7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In Ye Olden Days: Road Trip!

I've always enjoyed a road trip, especially in the fall. Something about cooling temperatures, coloring trees, and air washed free of summer haze and humidity makes distances beckon and stirs a thirst for discovery. Satisfying that thirst is a matter of gassing up the car, packing a bag, stopping by MapQuest for directions, calling ahead to book a night at a hotel along the way. Our 18th century ancestors, when hit by autumn wanderlust, didn’t have it so easy. Traveling overland meant walking or riding a horse, possibly driving a wagon or riding in a carriage. Depending on how far one meant to travel, better plan to be on the road for a good chunk of time. Days. Maybe weeks.

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.

The map to the left shows the site of the Trading Ford, the old Yadkin River ferry crossing on the Trading Path that ran from Hillsborough, NC, to Salisbury, NC, a Piedmont town that grew at the meeting of the Trading Path and the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. It must have looked much different in the 18th century when one of my characters crossed it, than when I did in the 21st.

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.

~ autumn foliage photo by Brian Stansbury, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I researched this for my second MS as my characters travel down that Great Wagon Road. They had nice info on this at the NC Transportation museum (which also has the country's only working roundtable for trains.) There is an excellent book by Parke Rouse who lived in my area and was a journalist. http://www.amazon.com/Great-Wagon-Road-Philadelphia-South/dp/087517065X

  2. There are so many journeys in fiction, especially in pioneer and frontier fiction set in the 18th century, which I particularly enjoy reading (and writing). But two of my favorite historical fiction journeys are set in different centuries. One of them, set in 1912, is the wintery journey city-girl Christy Huddleston takes in Catherine Marshall's CHRISTY, from the village where the train deposits her to Cutter Cap, deep in the Smokey Mountains of TN, trudging miles in the snowy footsteps of the intrepid mailman until she winds up in a rustic cabin watching as an equally rustic-seeming doctor performs a crude and harrowing surgery. Talk about culture shock. I felt Christy's head-reeling sensation of having walked backward through time.

    Another favorite is the journey of George Drouillard, the half-Shawnee interpreter and hunter for the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-1806, as portrayed by James Alexander Thom in SIGN-TALKER. Most stories of this epic journey are told through Lewis' or Clark's point of view. It was a refreshing change to see it, and them, through the eyes of Drouillard.

  3. There was a trip from Philadelphia to Virginia in a book by Jamie Carie, I believe. I'd love to do that.

    And Lori, I've always wanted to see what Christy saw too.

  4. Lori that sounds great. I have several of his books but not sure I have that one. I don't think so. Lynn, I thought Jamie's book was inland into the back country rather than down the Great Wagon Road but maybe she has one I missed.

  5. Such an interesting post, Lori. Love the maps, etc. Christy is huge for me and had such an impact on me personally and writing-wise. Julie, the sequel, was good but not quite the same. Right now I'm still preoccupied with the route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh - a good 300 miles. No stage route existed till about 1822. The going was rough even with the road. I would have loved to have seen Pittsburgh when Washington was there in the 18th-c.

  6. Fun post. That's good to know about the 20 miles a day. Also good to know that the covered bridge replaced the ferry.
    Love your post. Thanks so much!

  7. Thanks Kristen!

    Carrie, Sign-Talker still haunts me. Maybe more than any of his books and I've read most of them now.

    Laura, I'm with you. So many places I wish I could see and travel through the way they looked in the 18th century. Without all that danger though!

    Lynn, sounds like Christy's journey has touched a lot of people. Her story was my introduction to Appalachian fiction and the history of the Highland Scots in America, and I was utterly entranced from the time she stepped off that train to the last page.

  8. Carrie, I could be wrong about Jamie's book. :) It's been quite sometime since I read it. Let's see, I think the book was called The Duchess and the Dragon. Wherever it was that they traveled, it was a trip I wanted to take. :)

  9. Wonderful post, Lori! I love all the info, and especially the link to The Tavern at the Ferry. I just ordered it. I can't resist new research books, especially one that looks so interesting and helpful.

    Have you read James Alexander Thom's Follow the River? That's a good traveling story too, and Kenneth Roberts' Northwest Passage is even better.

  10. Joan, I've read Follow the River (another great journey, and a true one) but not Northwest Passage. It's in Mount TBR. One day...


Thanks for commenting, please check back for our replies!