County judges in the early days of Daviess County spent much time ordering and approving roads in the county. These would be called trails today since they were only 30-foot wide paths or muddy wagon tracks across open ground. At intersections, “finger board” signs would indicate what places travelers would next encounter.
The process of declaring a county road started when householders or “freeholders” petitioned the court to establish a trail. These were free white males who owned real estate and desired road improvements. These trails did not include any construction work or earth moving until after the Civil War.
Freeholders made the propositions. The county court then acted, based upon arguments placed before the court at monthly meetings. The official trail was called a county road or a state road if it ran across county lines. There were natural trails and unofficial trails in this county, and trails formed by Ray County officials before 1836.
The process of official road approval changed little from 1836 through 1865. The new trail started with a freeholder’s petition. There did not seem to be a limit to the number of signatures required to make such a petition, and all were considered. Sometimes 30 or more people were mentioned; sometimes, only one.
If the court did not reject the petition at its introduction, it could be continued for later consideration. In most instances, the petition resulted in a court order for these citizens (white males) to “view and lay out” the proposed road and report back to the court.
The road was not to be laid out through anyone’s “enclosure,” meaning lot, yard or fenced pasture. This was not much of a problem since there were almost no fences. If the “viewers” found the trail to be on good ground and of use, and value to the county, they described the exact route and recommended approval.
Upon approval, the court ordered the route “staked and blazed.” Stakes were put down in the prairie grass and trees were blazed (bark cut away) to mark the new trail. When this was done the trail was officially opened and a road overseer appointed.
Everyone was paid by the county for their work by an allotting justice named by the court. Pay went to the viewers, overseers, surveyors, chain men and to those who did the clearing of brush and trees. Fords were not improved or road drainage work performed at county expense.
If damage to someone’s land was claimed, the court had the loss assessed and, upon approval, paid the landowner. In later years, if a landowner was a local resident, “consent” was considered for crossing his land. Each new county court would select road overseers and name them for each section of all county trails.
After about 1860 road districts were established and road overseers named for each district. The route for the roads was to get from important place to place on good ground. The established trails were also subject to petitions for changes and could be closed if unneeded.
It was a continuous process for the judges. Many landowners wanted trails moved from their fields when fencing became more popular. The land ownership lines were mostly on Congressional township lines. These borders were described as section, quarter section township, and range, etc.
Municipal townships such as Honey Creek Township and Grand River Township were often divided by rivers and streams.
As more consideration was given to putting roads on section lines, the roads went either east, west, north or south. A traveler could be required to go three or more times the distance to get from place to place. The roads also crossed streams at difficult places and passed over poorer ground.
Roads would pass directly over springs, up steep hills, across a stream several times, and along steep slopes. County expenses on roads then greatly increased.
— written by David Stark, published in the Gallatin North Missourian.