Marks on trees served as road signs during North America’s colonial times, a period when much of the population was illiterate. Certain patterns of slashes or notches conveyed specific information about the nature of a pike or landmarks a traveler might find farther down down its path. Three notches served as a frequent glyph although its meaning varied depending on geography.
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I first noticed the phenomenon in Maryland when I spied Three Notch Road, and I became curious about its derivation. This is a significant traffic corridor today, primarily Maryland Route 235 running along the spine of what is known as Southern Maryland colloquially, then part of Maryland Route 5 heading deeper into the suburbs outside of Washington, DC. The History of Caroline County, Maryland, From Its Beginning offers an explanation for the name. It referred to a 1704 colonial-era law that applied across early Maryland:
And the roads that lead to any county Court house, shall have two notches on the trees on both sides of the road as aforesaid, and another notch a distance above the other two. And any road that leads to a church, shall be marked at the entrance into the same, and at the leaving any other road, with a slip cut down the race of the tree, near the ground. Any road leading to a ferry, and dividing from other public roads shall be marked with three notches of equal distance at the entrance into the same.
Maryland’s Three Notch Road road led to a ferry three hundred years ago. The ferry disappeared, lost to history long ago, while the name of the road carried the legacy forward. It’s difficult to picture that idyllic scene today. Suburbia continues to nibble away at an historically rural landscape.
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Three Notch’d or Three Chopt Road in Central Virginia has been studied extensively. It ran originally from Richmond across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the valley (the true "almost heaven"). I’ve marked the portion that continues to retain its basic path and identity into the present. U.S. Route 250 and to a lesser degree Interstate 64 follow the old Three Notch’d road fairly faithfully. A marker in Charlottesville commemorates its historical significance:
Three Notch’d Road – Also called Three Chopt Road, this colonial route ran from Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. It likely took its name from three notches cut into trees to blaze the trail. A major east-west route across central Virginia from the 1730s, it was superseded by Route 250 in the 1930s. Part of Jack Jouett’s famous ride and the Marquis de Lafayette’s efforts to prevent Gen. Charles Cornwallis from obtaining munitions took place along this road. Today West Main Street and part of University Avenue approximate the Three Notch’d Road’s original course through present-day Charlottesville.
Jack Jouett, as every kid who went to elementary school in Virginia knows, was the Commonwealth’s version of Paul Revere. He alerted Thomas Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia, that British troops were on the way to capture him in 1781. Just as Plymouth overshadows Jamestown, Revere overshadows Jouett. Nonetheless, Virginia’s Three Notch’d Road had its brief moments of fame.
I searched the VDOT article for the significance of the road’s three notches. I found references to the name being applied for the first time in the spring of 1743. The notches were an intentional name for a primary route applied in a manner similar to numbers on major roads today. Three Notch’d Road was the colonial equivalent of an Interstate highway with a numerical designation.
The source dispelled other theories:
Since the word ‘notch’ is a synonym for ‘gap,’ it is possible that the ‘three notches’ may have referred to the three gaps accessible from this road, but this is purely conjectural as the main road down the Valley was originally marked with ‘two Knotches and a cross.’ The occurrence of the name Three Notch’d Road as early as 1743 would seem to effectually squelch the tradition that the three notches referred to George III since he did not become king until 1760.
I’ve actually been on Three Notch’d Road more times than I can count. Oddly, the name never registered on my mind until I began my investigation for this article.
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The Andalusia Star News discussed a Three Notch Road that "ran from Pensacola to Fort Mitchell in Russell County, Alabama." I’ve marked an approximate segment of the route as it exists today, extending from East Three Notch Street in Andalusia, AL to North Three Notch Street in Troy, AL to the tiny hamlet of Three Notch.
The road connected Pensacola, Florida with a fortification set far inland on the eastern edge of Alabama in 1824 — Fort Mitchell (map). The Creek War with Alabama’s native American population had taken place only a decade earlier. Hostilities still simmered and the United States Army established garrisons in the wilderness to protect settlers. In turn, those fortifications had to be supplied. That was the purpose of Three Notch Road.
As the article explained, "Since there were no steamboats on the Chattahoochee River at the time, the army had to transport troops and supplies from Pensacola to Ft. Mitchell by land through Indian Territory." It further noted that, "Capt. Daniel E. Burch marked the route using three notches on trees for a crew under Lt. Elias Phillips to follow" during construction.
The name of the road led to speculation about its origin. One legend said that General Andrew Jackson, who came through the area at various points during his expeditions and battles with native Americans, may have left three notches as he beat a path through the bush. The road was named at a later date, as the story goes, for Jackson’s notches. However, several of the sources I consulted viewed this as both speculative and insupportable. The evidence simply doesn’t exist.
The notches were left behind to guide a road construction crew according to the most probable explanation.
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Three Notch Road was the first route blazed into Missouri by settlers of European descent. A great resource discussing this situation already exists on the Intertubes, the Southeast Missourian’s Drive on the Oldest Road in Missouri complete with a well-done Google map. I can’t add much to it. Feel free to skip my summary and jump directly to that source if you like.
The origin traced back to 1735 when France controlled much of the vast North American interior. They’d discovered lead a few miles north of present-day Fredericktown, Missouri and began digging at Mine La Motte in 1717. Three Notch Road connected Mine La Motte, in the middle of nowhere at the time, with the settlement of Ste-Geneviève on the Mississippi River. No road would have been constructed through this incredibly isolated wilderness had it not been for the mine. "La Motte" translates "root ball" if online tools can be relied upon, so this may have been the Root Ball Mine. Maybe one of the French 12MC readers can provide a better translation.
As for the triple notches, the article explained, "it was common to mark minor roads with one notch, secondary roads with two notches, and major roads with three notches." Thus, this would have been a major road of great significance according to the definition.
I found references to other Three Notch Roads (as an example). I didn’t have time to research this topic any further although I know they are out there.