Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting Around: Travel in the 18th Century

We've all heard it; we all know it.  Travel in the 18th century was just not what it is today.  But the details of what it was like are usually obscured.  Blurry images of dirty taverns, idyllic horseback rides, or "Lord of the Rings" style treks through the mountains kind of get mixed together in my mind's eye--even though I am a historian who's supposed to know better.  So I thought I'd take a few minutes to dig up some real references to historic travel to share today.

The conditions of travel may not have been as smooth or safe as they are today, but this was not enough to prevent people from getting around.  The Livingstons traveled a lot.  At the very least, twice a year they packed up and migrated between Clermont and New York City.  Short day trips to surrounding areas like Kingston, Rhinebeck, and even Newburgh were also a part of their lives, as well as longer journeys to Albany, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and even Europe. 

Perhaps the biggest difference in historic travel was just how unpredictable it was.  While today we are used to train/plane schedules and consistent car travel times, the 18th century knew no such luxury.

Travel on rivers and waterways generally offered the most speed (for a fee), and travelers could book passage on packet boats that provided regular service up and down the river.  However before a reliable steamboat was developed in 1807, sloops and other boats were still dependent on environmental factors.  Along the Hudson River, at Clermont's front door, the tide and wind could assist or hinder travel, depending on the day.  At any given given moment, your trip could be put on hold because Mother Nature said so. This meant that the trip from New York to Albany could take anywhere from 3 to 7 days!

"Having a contrary wind and an ebb tide, we dropped anchor about half a mile below New York, and went ashore upon Nutting Island..." wrote traveler Dr. Alexander Hamilton in 1744.  When he was finally within sight of Albany several days later, the wind again turned against them, and he was forced to transfer his baggage to a canoe and paddle the rest of the way.

Several decades later, in 1797, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz wrote of his trip south from Albany to Clermont, "The day was fair and hot without any wind at all.  The tide carried us slowly for six hours; the next six we again had to ride at anchor."

Niemcewicz set out from Albany on August 12th and arrived at Clermont on the morning of the 14th (today I can do this drive in about an hour).  The boat dropped anchor and sat to wait out unfavorable conditions two separate times for several hours each.  They also sat still in the evenings when darkness made travel dangerous.

Hamilton's journey was lengthened by the fact that he could not at first find a boat that was ready to leave.  Although he wished to leave New York for Albany on June 20th, he couldn't get passage until the afternoon of the 21st.  At one o'clock on the 24th he passed by Clermont and Livingston Manor, and he arrived in Albany at eleven o'clock on the 25th.  His journey between Clermont and Albany was about ten to fourteen hours shorter than Niemcewicz's.

Traveling by land was not much more reliable, being also subject to weather and daylight, as well as bad roads, water crossings, and an assortment of discomforts.  Water crossings were an imposing part of many journeys.  Although she recorded few details of her journey from Philadelphia to New York in 1783, Nancy Shippen took special note of crossing the North River (Hudson) on General Washington's barge.  Sarah Kamble Night's largely overland journey from Boston to New have, Ct in 1704 cataloged a wide assortment of discomforts and dangers.  Almost as soon as her journey began she had two water crossings, each more difficult than the last.  The first her guide recommended that they ford on horseback, but Madam Knight refused and instead road over the river in a canoe (which she of course had to pay for), while her guide lead her horse across.  She was terrified and sat frozen for the entire ride.


At the next crossing there was no option but to ford it on horseback in the dark.  Her guide informed her that "there was a bad River we were to Ride thro', [Which] was so very firce a hors could sometimes hardly stem it: But it was but narrow, and wee should soon be over. I cannot express The concern of mind this relation sett me in..."  The dangers of a horse losing its footing and casting rider into the water (with a giant struggling animal to contend with) would have been magnified after dark.

Dr. Alexander Hamilton recorded 13 river crossings on his journey from Annapolis to New York, each of which required stopping to negotiate payment with the boatman and other small delays, including once waiting for the boatman to finish a mean dinner with his wife.  Most of his crossings were on ferries, whose large, flat bottoms could accommodate his horse and the one on which his slave rode.


Travel on the road was done on horseback or in a wagon when it was possible, and that brought with it it's own peculiarities.  Niemcewicz "hired a horse" to go from Albany to Cohoes.  Dr.  Hamilton recorded on his journey that "Mr. Quiet rid a little scrub bay mare, which he said was sick and ailing, and could not carry him, and therefore he lighted every half mile and ran a couple of miles at a footman's pace, to "spell the poor beast."

At other times it was the quality of the road that was lacking.  Sarah Kemble Knight wrote of one location where the road narrowed to little better than a trail, and "on each side the Trees and bushes gave us very unpleasent welcomes wth their Branches and bow's, wch wee could not avoid, it being so exceeding dark."  She did rather a lot of traveling in the dark, something which frightened her greatly.  One one stretch of road near Annapolis, Dr. Hamilton noted  "The road here is pretty hilly, stony, and full of a small gravel," and another in Pennsylvania proved more favorable, "The roads here are exceeding good and even, but dusty in the summer, and deep in the winter season."

Niemcewicz was caught in a thunderstorm well outside of Albany but had because of his isolated location had to ride "for five miles through the storm before I found shelter at an isolated inn," where he waited it out.  Without company beside him, this afternoon trip turned boring and monotonous.  "All alone on my horse in the midst of the wild and unbroken monotony of the forest my thoughts wandered with sad memories..."  I'm not sure if that could be considered equivalent to modern "highway hypnosis."

At other times, travelers rode in vehicles.  The array of coaches, carriages, and wagons is dizzying, and each of them has its own name.  In Albany, members of the public could book passage on a one of the daily stages to Schenectady in 1797.  Finely-constructed Carriages (like one at left from Colonial Williamsburg) were for the wealthy.  Niemcewicz shared one during a rainstorm with General Schuyler near Albany.  Walter Livingston at Teviotdale in Germantown babied his, it was purchased at such great expense.  Nancy Shippen road in her family's through the streets of Philadelphia, and Margaret Beekman took hers with her when she fled the oncoming English army in 1777.  Niemcewizc even once road with a party of Livingston ladies in a humble hay rick!

Suffice to say, these still suffered from many of the weather-related issues of horseback travel (although a covered carriage with a driver could still be used in rain, as Niemcewicz demonstrated) and were more subject to road problems and fording issues.

The last little piece of travel I think I can squeeze into this blog is that of lodging.  Inns and taverns afforded anonymous food and lodging for many, but may not have always provided an agreeable experience.  Several facts of historic travel could be jarring to the modern American, in particular the common sharing of beds, whether you knew your bedfellow or not.  At one inn in Pennsylvania Dr. Hamilton wrote, "I went to bed at nine at night; my landlord, his wife, daughters, and I lay all in one room."   Although Sarah Kemble Knight's room was "neet and handsome," she could not get to sleep because of noisy drunks next door.  

Food, particularly when facing regional differences could also be questionable.  Madam Knight wrote of a meal of unfamiliar food that turned her stomach but, "being hungry, [I] gott a little down; but my stomach was soon cloy'd, and what cabbage I swallowed serv'd me for a Cudd the whole day after."  But the food was not always bad, as Dr. Hamilton found, "I supped upon roasted oysters, while my landlord eat roasted ears of corn at another table."

More often than not, it seemed to be the unusual characters and conversations that marked a journey.  Nancy Shippen described few encounters on her trip from Philadelphia to Clermont but for one at an inn in Poughkeepsie.  When she asked the landlady to keep her company, she found gossip about her poor relationship with her husband.  The landlady was suitably embarrassed.

Hamiliton's descriptions are my undisputed favorite as he often derisively wrote about behaviors he considered beneath him.  Drunkeness, cursing, and unusual habits were all fair game (making me believe he also took a secret pleasure in them as well).  Of one man he wrote, "We could scarcely get rid of this fellow, till we made him so drunk with rum that he could not walk."  And once in a tavern he observed, "These two old maids would sit, one at each side of Van Bibber and tease him, while his wife pretended to scold all the time, as if she was jealous, and he would look like a goose."  (I will let curious readers go looking for the passages that are less suitable for a general audience)  It should be noted that Hamilton also had a bit of an eye for the ladies.  I will have to let curious readers go looking on their own for the passages that are less suitable for a general audience.

Travelers in good standing could often find lodging at the homes of other wealthy individuals.  Niemcewicz dropped in on Clermont on August 14th, 1797 and later found lodging at the nearby home of the Armstrongs as well.  Nancy Shippen stopped for breakfast with Martha Washington (at right) at Newburgh, and a family story puts Reverend Hartwick at Clermont for so long that Margaret Beekman Livingston wasn't sure how to get rid of him.  Letters of introduction from mutual friends might pave the way to stay in the home of an other wise stranger.

Good hospitality (for the right kind of guest) was the mark of a well-to-do family.  Margaret Beekman Livingston entertained Martha Washington for three days in June of 1782, though she came without warning when her husband was called to Albany on business. And her son the Chancellor treated William Strickland in 1794 with an exquisite spread of pasties and confectioneries at dessert.

Whether travel experiences were good or bad, it didn't stop people from getting around.  Americans moved about in an assortment of ways, often incorporating multiple modes of transportation in one journey: horse to carriage, carriage to sloop, sloop to canoe.  People often moved in groups, accompanied by family members or servants, or they traveled alone and faced the boredom and monotony of the road (still a familiar feeling).  They crossed rivers and waterways with care, remembering the dangers, fearing the unknown, or trusting professionals to get them across safely.  Travel's biggest problem was unpredictability: weather, food, lodging, and more could hold a new surprise or stumbling block along the way.  In fact, it seemed like the only thing you could count on was that your plans would change as you traveled. 

So the next time my plane is late or I am sighing in line at the tollbooth (I am apparently not the last person on Earth to get an EZ Pass), what I need to remember is to keep it in perspective.  At least I don't have to share a room with strangers at my hotel.

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