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Footpaths to Freeways: The Evolution of Michigan Road Maps

This exhibit traces how roads have been depicted on Michigan maps from the time it was a territory to the present. In addition to maps, it includes photographs, unique short-lived route guides and artifacts. Maps evolved in step with the road system and showed advances such as named roads which were in time replaced with numbered state and federal routes. Publishers include map giants Rand McNally and Gousha who also supplied oil companies with their ubiquitous freely distributed roadmaps.

Part 1: Michigan As A Territory

Click on thumbnail image to view larger image file.

Detail from: Bradley, Abraham, Jr. Map of the United States, exhibiting the post-roads, the situations, connexions & distances of the post-offices, stage roads, counties, & principal rivers, 3rd ed. Washington: A. Bradley Junr, 1809. Reproduced from David Rumsey Map Collection, see http://davidrumsey.com/maps3602.html.

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Map of the United States, exhibiting the post-roads, the situations, connexions & distances of the post-offices, stage roads, counties, & principal rivers, 3rd ed

Improved roads for travel first appeared in maps of Michigan while it was a territory. One of the first maps depicting Michigan's roads was this 1809 edition of Abraham Bradley's "Map of the United States Exhibiting the Post Roads". This map, prepared for the Post Office, portrays the post road from Detroit via "Frenchtown" (Monroe) to Fort Defiance in Ohio.

Farmer, John. Plan of the United States road from Detroit to Chicago, as surveyed & marked by James McCloskey, Jonah Baldwin, Laureat Durocher; copied by John Farmer. Washington: W.J. Stone, 1825. Reproduced with permission from the Archives of Michigan.

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Plan of the United States road from Detroit to Chicago, as surveyed & marked by James McCloskey, Jonah Baldwin, Laureat Durocher; copied by John Farmer

In 1825, Federal funds were appropriated for a road linking the forts at Detroit and Chicago, and the route, following the winding and irregular path of the ancient Sauk (Indian) trail, was surveyed later that year. This strip (point-to-point) map of the surveyed route, known as the Chicago Road, was copied by Farmer in 1825 and is the first Michigan map to focus on one road.

Poole, Benjamin. Survey of a road route from Saginaw to Mackinac M.T. 25 Congress 2 Session, Doc. no. 234. Executed by Lieut. Poole 3d. Art. Washington: s.n., 1837.

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Survey of a road route from Saginaw to Mackinac

During this period, a military road was proposed to establish a link between Saginaw with Fort Mackinaw. In 1835, Lt. Poole was commissioned to survey this route, one that followed the Indian path known as the Mackinaw trail. The portrayed survey map, which accompanied his report, was also drawn in strip format. No road passable for vehicles was constructed on this or any other north-south route to northern Lower Michigan, however, until several decades later.

Michigan. Drawn and published by David H. Burr. New York: D. Burr, 1831.

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Michigan

Maps portraying the entire Michigan territory, such as this 1831 Burr map, eventually began to incorporate and reflect the major roads. The most prominent of the roads depicted was the Chicago road, which was "at this period one of the great thoroughfares of the country." (Quaife, 1923, p.42) One observer counted 250 wagons in a single day and by 1835 daily stages were running from Detroit to Chicago.

A network of roads extended across the southern two tiers of counties in Lower Michigan and expanded with settlement growth. "The system of early roads underscored the east–west dynamic of pioneer activity" (Dantzer, 2005 p.) and gave Michigan maps more of an east west orientation rather than the north south perspective.

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