The life of William Woods Averell illustrates the political and economic geography of late 19th-century America.

Averell graduated in the lower part of his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He remained in the military for most of his life.

Prior to the Civil War, Averell served in the New Mexico Territory, incurring injuries in conflict with nations such as the Zuni, Kiowa, and Navajo.

Averell was promoted to major general during the Civil War, where he served in the Union forces and his portrait was taken by famed photographer Matthew Brady, above. Averell saw action in the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and the Battle of Fredericksburg before being relieved of duty by Gen. Philip Sheridan. (Averell had failed to follow Sheridan's orders.)

After the war, Averell served as the consul general to British North America (now Canada) in Montreal.

Averell was also a successful entrepreneur. Taking an interest in the urban landscape, Averell made a small fortune securing contracts to pave city streets from 5th Avenue in New York City to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

  1. William Averell was very well-traveled. What U.S. states are referred to in the short biography in "Background Info"?

    • Answer

      New York and Virginia. Averell attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and won a contract to pave 5th Avenue in New York City. During the Civil War, Averell fought in the battles of Bull Run and Fredericksburg, both in Virginia.

      Did you also think of New Mexico and Washington, D.C.? Neither one were states when Averell visited them. Averell served in the New Mexico Territory, years before it joined the U.S. as a state in 1912. The city of Washington, D.C., remains a federal district, not a state, today.


  2. According to "Background Info," what are some of the diverse ecosystems or landscapes William Averell encountered in his lifetime?

    • Answer

      Averell was familiar with many landscapes: the urban areas of New York City and Washington, D.C., the desert of New Mexico, the river valleys of western Virginia, and the lakes and wetlands of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, are just a few.

  3. William Averell made his fortune by developing asphalt for paving roads. Why was this an important and lucrative business?

    • Answer

      Streets paved with asphalt were a sign of technological development, and high in demand. Prior to the early 1900s, most roads were paved with stone, gravel, sand, brick, and even seashells and wood chips. Asphalt is much more durable than these materials, making transportation for commerce, communication, and tourism much faster and easier. Cars and other motorized vehicles also operated better on asphalt roads, although they were not widely used in Averell's lifetime.


large settlement with a high population density.

Civil War

(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).


a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.

consul general

chief officer appointed by a government to protect and support the interests of the government in a foreign region or city.


person who starts and manages a business.


study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.


to acquire something, usually unwanted or unpleasant.


the geographic features of a region.


armed forces.


before or ahead of.


having to do with states supporting the United States (north) during the U.S. Civil War.


having to do with city life.