But how far can a horse travel in a day? How were rivers crossed in times and places where no bridges had been built? What roads existed in the 18th century, and what sort of shape were they in?
The Great Philadelphia Wagon Road
The Great Wagon Road stretched from Philadelphia to Georgia, and was a major thoroughfare for 18th century travelers, particularly settlers headed south into the Carolina back country, or across the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. Not all roads beyond town limits were well maintained year round, and travelers traversed them at their own risk. Wagons sunk axle-deep in thick red mud on a rain-mired track were likely as common a sight in the 18th century as cars broken down on our modern highways.
Rivers To Cross
Before there were bridges there were fords, shallow spots in rivers where a rider simply waded or swam his horse across. Or not so simply, if the river was running high. If a traveler was fortunate there would be a ferryman to help him cross the river, for a fee. Some early ferries were as basic as two canoes connected by a level surface for the traveler and his horse to occupy, while the ferryman poled him to the opposite shore. Over time this double canoe ferry was replaced by larger, flat-bottomed craft that used a system of pulleys and ropes, along with a pole man, to make the tedious crossing.
Inns and villages often grew up around a ferry crossing. A great resource for descriptions and illustrations of the evolution of a ferry from its 17th century beginnings to its replacement by a covered bridge in the 19th century, is Edwin Tunis's book The Tavern At The Ferry.
So just how far can a horse travel in a day? That depends on the horse, the rider, the terrain, the weather, and how much the horse is carrying. Under normal circumstances and over passable roads, and with proper care (food, water, and rest) a well-conditioned horse could be expected to travel 20 miles a day over an extended period, which is a good way of calculating how long an 18th century road trip was likely to take.
For historical writers, have your characters taken road trips? How did they travel? How long did it take? What were some of the perils along the way?
For readers, is there a journey taken by a character/s in a historical novel that stands out as a favorite for you? Tell us about it! I'll be along to share one or two of mine.