Texas Roads

According to kerby1972, the Trans-Mississipi’s “mediocre network of unpaved roads” was hardly enough to support civilian or military needs. “Except for a complex of roads along the Shreveport-Marshall axis, there were no well-developed overland links binding together the road networks of the Mississippi Basin and East Texas. The East Texas web, including the important road junctions at Doaksville and Boggy Depot in the Choctaw Nation, was the most coherent in the Department” (84). Kerby describes this web as focused on Houston and covering “the portion of the state bounded, roughly, by Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Clarksville, and the Choctaw towns” (84).

Even so, because county commissioners were charged with maintaining these roads, they were “hardly better than cowpaths. Traffic always moved over them at a snail’s pace” (84). This made wages for long-range teamsters exorbitant during the war, especially as cotton speculators tried to get their crops to Matamoras.

Slave Labor on Roads

campbell1989 notes that antebellum tax rates on slaves in Texas was low partly because slave labor was used to build public roads—a public expenditure that would have ordinarily required large tax revenue. “The commissioners’ court simply appointed a number of slaveholders and their ‘hands’ to be responsible for particular sections of the road or roads in their neighborhoods” (95). A footnote adds that “documentation of the role of slaves in maintaining the roads may be found in the Commissioners’ Court Minutes of any Texas county that had a sizable black population during the antebellum years.”

The Rusk County Commissioners Court Minutes and Hopkins County Commissioners Court Minutes indicate that slave labor assignments were made slightly differently in different counties. The general pattern, though, seems to have been to demarcate certain sections of public roads, appoint a planter as an overseer, and then either (a) assign certain slaveholders’ “hands” to maintain the roads (as Campbell writes) or (b) assign all hands living within a geographical radius of the road section—sometimes referred to as the road precincts.

During the war, the Texas state legislature appears to have revised the Road Law so that white men, as well as slaves, would be liable to be called for road work.

After emancipation, the general pattern of assignments appears to have remained largely the same, with the Rusk County Commissioners Court Minutes explicitly stating that freed people of color would retain their assignments under the “control” (to use the Hopkins County language) of a white overseers. The shorthand developed before emancipation of assigning all hands living in a particular district was carried over unchanged in some cases (Hopkins, e.g.) partly because it didn’t require specifying owners or legal relationships.

In Hopkins and Rusk, however, there was sometimes a shift from references to “so-and-so’s” hands to the particular names of workers, making this a possible source of learning the names of freedpeople in the counties. (For example, one could look at the assignment for a particular section in 1864, and then look at the same section in subsequent years to see if “hands” come to be specified by name; it would be reasonable to assume then that the named workers were formerly owned by the slaveholder named prior to emancipation.

Condition of Roads During the War

Sources indicate that it was not easy for contemporaries to know in advance what any given road would be like. When instructing an overseer about plans to bring refugeed slaves into Texas, for instance, John C. Moore advised him to inquire into the roads between two towns. Other refugees like Louise Sheppard complained at the time or later of the poor condition of the roads in the second half of the war years.

The influx of refugeed slaves may have seemed like a boon partly for this reason. The Marshall Texas Republican of October 7, 1864, noted deplorable condition of roads and called on more slave labor to be used to fix them:

The public highways throughout the State, were never in so wretched a condition, within the memory of man, as at present. Many of our public roads are almost impassable, and when the winter rains set in, they will be rendered quite so. We trust the Legislature, among its first acts, will pass a law to remedy the evil. This can be done by extending the road laws, as effecting individuals, up to sixty or sixty-five. As it is, at present, the military authorities claim all white males between the ages of 18 and 50 years of age. Persons over 50 cannot be made to act as overseers, and the result is, there is not road working. This is the more inexcusable and unfortunate, as the roads ought to be in a better condition at present than they were ever before known. The negroes, as every one is aware, do the most of the road working, and there are more negroes in the State now than were ever here before. We hope the press throughout the State will call attention of the Legislature to this important matter. Good roads were never more required than at this time, and there is no reason or excuse for there [sic] not being far better than they have ever been. Negroes are not only more numerous, but as there is very little cotton planted, they have more time to attend to making good roads.