November Tea Party Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' copy of The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection - Debbie Curto, Christmas tea - Andrea Stephens, Golden Tea body wash Joy Ellis, lighthouse earrings -- Pegg's SIL from Lake Ann and Perrianne Askew, Pegg Thomas's Leather journal - Shelia Hall, and Writing Prompts book goes to - Connie Porter Saunders

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Rigors of Colonial-Era Travel

Much-romanticized view of traveling through Cumberland Gap

Planes, trains, and automobiles … none of those had been invented yet during America’s colonial era. So how did people get around?

The most obvious method is on horseback, or by carriage or wagon. But not every manner of conveyance was suitable for every kind of journey.

Freight, for instance, was most likely carried by horse-drawn wagon or ox-drawn cart, which I discussed in another post. The oxen were most often driven by use of a long, slender rod and verbal commands, with the drover walking alongside, but horses were driven from the seat of the wagon. On a long journey with larger numbers of people, however, the able-bodied would walk to save exertion on the horses, leaving only the infirm or small children to ride.

Both ox-carts and wagons required a proper road for passage, thus the term wagon road to distinguish from a bridle path, where walking or mounted on horseback was required. Carriages or coaches needed even better roads.

So, in cities and towns, and in well-populated areas with good roads, people could be free to use coaches or carts of varying sizes without too much worry. But what about when folk desired to travel to, say, the wilderness? How did they manage to get there?

This was a question I had to explore while planning my upcoming novel The Cumberland Bride, which traces the journey of one fictional party of settlers from eastern Tennessee up into the wilds of Kentucky. First I had to figure out exactly when the Wilderness Road was opened for wagon travel. At the time my story is set, 1794, the route had been improved to a wagon road from southwestern Virginia, across east Tennessee and up to Cumberland Gap, but northward the way was still too rugged for wagon travel.

People had to pack things, then, onto horses and mules, and either ride horseback and walk. They’d often put small children or mothers with babies aboard the pack horses, but for the most part people made the journey on foot. They’d face rocky terrain, fallen trees, steep hills, muddy ground, creeks and rivers of varying widths and depths, wetlands, mud flats, and sand pits, as well as dangers from wild animals and hostile natives. They risked frostbite, sunstroke, heat exhaustion, and other injury and illness, including a nasty condition called “foot scald” if they walked too long in wet shoes.

Travel on good roads by coach was still no easy affair. Long hours of bouncing and jostling often made many prefer to be directly on horseback, and I think I’d have agreed with them, even with my aging body!

We moderns like to think, however, that we could be tough, but I’m continually amazed at the tenacity and fortitude of folk who traveled long distances in those days before the comparatively “easy” travel methods of the present. It's incredible the lengths our ancestors went to, to try to make a better life for themselves and their children.


  1. Interesting! Thanks for the information.

  2. I can’t even imagine facing the elements in such crude modes of transportation. What fortitude those people had. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I think about that often!! And thank you for stopping to comment!

  3. Timely article for me to read as this very day I am writing a scene where my hero and heroine are traveling across the Blue Ridge Mountains c 1805. So thankful I have some diary accounts that tell of their travel conditions, route and stops. What an undertaking! The journey was an adventure in itself.

    1. What would we do without those primary sources?? I leaned heavily on diary accounts as well. So glad many took the time to record all that!


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