paths branching off from the main route and running to the old destinations of Coweta, and gave them names such as “Old Sandhill Path.” Some of these paths no doubt represent branches of the main trading route and were a way to contrast the old with the new. Sturges’s map linked European outposts with the same type of roads that crisscrossed the eastern counties of Georgia, asserting their ties to European settlement and forecasting a future occupation and colonization of Creek lands from the east.

As the eastern part of the map became a cartography of settlement, the western remained a cartography of movement. It is unclear how much surveying Georgians had done since the Revolution, but the western reaches of Sturges’s Georgia still seemed marked by maps of movement rather than survey. Closer inspection of the “roads” and paths running through Creek lands reveal that travelers’ reports likely guided Sturges as much as any formal survey. In an unusual feature, the small rivers and creeks that cross these single-line paths all are drawn as running perpendicular to the pathway. As an example, look at the hydrography immediately east of Coweta on the Chattahoochee River. An unnatural pattern of right-angle river junctions indicates that these small streams were recorded as points along a pathway rather than surveyed along their natural courses. A similar pattern follows the single-line paths running along the western bank of the Chattahoochee north to the Cherokees. Similar to other maps of movement from the eighteenth century, these “path maps” indicate that Sturges’s main source of information for these parts of Georgia were verbal travel accounts (likely Euro-American and Native American alike) rather than formal survey. These roughly sketched rivers stood in contrast to Sturges’s detailed instructions to his surveyors to record the courses of rivers within their county surveys. (Cadle 1991, 183, 185)

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Map of the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia

Erasing the Paths in the National Atlas

Although still visible in 1818, the route was fading fast, at least cartographically. Four years after Sturges published his map, a national atlas revealed how the old trade geography could easily be removed from the landscape. The Georgia map in Carey and Lea’s 1822 American Atlas clearly owed much to Sturges but removed much of the finer detail of the earlier map. At the center of the sheet was a map that very closely matched Sturges’s, but reduced in size. The reduction left little room for faint paths or Indian villages. Creek and Cherokee territories were still prominently labeled, but the only feature of the old geography brought over from Sturges was the main road running from Milledgeville to Fort Mitchell. By reducing the original to these particular highlights, the atlas’s engravers also magnified the boosterish elements of Sturges while largely erasing the signifiers of human (and especially indigenous) movement from the face of Georgia.

As if to make the point patently clear, the atlas also surrounded the map with text designed to further emphasize Indians as a vanishing presence in the United States. The description of “Indian Country” (located in the lower, right-hand center of the page) was nothing more than a history of Creek and Cherokee land cessions to the United States, with the implication that the remaining squares would soon be US property as well. The “Historical Sketch” on the map’s right gave Creeks a prominent role in James Oglethorpe’s early military campaigns in Georgia, but reduced them as a group to invaders and capitulators by the end. The Indian trade, so much a part of Georgia’s history during the 1700s, earned no mention at all. Through the reduction in visual space and the increase in text, the atlas makers could easily blur the historical trade route and renarrate it as the leading edge of United States territorial aggrandizement.

In service of this narrative of Creek surrender, Carey and Lea’s map updates Sturges’s old map with a few key features, chief among them their placement of Benjamin Hawkins’s Creek Agency along the route to Columbus. The Agency, first established in the 1790s, would remain the main connection between the United States and the Creeks until the 1820s. Even after the Agency was turned over to settlers, this landmark would remain on Georgia maps even after the agency itself ceased to exist, indicating that the old route was beginning to be part of Georgians’ historical memory.

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Northwestern Georgia (with portions of the adjoining States of Tennessee and Alabama) : being part of the Department of the Cumberland

Marking the Old Path in the Age of Steam and Rail

By the 1830s, the geography of the Southeast had transformed and the routes of travel had changed with it. The biggest shifts in the years after Sturges’s map were the addition of Florida to United States territory and the subtraction of most Native Americans through the policy of forced removal in the 1830s. No longer alienated from the Gulf Coast, the growing cotton districts began encroaching on former Creek lands and taking full advantage of the Southeast’s broad river valleys. The 1820s were also the dawn of the steamboat era and rivers, not roads, became the major route to the Southeastern interior, as boats steamed up from ports such as Pensacola and Mobile. (Meinig 1986, 316-323)

The Newberry Library holds a single, user-marked copy of one of Samuel Mitchell’s popular travel maps that reveals how, even after decades of geographic shifts, transportation corridors gradually faded rather that abruptly disappeared. This small map of the Southeast offers an amazing glimpse of how travel through Georgia was transformed in the age of steam and stage while retaining an echo of the older travel routes. Steamboat lines, stagecoach routes, and other roads criss-cross the fragmented surfaces of Georgia and the Carolinas’ colorful counties. Small schedules adorn the map’s margins and offer the traveler the chance to travel anywhere through the Southeast with no clear hierarchy of places aside from the central nodes where steamboat lines and stagecoach routes crossed paths. What is most striking is the potential chaos within these travel choices. The traveler at all times risked getting lost among the possibilities, a continuity with eighteenth-century travelers who feared stepping off the well-worn paths.

However, the older trade corridor still served some purpose. For reasons unknown, one of this map’s former users made a journey across Georgia from Augusta to Columbus, closely following the route of eighteenth-century packhorse trains. Traveling from Virginia, this unknown user may have been rushing to the Alabama lands opening up in the wake of Creek removal or to offer some supplementary service to the rising planters of the region. The central route still seemed to be his most direct path, as numerous stagecoach lines linked Augusta to Milledgeville to Macon (near Hawkins’s old Creek Agency) and onward to Columbus. He would have had to change stage lines numerous times, but the links between these fall-line market towns still allowed a journey along the old corridor. It might be impossible to know whether any of these roads followed the exact route of the Great Old Path, but certainly this traveler was never more than a few miles from the older route even if it was hidden within a web of stage roads, river routes, and burgeoning Main Streets. However, it is only this traveler’s heavy inked line that connects the old locations. Otherwise, the route would fade into the complex network of local roads and rivers that covered the entire map face.

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Georgia Central Railroad, and its connections

The Old Path Sidelined in the Age of Rail

Two maps from the 1860s indicate that cross-state trips across Georgia were increasingly taking different paths. The railroads that remade Georgia’s human geography help do more than obscure the old path among new routes. They actively rerouted human movement along different corridors. As can be seen on an 1869 railroad map of Georgia, the railways tended to follow their own logic and reorganized the corridors of travel in the state. Most striking, of course, is the orientation towards the site of Atlanta, founded in 1836 specifically as a railroad junction between Savannah and the West. Older market centers such as Augusta, Macon, and Columbus, still feature prominently on the map, linked by numerous heavy black lines showing Georgia’s major railroads.

But the complex logic of rail companies and the adaptability of rail lines to a wide variety of local terrains meant these routes could, and did, go almost anywhere. Railroads were formed out of a complex mixture of physical geography, local and state political control, and private economic ambition spread over decades. Railroad building in Georgia began in earnest in the 1830s, inspired by South Carolina’s success in establishing a rail line in the state’s upcountry that would help funnel cotton bales to the old port of Charleston, whose light had dimmed somewhat in the federal period. Georgia interests, however, preferred that their state’s lines would work to their benefit and so the merchant classes of Savannah and Augusta carved the state rails into two systems, one terminating at Augusta (the Georgia Western) and another terminating at Savannah (the Georgia Central). But early railroad builders tended to avoid river crossings when possible, as bridges were expensive and difficult to build. Thus railroads tended to follow river valleys and actually reinforced older steamboat routes. (Musich 2006, 118-120, 124) These tendencies revealed themselves in the routes that developed across Georgia in the decades just before the Civil War.

Railroad maps more often reflected company ambitions than reality, but the consistency of railroad routes mapped in Georgia indicates that these lines did serve as the basis for actual rail construction in the state. They therefore became the primary travel corridors through the region, as railroads increasingly became the main way to get across Georgia. In fact, Georgia’s rail line mostly served as mail and travel routes, since most cotton production areas could still more easily and more affordably take advantage of the Southeast’s numerous improved and steam-driven water transportation routes (Meinig 1986, 324-331).

What few travelers there were moved by rail, and they increasingly moved along the railroad companies’ corridors, abandoning the old Piedmont routes. Perhaps the most famous southern traveler in the 1800s, Frederick Law Olmsted crossed Georgia by rail, taking the overland route from Savannah to Columbus by way of Macon. Olmsted, not overly charitable to the South in most of his writing, was at least pleased with the Georgia Central, noting that they were slow but punctual. (He attributed this to the fact that the Georgia Central was mostly run by northerners). He did not dwell on it, but Olmsted did note the fragmentary nature of Georgia’s routes in his brief description of his cross-state travel: “Partly by rail and partly by rapid stage-coaching (the coaches, horses, and drivers again from the North), I crossed the State in about twenty-four hours.” (Olmsted 1953, 212-213) Olmsted’s journey reflected the new routes of travel in the South—stage coaches and railroads centered on river systems were the ways to go.

While travelers such as Olmsted may very well have still used the stage routes and roads of western Georgia, the Appleton map makes the older Macon-Columbus corridor seem like a vanishing presence. No rail lines directly connected Macon to Columbus, and neither Fort Mitchell nor the older site of Coweta was reachable by rail. If anyone had hoped to leave the cotton districts of Augusta and head out for the similar cotton districts of eastern Alabama, they would have been unable to follow the old Augusta-Milledgeville-Macon-Columbus path along the Piedmont. Leaving from Augusta, the traveler would have either had to choose a northern path through Atlanta and then south to eastern Alabama before backtracking to Columbus or taken a spur line south to catch a Georgia Central line through Macon (which involved a southerly detour from Macon before turning westward for Columbus).

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National highways map of the state of Georgia : showing thirty-three hundred miles of national highways proposed by the National Highways Association...

Rail, the Local Road, and the Vanishing Old Path

A detailed military map of western Georgia revealed what happened to old roads that lay outside the new transportation corridors. By the Civil War, the old path was fading into a series of local routes and thus vanishing from the state and national systems of transport that were growing up alongside the railroad. This 1863 Army Corps of Engineers map of Georgia (part of a set held by the Newberry) provides possibly one of the most detailed views of western Georgia available from the nineteenth century. Titled “Northwestern Georgia” the map offers a much larger scale picture of Georgia’s stage routes and travel corridors thirty years after Samuel Mitchell’s map.

Given the map’s likely purpose for helping to plan Union troop movements through the state, railroads and travel corridors (including stage routes) are obviously highlighted. The map also highlights fortifications and river routes. This was a map designed to help a large number of people move through an unfamiliar territory. It thus offers the modern reader a glimpse of the most commonly used pathways carved into Georgia by the movements of prewar travelers.

Unsurprisingly, the map offers only a few hints at the Great Old Path. What is remarkable is that it does offer some hints at all. Stage routes still wound along the same travel corridors that the old trading path did. While the connections to the Stuart-Purcell map were definitely fainter, they did still exist. Just west of the Ocmulgee River (site of Macon), the map marked a stage road headed towards Columbus with a heavy black line. This route crosses a handful of creeks whose place names indicate it lay near the older trade path. This stage road crossed Rocky Creek and “Tobesofkee” Creek, as did the path on Stuart-Purcell. It then crossed a branch of the Flint River named Sweet Water Creek and a Beaver Creek (an echo perhaps of the “Beaver Dam” Creek on Stuart-Purcell). Most significantly, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) map shows this route passing nearby the “Old Agency” on the Flint River, a clear reference to Hawkins’s old agency, which had fallen into disuse but remained, for some reason, a landmark in Civil War Georgia.

The map, though, also shows how the old path began to vanish in its western reaches. Columbus, Georgia, had become the new terminus. Located about fifteen miles above the older site of Fort Mitchell, Columbus received the stage lines. Fort Mitchell, still present on this map, received smaller secondary roads branching off of the main stage line, running near the Georgia town of “Cusseta.” These smaller local roads reached Georgia towns but did not in any way provide a clear path through the region. Their function was clearly for local travel, connecting farms and plantations to local markets and towns. This localism of Georgia roadways, however, would change in the 1900s.

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AAA motor routes to Augusta, Georgia, and Florida : climate surpassing even the Riviera

Looking for a Good Road in Georgia

The roads did not vanish, of course, but the eighty-year rise of the railroad increasingly de-linked the roads of Georgia from any state or national system. Localism prevailed in road funding and maintenance throughout the nineteenth century and affected travel in those areas not touched by southern rails. However, as motoring and automobile advocates increasingly encouraged the development of good roads, America’s cartographic attention turned towards local systems of the nineteenth century. (Akerman 2006, 174-176)

Georgia increasingly needed good roads for its new tourism industry. Following the economic ruin of the Civil War and the collapse of the cotton economy, Southerners found tourism to be a new and attractive industry. Northerners seeking warmer weather began making coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida destination spots by the 1880s. (Weiss 2004, 304-305) This trend only accelerated as the automobile opened southern travel for the middle class and Midwesterners alike. Georgians seeking to draw in Yankee dollars sought to capitalize on the state’s history as a Civil War battlefield (thanks in part to the campaigns planned on maps like the Army Corps of Engineers’), directing motorists along marked heritage trails such as the “Battlefield Route” in the first two decades of the 1900s. The extensive highway development of the “Dixie Road” linking Chicago to Florida along marked state and county routes pushed this intra-state competition further. Revealing the shifts in Georgia’s economy, steam-and-rail transportation hubs such as Rome increasingly lost traffic to history-rich sites like Dalton as heritage-seeking drivers followed the signs to past troop movements. (Ingram 2014, 58-74)

This 1919 map of Georgia produced by the National Highways Association (NHA) revealed the condition of the state’s roads after eighty years of railroad building. While railroad companies emphasized their corridors, daily travel along Georgia’s roads continued. At the dawn of the automobile age, the NHA map sought to organize the local roads of Georgia into some kind of comprehensive system. Travelers accustomed to railroads clearly expected smooth and reliable transportation and the map had to convince motorists that the roadways of Georgia were navigable while at the same time acknowledging that they had not much changed since the dirt tracks of the colonial period.

A study of the map reveals that very few of Georgia’s roads were paved by 1919 and the Piedmont corridor was mostly a series of linked dirt roads connecting small towns. One can perhaps glimpse vestiges of the old stage routes shown on the 1835 Mitchell map. But the 1919 map makes clear just how local roadways had become by the early twentieth century. Along a proposed highway route from Augusta to Macon to Columbus, a traveler would have had to navigate through a number of small towns to pick their way across the state. Rather than stage routes to Milledgeville, Macon, and Columbus, the traveler would have to wind their way through Whitewater, Pinelevel, Knoxville, Roberta, and a dozen other towns just to get from Macon to Columbus.

The map’s makers also acknowledged the localism of Georgia roadways in the legend just below the map’s title. In advocating better systems of roads, the NHA map called attention to a feature (and inconvenience) of early twentieth-century motoring: the need to privilege local information over professional maps. Making clear to its audience that 99.5% of the mapped roads were in existence (rather than merely proposed), the map nonetheless encouraged its users to stop and ask directions from locals, acknowledging that “Sometimes… political or local influence has built a better adjacent road. Inquiry by the tourist en route will produce the needed local information.” And, given that the roads were for the most part unpaved, the map again encouraged tourists to “make careful inquiry for road conditions” after a heavy rain, self-promotionally reminding readers that “only a Hard Road is a good road 365 days in the year.” This was similar to the grudging encouragement motoring advocates gave would-be tourists to stop and consult the locals for the best routes through an area. (Akerman 2006, 168-169) A century and a half after Stuart-Purcell, human information was still crucial to travel, although the experts in local geography were now much more likely to be African American than Native American.

While the National Highways map evinces a slight frustration at the localism of road travel through Georgia, it also hints at a transformation in travel through the state. The localism of Georgia and the sense of a vanishing past were becoming destinations in and of themselves. As travel in the state shifted from railways to roadways, the desire to connect with a lost Georgia was becoming tied to the effort of moving through these small towns and along these dusty and/or muddy local roads. As Americans jumped into their ever-increasing fleet of cars, the new technology of transport (and the local boosters of Georgia’s towns and counties) encouraged heritage tourism along historical travel routes, tying automobile travel to a growing sense of US national identity. (Akerman 2006, 195, 198-203) This push onto the backroads encouraged the development of state and national highway systems and brought the pavers to America’s local roadways.

Georgia’s attachment to snowbird tourism reoriented the main corridors of travel yet again. While every local route slowly became absorbed into state and regional systems, distinct patterns of traffic began to appear on Georgia’s road maps in the years after 1930. Increasingly, people moved through Georgia from north to south, following roads from the Midwest and Northeast, mostly on their way to the growing tourist playground of Florida. As a dramatic example, strip maps began highlighting north-south routes through Georgia, cutting the eastern and western edges of the state off completely (map reprinted in Akerman 2006, 157).

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Principal interconnected transmission lines in the United States

North, South, and Motoring through Georgia

Even on those maps promoting Georgia as a destination, the north-south orientation of the twentieth-century traveler becomes clear. Over a decade after the National Highways Association map of Georgia, an Automobile Association of America map reveals the growing links between road travel and an effort to recapture the past and the northern orientation of the targeted audience. Although routes had been given numbers in the federal highway system, the fragmentation and localism of the roads persisted from the National Highways map. In particular, this map reveals that Georgia’s roads had not improved all that much between 1919 and 1930, so the local knowledge of condition and direction likely persisted for anyone trying to make their way through Georgia. But the maps are increasingly seeking to bypass this localism in favor of carrying travelers directly and safely to a few chosen destination spots.

This map, designed to highlight Augusta as a tourist destination, organizes the roadways of the eastern United States in such a way as to make a trip to Augusta seem like the most natural decision in the world. The map helpfully makes Augusta its main focus by writing the town name in heavy orange letters amid the generally blue background of the rest of America. United States highway routes are similarly highlighted in orange ink, showing a system of orange roads leading to the major population centers of the northeast and midwest. Indeed, the orange routes resemble a new kind of river system, all converging on the destination of Augusta. Rather than the point of departure it had been in the days of the Indian trade, Augusta was trying to become the point of arrival.

The map highlights the older cross-state travel route as part of a planned system of improved highways connecting Augusta to Montgomery, Alabama, but other maps from later in the century indicate that this never became a major thoroughfare. Look to the modern highway map of Georgia and one can see that all roads first pass through the hub of Atlanta and that the old cross-state journey along the fall line would require careful planning along some combination of state and US routes, with few interstate highways heading in one’s direction.

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Travels of John and William Bartram, July 1765-April 1766 : Travels of William Bartram, March 1773-January 1777

New Routes in the Age of Electrification

As gasoline power transformed Georgia’s transportation routes from east-west to north-south, the twentieth century’s other great energy form rushed into the old spaces. Electric companies needed a different set of routes than automobiles and tourists. The twentieth-century power industry favored broad regional networks of production and consumption sites. Given that electricity moved at the speed of light, distance did not matter so much as connectivity: The ability to draw on sources of hydroelectric and coal-burning generators and connect them to multiple population centers. The business favored those companies that could marshal the immense capital necessary to create a grid capable of matching consistent supply with consistent demand. (Hughes 1983, 363-403; Durden 2001, 3-29) Likely due to the twin needs for cheap rights-of-way and to link nonagricultural resource centers, the long-distance transmission lines tended to go where the people were not. Population centers would be connected to these out-of-the-way trunk lines through smaller substations and local transmission grids.

The old Augusta-Columbus corridor become a new center of travel thanks to these changes. A 1967 map the Rand McNally Company published on behalf of the Edison Electric Commission demonstrates how the old abandoned travel route took on new significance as power shifted from human to electric. Because of Rand McNally’s involvement, it is perhaps unsurprising that it at first glance looks like a national road map. However, the map depicts the nation’s major power lines, linking together the numerous regional systems into a national whole (not so different from the railroad and highway maps of an earlier age).

In Georgia, the lines trace a path that is at once familiar and alien. Bright red lines indicating an electrical carrying capacity of 230 kilovolts cross the state from Augusta to Columbus, occupying the old trade corridor nearly perfectly. What was new, however, was the geography along the way. The map largely ignores towns and makes note of transfer stations who do not share the names of nearby towns. The lines avoid the population centers of Georgia, for perhaps obvious reasons (no one wants high-tension wires running through their yard). Their placement along the older east-west corridor suggests that this route, visible on road maps of the twentieth century, was not a major thoroughfare in modern Georgia.

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Map of the Southern Indian District of North America

Searching for the Great Old Path in the Twentieth Century

Created by automobiles and electrical grids, this new Piedmont began to strike some as “natural.” As Georgia continued to seek tourism dollars and tourists continued to seek American “wilderness,” the former path of horses and humans attracted efforts to map the vanished colonial route. The distance between the eighteenth century and the twentieth became clear when preservationists and memorialists tried to recreate the travels of William Bartram, the eighteenth-century naturalist who traveled the Georgia trading paths and whose published travel accounts of the flora and fauna along Georgia’s trading paths were a landmark in early American writing. As the United States approached its bicentennial in 1976, Americans had enjoyed over five decades of automobile tourism and its attendant association with the continent’s past travelers. Highway markers, historic travel tourism, and living history tourism centers had all taught citizens that to be American was to move through space. Moreover, the rapidly modernizing and electrifying New South gave the region’s visitors a sense that some part of the nation’s past was rapidly vanishing. In response, researchers in the period after the Second World War attempted to retrace the Indian traders’ eighteenth-century steps.

One of the most ambitious and remarkable episodes in southeastern travel tourism came when a Cornell zoologist named Francis Harper attempted to recreate Bartram’s travels. Harper had developed an interest in Bartram and, in 1940, spent a year traveling throughout the South in an effort to record the same species of plants and animals Bartram had and to survey what remained of the landscape Bartram had traveled. As he put it, he sought “the relocation of many choice spots that these pioneers had visited and described.” (Harper 1958, vi) Believing that many parts of the natural and Indian landscape had “suffered from the ravages of road builders,” Harper scoured all available evidence to locate the routes Bartram took as he crisscrossed the Southeast in the 1770s. Like any good motor tourist, Harper asked locals for directions, recording their input into what routes he should take and combined these with early and contemporary maps to create a carefully annotated edition of Batram’s Travels, published in 1958. (Cappon 1974, 511)

But Harper discovered an important lesson about tracing historic routes: it is amazingly difficult. The local decisions about roads and routes, changing constantly and almost entirely out of sight of the official record, made such a task nearly impossible. As Harper himself had to acknowledge, after years of research, the best he could do was approximate Bartram’s travels, an impressive enough accomplishment. “Here and there, the trail remains obscure,” he wrote, “and yet over literally hundreds of miles the present-day follower of Bartram need not deviate more than a few feet (or rods at most) from his time-worn track.” (Cappon 1974, 511)

The frustration of trying to excavate a route from beneath layers of subsequent patterns of movement could wear at even the most experienced researchers. When the Newberry Library participated in the research and creation of the 1976 Atlas of Early American History, the volume’s editors hoped to include a map of Bartram’s travels as a way of demonstrating Enlightenment science in a cartographic manner. (Cappon 1974, 508) The task must have seemed simple at first: Plot the places that William and his father John mentioned on their various journeys onto a modern map of North America so that the viewer could literally “see” the expansion of science and knowledge across the face of the continent.

But even a path as seemingly well documented as Bartram’s proved almost impossible to recover. As the president of the Bartram Trails Society in Georgia related to the Newberry researchers behind the Atlas:

“Mrs. Ruth Shockley is working on the Trail from Macon, Ga. west to the Alabama line in Fort Benning, Ga. Some of this is easy to locate as the old indian trail along the fall line of Georgia became a dirt road and later a lot of the original trail was paved - about thirty five miles of the trail from Camac, Ga. to Sparta, Ga., was used to build a railroad that is still in use. Mrs. Shockley is having trouble locating the trail through Taylor county because there is no road or trace of an original road that crossed that county. Taylor county is sand hill country. We expect to get copies of the original land lot surveys of that county hoping that the original surveyors made some note of the indian trail or of the Old Federal Roade [sic] that was made of this indian trail.” (Bell 1971, 1)

After almost two hundred years of route revision, the original trading path had faded and local surveys were the best hope for finding the actual path. To record the succession of the route, Shockley would have needed consistent surveys from all of Taylor County’s history—a daunting prospect. Even in 2014, Shockley’s successors in the Georgia Bartram Trails Society have to recognize that, while the historic paths can be approximated, they cannot be completely duplicated; they are “an attempt to furnish a similar wilderness experience in the general area he traveled.” (Georgia Bartram Trail Group, 2014)

The task almost defeated the Newberry’s researchers for the reasons already touched on in this essay: Place names from the eighteenth century rarely matched with later maps; eighteenth-century travelers did not record their journeys with planimetric precision; and the travelers’ sense of space was not the same as a mapmaker’s. In the Newberry’s archive of material related to the Atlas’s creation, one must empathize with the frustrated researcher who, working only from the historic record, could not reconcile the gaps and contradictions of Bartram’s own record of his trip. In the end, she was left wondering whether it was time “to stop throwing good money after bad on the Bartrams’ travel maps… If I had known two years ago what I know now about the source materials for this topic, I would have argued strenuously that this page of maps was not worth its cost in general utility for the historian.” (Petchenik, 1) In the end, the Society pointed to Harper’s work as the best source available and so the Newberry mostly plotted his somewhat rough maps onto a modern map of North America. The map included all river courses but was otherwise blank except for key cities and places Bartram visited. For the route across Georgia, the best anyone could do was trace the fall line and call it a day. Two centuries of human movement had blurred the original location of the trading paths and no historic map could have faithfully plotted the trail to the degree necessary to walk the actual route.

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Map of the state of Georgia


The Atlas’s researchers revealed both a persistent wish and a stubborn reality. The urge to travel the same ground as past actors was and is a powerful one; we have the overwhelming evidence of battlefields, house museums, and other sites of memory as proof. But when it comes to actually traveling the same routes that those past actors took, one has to reckon with the fact that corridors of travel simply do not preserve as well as buildings or broad swaths of topography. Seemingly permanent and rigid, these networks of paths, roads, and rails jumped and arced across the landscape as humans shifted their means of living and their personal desires. They did so too slowly for individual travelers or even individual mapmakers to capture but their shifts but the changing geography of movement emerges across centuries of mapmaking.

But, tantalizing as those maps are, they also reveal their limits regarding human movement. The human creators of these maps, inserting their own elisions and abstractions into the proceedings, can only convey a general sense of direction across the landscape. They cannot pinpoint precise locations. Careful comparison between regional and local maps, combined with the powerful geo-correcting tools of modern mapping software might provide a best guess, but the truth is maps will remain impressionistic.

Impressionistic should not be mistaken for trivial, however. As a broad survey of Georgia maps reveals, human movements are a sensitive indicator of broad economic and cultural shifts. The thin webs of connection that linked peoples and landscapes together changed and responded to both distant and local developments. While we might not be able to walk in our predecessors’ actual footsteps, we can still reveal much about how those footsteps took shape and, more importantly, how those footsteps in turn shaped the world.

Further Reading

A warning to researchers: Attempts to carefully trace out the succession of roadways and paths in the United States will meet with two big issues concerning this nation’s history: The persistent localism of most overland routes and the lack of consistent local mapping of those routes. For all of the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, roads were a local concern placed under the jurisdiction of local and county governments. But most of the mapping, either state-sponsored or privately created, was at the state, regional, or continental scale. The abstraction necessary for completing such maps, combined with inconsistent surveys conducted at the local level, means that one would have a difficult time finding maps that accurately place the roads through any given region. These mapped routes might connect the same places over time, but their courses would vary. And without a strong set of local maps, the modern researcher would be hard-pressed to identify which cartographic alterations were the result of actual changes in the route and which were simply the result of different mapmakers’ generalizations.

But for those interested in route succession, there is a burgeoning field of transportation studies to provide the proverbial “road map” in the field. The literature on railroads is, of course, extensive and beyond the scope of this one paragraph (and is covered quite well in other essays in this collection). However, for those interested in roads and travel, I highly recommend beginning with D.W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America series. A multivolume text that covers a broad stretch of time and territory in the Americas, it is an invaluable resource for those interested in historical geography, American routes, or how space shaped the history of North America. For recent scholar approaches, the essays in the Cartographies of Travel and Navigation volume (edited by James Akerman) are invaluable. And for those who really love southern roads, two recent excellent books stand out: Angela Pulley Hudson’s Creek Paths and Federal Roads demonstrates how important roads were in Indian-white relations and Tammy Ingram’s Dixie Highway captures the transformation of the New South as dirt roads became paved.

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Map of the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia
  • Akerman, James R. 2006. “Twentieth-Century American Road Maps and the Making of a National Motorized Space.” In Cartographies of Travel and Navigation, edited by James R. Akerman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Bell, Grady. “Letter to Brenda Berkman, October 31, 1971.” In Atlas of Early American History. Princeton, N.J: Published for The Newberry Library and the Institute of Early American History and Culture by Princeton University Press, 1976.

  • Cadle, Farris W. 1991. Georgia Land Surveying History and Law. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

  • Cappon, Lester J. 1974. “Retracing and Mapping the Bartrams’ Southern Travels”. In Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 118.6, 507–513.

  • Cashin, Edward J. 1985. “‘But Brothers, It is Our Land We are Talking About’: Winners and Losers in the Georgia Backcountry.” In An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution, edited by Ronald Hoffman, Thad Tate, and Peter Albert, 240-275. Published for the United States Capitol Historical Society. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

  • De Vorsey, Louis, Jr. 1986. “The Colonial Georgia Backcountry.” In Colonial Augusta: “Key of the Indian Countrey”, edited by Edward J. Cashin, 5-10. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

  • Durden, Robert Franklin. 2001. Electrifying the Piedmont Carolinas: The Duke Power Company, 1904-1997. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

  • Georgia Bartram Trail Group. Retrieved from

  • Harper, Francis, ed. 1958. The Travels of William Bartram, Naturalist’s Edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  • Hudson, Angela Pulley. 2010. Creek Paths and Federal Roads: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves and the Making of the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

  • Hughes, Thomas Parke. 1983. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

  • Ingram, Tammy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Center for the Study of the American South. 2014. Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

  • Meinig, D.W. 1986. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, vol. 2, Continental America, 1800-1867. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  • Musich, Jerry. 2006. “Mapping a Transcontinental Nation: Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century American Rail Travel Cartography.” In Cartographies of Travel and Navigation, edited by James R. Akerman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Olmsted, Frederick Law. 1953. The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

  • Paulett, Robert. 2012. An Empire of Small Places: Mapping the Southeastern Anglo-Indian Trade, 1732-1795. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

  • Petchenik, Barbara. “Letter to Lester Cappon, December 11, 1973.” In Atlas of Early American History. Princeton, N.J: Published for The Newberry Library and the Institute of Early American History and Culture by Princeton University Press, 1976.

  • Ristow, Walter W. 1985. American Maps and Mapmakers: Commercial Cartography in the Nineteenth Century. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

  • Weiss, Thomas. June 2004. “Tourism in America Before World War II”. In The Journal of Economic History, vol. 64, 289–327.