Monday, November 28, 2011

Road Trips in Time (Cleveland Post, July 28, 2011)

Old Drug Store Road. Cleveland School Road. The old Apex-Macedonia Church Road and Holly Springs Road, widened and upgraded (pun intended!) into Tryon Road, connecting Garner and Cary. Road names fascinate me because they are a key to history. I have been pondering them quite a bit the last several months.

It all started with the puzzle of Cornwallis Road. The name didn't register as an anomaly at first. Growing up in a land of subdivisions and numbered highways, road names were about as meaningful as hexadecimal IP addresses. They needed to name a street in the subdivision so they slapped on girl's names or the names of powerboat manufacturers. Useful, but not significant.

At some point, I had a "duh" moment and made the connection to the Revolutionary War. General Charles Cornwallis crossed from South Carolina into North Carolina in September of 1780, lead his troops up to Guilford Courthouse in Alamance County where he fought the Americans in March of 1781(It was one of those battlefield triumphs that leads to the ultimate loss of the war). After that battle, he made his way down to Wilmington.

Could it be that his route had passed through this part of Johnston County, leaving his name on the road he traveled?

Nope. At least that is the resounding answer given by his well-documented campaign. To get from Alamance County to Wilmington, he went west of us, down to Fayetteville and through Bladen County. When he left Wilmington for Virginia, he stayed to the east, going through Goldsboro and on up to Rocky Mount on a route approximated by present-day US 117 to US 301.

So, why the name? And how long has this road been known by this name?

A historian trying to put together pieces of another historical puzzle may have left a bit of an answer to the second question. Armies weren't the only ones on the move in 1780. Between 1771 and 1816, the man referred to as the father of American Methodism traveled over 300,000 miles (yes, I counted the zeroes correctly). Bishop Francis Asbury diligently recorded his preaching and his journeys in his journal, which was published after his death.

Now, Mt. Zion United Methodist Church on NC 50 near the intersection of NC 42 was founded in 1809, built by John and Susan Leach on land they donated. A history of the church refers to Asbury's journal and states, "he mentions that in 1812 on his way from near Fayetteville to New Bern, he went by Mt. Zion Chapel to preach. Since the old "Cornwallis Trail", which was a much-traveled thoroughfare in those days, ran near the church, this "Mt. Zion Chapel" could have been our Mt. Zion."

So, maybe it has been around a while.

There are other roads named after Cornwallis. A search on "Cornwallis in NC" brings up a number of roads to the west and a few to the east. In addition to the one in Durham and one in Kinston, there is a Cornwallis Drive in Greensboro and one in Mocksville.

As I pondered this question, I have pored over what old maps I can find, and looked closely along any road I happen to be on. One of the things I have noticed is that the roads quite often bear the name of the place to which they lead. New Bethel Church, Cleveland School, Apex-Macedonia Church, Benson Highway, Old Garner Road.

And I wonder: what if some of these Cornwallis Roads were so named because they were the roads that lead to General Cornwallis' encampments, or to the encampments of the American forces opposing him? Were these the roads to follow if you wanted to get in on the fight? Were they used by messengers, or to transport supplies, or by reinforcements from other areas?

I don't know. But I would love to hear from any one who does.


Note on General Cornwallis's troop movments: I found a neat website. is focused on "visualizing and quantifying history." Under the web application heading, there is an interactive map "American Revolution Sites, Events, and Troop Movements" that shows exactly that for dates from May 1780 through April 1781. Information is still being added and there are some limitations, but this is history for a digital age.

Note on history of Mt. Zion Methodist Church: The quotation included above is from a photocopy I found in the Heritage Center in Smithfield. Neither the author or title of the book from which it was taken were included on the photocopy. Any information on this book would be gratefully appreciated.

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