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Travel then and now

It isn’t often that The Legal Genealogist reads something and then stops dead.

But sitting on a transcontinental airplane yesterday, cruising along at 30,000+ feet, reading news and commentary on my laptop with an onboard wifi connection, I ran across a statement that really did stop me dead in my tracks.

travelTim Urban, in a blog post about his grandmother and a conversation he had with her and how it sparked his thinking about all of his ancestors and cousins, wrote these words: “for most of human history, people spent most of their lives in the same five mile radius.”1

Think about that for a minute: “for most of human history, people spent most of their lives in the same five mile radius.”

Think about how far you drove yesterday. Where you’ll go this weekend. What you have planned for your next vacation. And then juxtapose that with Urban’s statement: “for most of human history, people spent most of their lives in the same five mile radius.”

I can assure you, I’m thinking about it right now — one day and 3,000 miles away from my east coast home.

One of the first of my ancestors to arrive in America was William Pettypool, likely the same William christened on 20 October 1630 at St. Dunstan’s Church in the village of Stepney. He arrived as an indentured servant in the 1650s.2

The likely time for his trip, according to an 18th century German schoolmaster: two months, maybe a little more, maybe a little less:

When the ships have for the last time weighed their anchors near the city of Kaupp [Cowes] in Old England, the real misery begins with the long voyage. For from there the ships, unless they have good wind, must often sail 8, 9, 10 to 12 weeks before they reach Philadelphia. But even with the best wind the voyage lasts 7 weeks.3

Even with the best wind… seven weeks.

In the 1770s, “a covered wagon service known as the ‘flying machine,’ operated by John Mercereau during the 1770s, was advertised as a miracle of speed because it covered the 100-mile distance between New York City and Philadelphia in only a day and a half.”4

Around the same time, a fourth great granduncle acquired lands in Kentucky; he lived in Virginia. And, then, “a trip to Kentucky from the East, if expeditiously performed and free from accident, required from one month to two months for its accomplishment. The time spent on the road depended on the season of the year and point of departure.”5

In the 1850s, my third great grandparents Martin and Elizabeth (Buchanan) Baker set out from their home in Pulaski County, Kentucky, en route to Louisa County, Iowa. There are no records showing the date when they left or the date when they arrived; we only know the year, 1852.

So what was travel like in the middle of the 19th century? By 1848,

Nearly a hundred little railroads, from five miles to a hundred and fifty miles long were scattered over the eastern states and a score or more of similar roads were likewise in actual operation in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and the interior common wealths of the South. The navigable streams of the East were dotted with steamboats, and nearly six hundred such craft were busy on the Ohio, Mississippi and other interior rivers. These were being blown up, burned, sunk by snags or otherwise destroyed at the rate of a hundred or more a year, and were being replaced just as rapidly. A thousand stage-coaches ceaselessly rolled over the turnpikes between the cities and towns. The nation’s facilities for communication had so multiplied and increased in excellence that with good luck a traveller could make any ordinary long journey in a week’s time, and but little more than two weeks were necessary, under favorable circumstances, in accomplishing the most extensive trip possible within the limits of the country just defined.6

I’m sure my folks traveled with others, using covered wagons or oxcarts. Their likely progress:

“Once on the road, emigrants could expect to travel 12 to 20 miles a day, under the best conditions. In the immense open spaces of the Great Plains, this frequently meant that settlers stopped for the night within sight of their previous day’s campsite. In poor conditions — when the ground was muddy or rocky, when there were rivers to be crossed, or when there were hills to be climbed — emigrants might toil all day long to progress less than five miles.”7

Some of my folks — and yours, too, perhaps — made it to the west after the transcontinental railroads came. The coming of the rails brought much shorter travel times. “By 1869, the Pacific Coast was only four days from Omaha, and … ‘an officer of the army recently returned in forty hours over a distance which required a march of sixty-four days in 1866.’”8

Yet even by 1900, even with the proliferation of railroads, “beyond a ten to-twelve-mile radius of the stations, most farmers lived in isolation, able to reach the outside world only by riding horses over dirt trails.”9

In 1925, my father and grandparents set out on the S.S. George Washington from Bremen, Germany, on the 28th of January. They arrived in New York on the 6th of February.10 Nine days to cross what my Pettypool ancestor crossed in about nine weeks.

A distance we can cross today in hours.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

It does me… as I am, here, today… one day and 3,000 miles away from my east coast home.


Image: stock image blended with jet, user philrich123,

  1. Tim Urban, “Your Family: Past, Present, and Future,” Wait But Why, posted 29 Jan 2014 ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014).
  2. Carolyn Hartsough, “The First Generation- William Pettypool (m. Ann Smith) 1630 – 1668,” The Pettypool Family in America ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014).
  3. Gottlieb Mittelberger On the Misfortune indentured Servants,” American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, University of Groningen, Netherlands ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014).
  4. Gale Encyclopedia of US History: Transportation And Travel,” ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014).
  5. Seymour Dunbar, A History of Travel in America, vol. 1 (Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill, 1915), 160; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014).
  6. Dunbar, A History of Travel in America, vol. 3, 1096-1097.
  7. Christopher W. Czajka, “Hardship Without Glory: Life on the Trail,” Homestead History, Frontier House, Frontier Life, ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014).
  8. Richard White, “Transcontinental Railroads: Compressing Time and Space,” History Now, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014).
  9. Gale Encyclopedia of US History: Transportation And Travel,” ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014).
  10. Manifest, S.S. George Washington, Jan-Feb 1925, p. 59 (stamped), lines 4-6, Geissler family; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, ( : accessed 30 Jan 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
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