Newsletter of
The Maryland State Archives
Roads in Maryland, 1765-1794: An Overview 
by Pat Melville 

Previous articles on roads in colonial Maryland concentrated on the period prior to 1765 and explored the records available at the State Archives. Now the emphasis will shift to the period between 1765 and 1794, marked by substantial legislative involvement regarding general policies and procedures and especially individual roads. In 1794 much of the administrative aspects of maintenance and construction shifted from the county courts to the newly established levy courts. 

The increase in legislation enacted by the General Assembly came in response to the growth in population, a divergence in the transportation needs of the different sections of the state, and the demands for improved and shortened roads. As settlements moved westward the need for roads to transport crops to major markets, such as Baltimore City and Georgetown, became greater. This factor alone resulted in the passage of numerous laws applicable to the northern counties from Baltimore County westward and to the central counties of Anne Arundel and Montgomery. 

The legislation can be classified into four categories: statewide general laws, general laws applicable to individual counties, laws regarding specific roads, and development of the turnpike system. 

In 1765, the justices of each county court annually appointed overseers who were responsible for maintenance of individual public roads. Citizens could petition the court for the establishment of new roads and changes to existing ones. All maintenance and much construction was financed through 

compulsory road labor from taxable inhabitants. Most changes in the next twenty-nine years occurred within individual counties. Only a few laws applied statewide. The first such road law under the new state government was passed in 1779 (Chap. 14). It established higher fines for neglect of  duty by overseers and refusal of laborers to work on the roads. The existing fines were deemed insufficient to compel compliance. 

Another section of the 1779 legislation put limitations on the authority of the county courts to repair and build bridges. Any repair of a bridge costing over £800 or erection of a new one costing over £1500 could be authorized only by the General Assembly. 

In 1785 (Chap. 49), the General Assembly recognized the right of citizens to have private roads and formalized the process. Individuals were entitled to have roads from their farms and plantations to places of public worship, mills, market towns, public ferries, and courthouses. A citizen could apply to the county court for a private right of way, not to exceed 16 feet in width. The court could order the road laid out with as little damage as possible to landowners and could hear objections and, if necessary, alter the route. The applications and plats were supposed to be recorded. The petitioners were responsible for paying compensation for damages suffered by landowners and for subsequent maintenance of the private road.

Most laws passed between 1765 and 1794 dealing with general provisions for the management, funding, and maintenance of roads pertained to individual counties, rather 

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than the province or state as a whole. The first one, enacted in 1766 (Chap. 32), dealt with maintenance in Baltimore County and for the first time authorized a road tax and substituted the employment of hired labor in place of the compulsory attendance required by the existing law. Chap. 21 of the acts of 1774 provided for substitute labor in Anne Arundel and Frederick counties. Taxable inhabitants could hire laborers to work in their place. In addition, limits were placed on the maximum amount of labor. No overseer or taxable was required to work more than six days a years or eight hours a day. 

Not until 1791 did more local general road laws appear. Chap. 66 empowered the Cecil County Court to straighten and amend public roads and outlined the procedure. The justices would levy taxes for road maintenance and appoint commissioners to inspect the roads and have surveyed those that could be straightened.
The commissioners or the court appointed supervisors who were authorized to direct and contract for work on roads, bridges, and causeways. They could accept labor from taxpayers in lieu of payment of the road tax. This system proved to be ineffectual and was replaced in 1793 (Chap. 72). Thereafter, the court annually would appoint supervisors for divisions and districts within the county. These officials were responsible for maintenance and repairs and for clearing new roads as ordered by the court as it considered petitions from citizens. The provisions for the road tax and ability to substitute labor for taxes were retained. 

Another law passed in 1791 (Chap. 70) concerned the neighboring county of Harford. The overseer system was modified to allow those officials to hire laborers for road work which would be funded by a road tax imposed by the county justices. Taxpayers were allowed to substitute their own labor for the taxes. Each 

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  • An act to open a road from Venable's  Mills on Barren Creek to Dean's Landing on the Nanticoke River (Chap. 13, Acts of 1791) 
  • An act to lay out and open a road to and from the mill of Benjamin Lawrence and Elias Dorsey on the western fork of Patapsco Falls (Chap. 18, Acts of 1792) 

Almost all of these road specific laws appointed three to five commissioners to handle the process of getting the highway laid out and constructed. Even for the roads benefiting more than one or two individuals, the applicants who filed the petition with the General Assembly often were charged with supplying the needed funding. Frequently, the legislation required the petitioners to formally subscribe to pay their share and authorized the commissioner designated as treasurer to collect the funds, through court action if necessary. Approximately one-fourth of the laws provided for funding through the imposition of special road taxes. After the roads were constructed, the county courts were expected to maintain them with the system of overseers and compulsory labor, except as changed by the few laws specific to a county. 

Turnpike legislation began in 1787 with Chap. 23, applicable only to Baltimore County. The roads to be built possessed two of the three usual characteristics of a turnpike: improvement of the road beds and establishment of toll gates. Construction and subsequent management was entrusted not to a private company but to officials appointed by the county court. The 1787 law was amended ten times within fourteen years. The expansion of turnpikes beyond Baltimore County did not occur until after 1794, mostly in the early 19th century. 

Sources for this article include "Highway Legislation in Maryland, and Its Influence on the Economic Development of the State," by St. George Leakin Sioussat, in Report on the Highways of Maryland (MdHR 789518, E14948) and the laws themselves as extracted from the Archives of Maryland Online. 

Future articles will deal with individual counties, legislation pertaining to them, and records pertaining to roads available at the Archives. 

State Archives Launches Its Online Vital Records Site 

On October 31, the State Archives placed online the first phase of its Vital Records Indexing Project. The first group of indexes encompasses all twenty-three counties for 1898-1944. Indexes for later years are scheduled for online access in 2004. Baltimore City is a separate entity, with indexes to be available in the next five months. 

The digital access consists of images derived from microfilm copies of the index cards. For specific blocks of time, such as 1898-1910, the images are grouped alphabetically. Within each letter the researcher must scroll through the pages of images; each page contains 6 images. 

Clicking on the image of a card takes one through the steps to order a copy of the death certificate. The fee for a plain copy is $12.00 and for a certified copy $25.00. Future plans include the ability to order copies online in a safe and secure environment. In the meantime, the Archives can accept orders for copies only through regular mail. 

The images are as legible as they would be on film, and suffer from the defects of the original filming. Upon finding an image that cannot be read or is incomplete, the reader can select the Unsatisfactory Image Quality option to notify us about the problem. When the project schedule is competed, the Archives will return to these problem images and correct them as much as possible. 

The new vital records site became instantly popular, so much so that the activity overwhelmed the network server, causing it to crash and become inaccessible. That problem has been resolved, and researchers can look forward to the next group of indexes which will cover Baltimore City, 1875-1942. 


Rascovar, Barry. Marylanders of the Century 
Reimer, Terry. One Vast Hospital: The Civil War 
   Hospital Sites in Frederick, Maryland, after Antietam 
Reno, Linda Davis and Joann Ellis Humphries, compl.
   St. Mary's County, Maryland, Wills 1776 - 1791 
_____. St. Mary's County, Maryland, Wills, 1791 - 1802 
_____. St. Mary's County, Maryland, Wills, 1803 - 1820
   [computer file] 
Sander, Kathleen Waters. Business of Charity: The 
   Woman's Exchange Movement, 1832 - 1900 
Schmidt, Cynthia V., compl. Bits and Pieces, vol. 2, 
   Records for Talbot and Queen Anne's Counties of 
_____. Legacies of Queen Anne's County, Maryland, 
   1776 - 1791 
_____. Kent County's Orphans, Minors and Heirs, 
   1778 - 1812 
_____. Odds and Ends, vol. 1: Records of Talbot,
   Caroline and Queen Anne's Counties of Maryland