Join 3,555 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How did people get around in 1800?
October 18, 2006 7:14 AM   Subscribe

What was the predominant means of transportation for the common american man in 1800?

Any other resources regarding things like life expectancy, average height/weight, etc. for u.s. citizens in 1800 interest me, but mainly interested in what sort of transportation they used, or were aware of.
posted by davidvan to Society & Culture (20 answers total)
 
the horse
posted by mattbucher at 7:19 AM on October 18, 2006


Feet.
posted by orthogonality at 7:23 AM on October 18, 2006


shanks pony
posted by the cuban at 7:24 AM on October 18, 2006


Where I live a man was expected to be good on horseback.
People that were urban middle class often owned a buggy and would rent a horse from a livery stable in town, there is a street called equestrian street near the town center that was the place to go to rent a horse. Some towns had mule drawn streetcars until the electric came in.
posted by Iron Rat at 7:28 AM on October 18, 2006


Walking, and then horse.

There's an interesting scene in either The Hamlet or The Town by Faulkner, which, while much later (~1910?) does a good job of dramatizing the switch from feet and horses to cars. The whole Snopes trilogy, really, does a good job of narrating the rise of urbanism in the US. But, anyway, it's all about the first car in the country and the kinds of changes it brings (including a well-written but clearly symbolic death of the area's oldest (white) citizen, who had fought in the Civil War.
posted by OmieWise at 7:31 AM on October 18, 2006


The steam locomotive (1803) for long distance travel.
posted by tellurian at 7:52 AM on October 18, 2006


No one's mentioning water transport. He would have had access to rowing boats and sailboats, and steamboats become viable in the 1810s.

The steam locomotive (1803) for long distance travel.


The lomocomotive yes, but Wikipedia has the first locomotive-powered railroad as 1829, and the first passenger railroad in 1830, and even later for anything "long distance" (first transcontinental is not until 1869).
posted by cillit bang at 8:06 AM on October 18, 2006


Definitely walking.
posted by davy at 8:13 AM on October 18, 2006


Iron Rat, how would they get from home to Equestrian Street to rent a horse? They'd walk, right?
posted by davy at 8:15 AM on October 18, 2006


In 1800 there were about 5 million Americans. This table shows the distribution in the cities. Apparently the large majority of Americans did not live in cities. In rural areas, they would be more dependent on the horse, especially if their means of life was farming. I doubt if all the farmers had horses at that time. The average city dwellers probably did not have horses either. The steamship came into its own by 1807 and was probably expensive to travel on until much later.

I'd say the average american got around by foot or wagon in 1800. either horse drawn wagon or oxen driven.
posted by JJ86 at 8:22 AM on October 18, 2006


You got me there cillit bang. Strike my answer.
posted by tellurian at 8:46 AM on October 18, 2006


Feet, according to Guns, Germs and Steel.
posted by parmanparman at 8:55 AM on October 18, 2006


Walking to get around town (or into town). Horse (perhaps with cart) if you had the money for a horse and were going a longer distance; horses can be more pain in the ass than they're worth for short distances. Raft and boat and ship for long distances, when possible, such as up and down a river or along a coast ; horse and cart otherwise. No trains. No planes. No cars. No rockets.
posted by pracowity at 8:55 AM on October 18, 2006


Horse drawn Hackney Carriages apparently came about in 1662, across the pond. PBS has a Taxi History site which says "By the end of the 19th century, automobiles began to appear on city streets throughout the country. It was not long before a number of these cars were hiring themselves out in competition with horse-drawn carriages."

So it sounds like city dwellers did have some options beyond foot. If western movies are anything to go by, some of these carriages made long distance trips to other cities, and the river system did quite a job of transporting people as well. My great grandfather was a steamboat pilot in the 1880s and 1890s in Charleston, WV. You can trace the rivers on Google maps and the like and see how far you can get based on rivers alone. They are very extensive.
posted by jwells at 8:57 AM on October 18, 2006


Walking for short to moderate distances (a day's journey or less). For longer trips, most likely the traveler would hitch a ride on a wagon or a flatboat headed in the right direction. He might either pay a small amount, do some casual labor for the driver of the vehicle, or in some cases he might be welcomed just for company. Further up the social ladder, the middle class would probably travel in coaches over land for medium distances or else by ship for longer jaunts (e.g., Boston to Charleston).

For the "common man," a horse was primarily a work animal, so saddling up and riding would mostly be reserved for an emergency (e.g., fetching the doctor when someone broke a leg) or else a special leisure treat.

Wealthier people might have a horse or team of horses reserved for transportation, and in the city you could probably find a hack (buggy and horse) for hire.

But if you needed one default method of transportation for the poor, that would be walking.
posted by La Cieca at 9:12 AM on October 18, 2006


davidvan, I assume in the original post you are talking specifically about the year 1800 and not the entire century? Obviously things changed quite a bit over the entire century from 1800 to 1899.
posted by JJ86 at 9:28 AM on October 18, 2006


And in the winter time: snow shoes. sleds and perhaps some form of basic skis (prior to the arrival of the downhill binding).
posted by rongorongo at 9:30 AM on October 18, 2006


Davy, if they walked to the stable, they probably went farther with a horse than they walked. But yeah, people walked all over back then.
posted by Iron Rat at 10:26 AM on October 18, 2006


There were a variety of methods depending on economic class, and where you were going.

As an example, the fur trade into the interior of North America relied on light boats that could be carried overland around rapids and waterfalls. Some of the key forts in the Northwest Territories were positioned at portages that made easy crossings between river systems.

Boats were probably even more important than horses. Construction of the Erie Canal provided a key route between the Great Lakes and the Hudson. The Lewis and Clark expedition boated much of the way to the West Coast using the Missouri and Columbia rivers, and most of the products produced in the Mississippi watershed were shipped to New Orleans by flatboat, then to larger markets.

Ground travel was dismal. To start with, the Appalachian Range was a huge barrier in 1800. Most roads were dirt tracks, with log roads used rarely. Ferries were few and far between. As a result, most of the migration into the old Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Purchase came via the Mississipi and the Great Lakes. Even as late as the '49 Gold Rush, those that could, chose to make the ocean journey around South America over land travel.

As an example of how bad it was, it was cheaper in the early 1800s to transport a ton of goods from England to the United States than it was to transport a ton of goods overland by turnpike. The cost of shipping grain from Buffalo to NYC was more than the market price of grain in NYC. (Which was a factor behind the Wiskey Rebellion.) Overland travel really didn't take off economically until the railroad.

Animal power was certainly important, but shouldn't be overestimated. Humans are better at long distances than almost any animal on the planet. Animal power not only included horses, but also oxen, mules, donkeys and dogs. Oxen had the advantage of being a byproduct of dairy and meat production. Mules and donkeys were sometimes preferred for their durability in harsh conditions. Sometimes the driver rode in the cart, sometimes not. Many of the familes on the Oregon Trail didn't have room on the wagon for everyone, so most walked. Dogs were also used by some Native American groups as pack animals.

Horses and carriages were important status symbols though. So if you could pay for it, you did.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:06 AM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


just to clarify, jj86, I did mean the year 1800 specifically - not all of the 1800s.

thanks to all...
posted by davidvan at 7:58 PM on October 18, 2006


« Older So George W. Bush, Hillary Cli...   |  Has anyone seen software for w... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.