Friday, January 11, 2013

How Fast Could You Travel Across the USA in the 1800s?

Michael Graham Richard wrote an interesting article on this subject on 26 December 2012 on the Mother Nature Network website - titled How fast could you travel across the U.S,. in the 1800s?

The article notes:

"Today, we shrug off the convenience of long-distance travel as part of life, but it wasn't that long ago that simply getting there required a huge investment of time and money."

The article shows maps, derived from a series of maps from the 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States shows the progressive decrease in travel time by depicting the time required to travel from New York to various western locations in 1800, 1830, 1857, and 1930.  They were found on a University of Nebraska webpage (

Here is the 1857 map:

I thought the whole set of maps was interesting.  The author of the MNN article seemed to think that people traveled by train in the 1800 to 1830 time frame.  My sense is that people usually traveled by walking, horse, buggy, cart, wagon, coach and boat rather than using the train, at least until the train tracks and service was extended into the countryside.  Even when it was, persons disembarked from the train to travel away from the rail line.

I tried to think about how long it would have taken my Carringer ancestors to migrate from western Pennsylvania to southeastern Iowa in the 1860 time frame.  The map above implies that it would have taken about two days using the train.  However, if they went by wagon and roads, it likely took two weeks according to the 1830 map, if there were no problems with roads, equipment and livestock.

Using the 1830 map, I estimated that it took three to four weeks for my Smith ancestors to travel from Jefferson county, New York to Dodge County, Wisconsin in the 1840 time frame.

In 2013, I cannot imagine the patience and suffering it took to travel over rutted roads for weeks at a time.  I complain when there are two hour delays at the airport, or even a traffic jam on the freeway that delays me by minutes.

My thanks to Miles Meyer for highlighting the MNN post on Google+ today.

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Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Doug Williams said...

Excellent post, Randy. Thanks for sharing it. The information will certainly help me understand my ancestors' movement around the country during different times.

Jennifer Alford said...

Very helpful! I've often wondered how long it would take my ancestors to travel from their point of immigration to the US (Philly) to the Chicago area. Now I know where to look. Thanks!

Erica said...

my ancestors who went from vermont to wisconsin in 1843 by wagon (according to family stories). No railroads on their route!

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Whether today or 200 years ago, time and money generally controlled travel well as available modes, where one wants/needs to go. Time and money were VERY DIFFERENT 200 years ago. Great discussion topic! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

You can be sure people didn't travel by train between 1800 and 1830; the first commercial railroad in the world was opened in England in 1825. The first in the US, the Baltimore & Ohio, opened -- with 13 miles of track -- in 1830. The first transcontinental railroad, of course, was completed in 1865, demonstrating the rapid expansion of that era!