1777 Chester County Atlas
One of the defining moments in Chester County’s long history occurred on September 11, 1777 along the Brandywine Creek in the southern part of the county. Long-time residents or general history enthusiasts may be familiar with the story—General George Washington’s Continental Army stood between the rebel capital of Philadelphia and General William Howe’s advancing British Army. Capturing Philadelphia would deliver a crushing moral and tactical blow to the American war effort, and Howe wanted a quick and decisive end to the rebellion. To prevent the British from reaching Philadelphia, Washington fortified various fords along the eastern side of the Brandywine. He expected Howe to press forward using the Nottingham Road in a direct attack, therefore Washington concentrated the bulk of his army near John Chadd’s ford.
Understanding the Battle of Brandywine can be a bit confusing because a defining aspect of this battle was movement. Eighteenth-century warfare generally featured two massive armies colliding directly together to determine which side had enough manpower and discipline to keep tight formations without buckling under pressure. The Battle of Brandywine, however, featured flanking and maneuvering; fallbacks and retreats; surprise attacks and deception. On that day, the two armies occupied more than thirty square miles in southern Chester County, and many have called this battle the largest of the Revolutionary War.
To understand the Battle of Brandywine, one needs to understand the movement of both the British and Continental Armies, and to understand that movement, one needs to understand the network of roads as it existed in 1777. With none of the conveniences of modern technology or even paved roads for that matter, transporting thousands of men and their supplies was difficult. Armies used the most convenient paths to get from point A to point B, and that almost always required using an existing road.
In 2014, the Heritage Preservation Coordinator, now part of the Chester County Planning Commission, asked the Chester County Archives to reconstruct and map the county road network as it existed in 1777. This information would contribute to an ongoing series of National Park Service American Battlefield Protection grants received by the Chester County Planning Commission.
Fortunately, the Chester County Archives has a collection of road papers filed in Chester County between 1686 and 2006. But utilizing road papers, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is not as straightforward as most people would expect. To effectively locate and map an existing road system requires an understanding of property ownership along each route in the time period under study.
For example, in 1771, residents of West Bradford Township petitioned the Chester County Court of Quarter Sessions to lay out a road beginning “In the line of Samuel Hunt’s land in the Lancaster Road,” and ending “In the road near Stephen Harlan’s corner.” They did not use official road names but rather the names of property owners. Therefore, to map the network of 1777 roads surrounding the battlefield, Archives staff had to first map property owners in each township being studied by the grant. This is how the mapping project was born. While the focus of the American Battlefield Protection grants extended beyond the battlefield itself to include troop movements throughout the county, the ultimate goal is to create a county-wide atlas featuring all 1777 property owners and roads. Because mapping a township can take a long time, there is no expected end date for this project. Continue to check back here or follow our Facebook page for updates.
The Chester County Archives is working with the Chester County Planning Commission to create a single interactive map which will feature all the completed townships. The maps listed above will be convenient to print out and study individual townships, while the planned interactive map will be convenient to see the county in its entirety.