10 Year Anniverary & New Releases Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' Butterfly Cottage - Melanie B, Dogwood Plantation - Patty H R, Janet Grunst's winner is Connie S., Denise Weimer's Winner is Kay M., Naomi Musch's winner is Chappy Debbie, Angela Couch - Kathleen Maher, Pegg Thomas Beverly D. M. & Gracie Y., Christy Distler - Kailey B., Shannon McNear - Marilyn R.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Navigating the Great Wagon Road: William S. Alexander, Colonial Wagonmaster

The Most Eligible Bachelor Romance Collection
In less than two months, my second novella The Highwayman releases as part of Barbour’s Most Eligible Bachelor Romance Collection. This story stars Sam Wheeler, a young wagonmaster-turned-vigilante who finds his true courage when the girl he secretly loves is threatened by a local bully.

A good part of my inspiration for this character comes from the diary of real-life colonial wagonmaster William Alexander, who in the early years of the Revolutionary War, drove up and down what is known as the Great Wagon Road. This trail, originally used by native hunting and war parties, stretched southward from Philadelphia, down through Virginia into the Carolinas and, eventually, Georgia.

I was first introduced to young Master Alexander when researching for Defending Truth. The simple Word document containing the text from his diary, dated 1776-78, was at first glance some mighty dry, dull reading, lacking proper punctuation and full of spelling errors (as we know modern spelling):

First page of Alexander's diary, UNC Archives
Be it remember’ed; to call at fredrick town Docter Thompsons- at york town Dutch Doctors 100 yd. North west the court house – at Lancaster Docter Adams left hand side the street west from the court house)  Henry Sluber Apothecary North the court house

Memorandom of things to fetch for the family –
  • Blue Sagathy for one Suit of clothes
  • 1-piece-of-4 Lb.-Linnen
      3 pair of Silver Buckles
  • 1 raim good writeing paper
  • 1 doz. Linen handkerchiefs
  • White persian red lining      )
                                                        )      Bonnets
  • Black tafoty with trimmings)

  • 1 yd. Cambrick-
  • ½ yd. Lawn.
      2 Calf Skins
  • 1 check Silk hank [torn]

Map of the Great Road as drawn by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson
The more I read, however, the easier it was to see past the spelling and punctuation issues, and the more I realized I could glean about colonial living and culture on several levels:  what people bought, what they imported and exported up and down the colonies, what monetary payments they used, how long travel took by wagon, what sort of things might delay travel, how long they might stay in a given place, and why. What a young man in his twenties thought of life, the universe, and everything, and how he liked to spend his spare time. I found it especially amusing to note William Alexander's reference, in the middle of an otherwise spare account of one journey north, to a "pretty young Virginia woman" who ran the ferry on the Yadkin River.

Curiosity about the wider history of the man himself led me via online search to scanned pages of the original Alexander diary, and this bit:
One volume, a diary of about 130 small pages, kept by William Sample Alexander (d. 1826), of Mecklenburg Co., N. C., 1770-1778. [Other accounts say the diary only covers 1776-78.] Alexander was the son of Hezekiah Alexander (1728-1801), a prominent settler of Mecklenburg County. William Sample Alexander operated a wagon train between Mecklenburg County and Chester Co., Pennsylvania. The diary provides a partial description of his wagon train journeys and includes a record of accounts which he maintained with friends and family members, as well as descriptions of a few “home remedies.”

The first substantive entries in William Sample Alexander’s diary are from 1774, when he left Mecklenburg County on a trip northward.Philadelphia and Charleston served as Mecklenburg County’s main trading centers, and traders such as William Sample Alexander traveled to these centers quite frequently by wagon train. Alexander operated a wagon train to the Philadelphia area, and one author reports that he “would haul the pelts and produce of the farms and forests to Philadelphia and would bring back all sorts of goods ordered by the ladies and men of the community.” [Victor C. King, Comp. and Ed., Lives and Times of the 27 Signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775: Pioneers Extraordinary (Charlotte: Anderson Press, 1956).]
I was able to find out exactly how old William was during the time he kept the diary, make a decent guess as to whether or not he was married yet (one source says no, but then another source says he and his first wife married in 1770), what rank he held in the local militia (and which one he served in), even a nickname and a fair guess as to his activities during the latter part of the Revolution. It was also fun to find connections to Augusta County, Virginia, where much of The Highwayman is set, and a transcript of his will.

I'm indebted to his diary to help me figure out not only the route my character Sam Wheeler and his cousin Jed might take, but what distance they might cover on a good day and what sorts of issues they might run into. Tracing the actual journey from Charlotte, North Carolina, up to Philadelphia proved fascinating as well, and the discovery that Thomas Jefferson's father Peter helped draft the earlier map of Virginia, above.


  1. Great post. It spiked my interest in the book. I have a friend who writes much like in the diary you found, no punctuation making it hard to read.
    Blessings, Tina

    1. Thank you so much, Tina! And yes, it's very common to find historical documents written this way--punctuation and spelling were very, shall we say, flexible before the advent of Webster's dictionary? :) And still flexible depending upon who's writing, I suppose.

  2. Wow! This is fascinating stuff, Shannon! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Joan! :-D Sometimes I forget I can share the geeky little things like this, on here!

  3. Thanks Shannon for a very interesting post. History is so much more interesting when you authors tell us about it. Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Maxie! We try to be as interesting as we can. :)

  4. Shannon, did you ever get to the North Carolina museum of transportation near Charlotte? That's where I first read about the Great Wagon Road, about seven years ago. I'd been trying to figure out exactly how my ancestor Johannes Adam Rousch managed to get between Philly and Virginia. So I ended up researching the Great Wagon Road, too, and I'm so looking forward to reading your novella! Loved the first one! I wonder if Johannes ever met this young man, wouldn't that have been something?

    1. I didn't, Carrie! So many things that I wound up not having time for before we moved ... and The Highwayman wasn't conceived until we were in ND last spring. :-) I'm sure many of the guys traveling that road knew each other--at the least, your Johannes would have known my heroine and her family ... :-D

      I hope you wind up enjoying this one as much as you did the first! It's admittedly a little lighter on the history ...


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