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Traveling the National Road, 1833

Gateway to America's Frontier
Winding through the Allegheny Mountains from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia, the National Road provided a gateway for early America to the beckoning lands of Ohio and beyond. It was first proposed in 1802 as the Territory of Ohio began its journey to statehood. The project gained steam the following year with the addition of the Louisiana Purchase to US territory. In 1806 President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation that the paved the way for the road’s construction and the initiation of America’s first national public works project.

Construction of the National Road began in 1811 and followed the path of old buffalo and Indian trails through the Allegheny Mountains to the plains of the Mid West. At its completion in 1839 it stretched all the way to Vandalia, Illinois. Sections of the road were populated with turnpikes that charged a fee to travelers. It was a bustling conduit to the West for pioneers and traders.

The road's use declined with the advent of the railroad in the 1850’s. However the introduction of the automobile in the early twentieth century led to the reinvigoration of the National Road and its conversion to a federal highway – Rt. 40. Today, the National Road again provides an essential gateway to the West.

"A covered one-horse wagon generally contains the whole worldly substance of a family consisting not un-frequently of a dozen members."

Charles Hoffman traveled the National Road in the early 1830’s and recorded his observations. We join his journey as he describes those who trek the road by foot:

"Apropos of pedestrians, though your true western man generally journeys on horseback, yet one meets numbers of the former on this side [the western side] of the Alleghenies. They generally have a tow-cloth knapsack, or light leathern valise, hung across their backs, and are often very decently dressed in a blue coat, gray trousers, and round hat. They travel about forty miles a day.

The horsemen almost invariably wear a drab great-coat, fur cap, and green cloth leggins; and in addition to a pair of well-filled saddle-bags, very often have strapped to their crupper a convenience the last you would expect to find in the wardrobe of a backwoodsman, videlicit, an umbrella.

The females of every rank, in this mountainous country, ride in short dresses. They are generally wholly unattended, and sometimes in large parties of their own sex. The saddles and housings of their horses are very gay; and I have repeatedly seen a party of four or five buxom damsels, mounted on sorry-looking beasts, whose rough hides, unconscious of a currycomb, contrasted oddly enough with saddles of purple velvet, reposing on scarlet saddle-cloths, worked with orange-colored borders. . .The effect of these gay colors, as you catch a glimpse of them afar off, fluttering through the woods, is by no means bad. They would show well in a picture, and be readily seized by a painter in relieving the shadows of a somber landscape.

But by far the greatest portion of travelers one meets with, not to mention the ordinary stage-coach passengers, consists of teamsters and the emigrants. The former generally drive six horses before their enormous wagons-stout, heavy-looking beasts, descended, it is said, from the famous draught horses of Normandy. They go about twenty miles a day. The leading horses are often ornamented with a number of bells suspended from a square raised frame-work over their collars, originally adopted to warn these lumbering machines of each other's approach, and prevent their being brought up all standing in the narrow parts of the road.

As for the emigrants, it would astonish you to witness how they get along. A covered one-horse wagon generally contains the whole worldly substance of a family consisting not un-frequently of a dozen members. The tolls are so high along this western turnpike, and horses are comparatively so cheap in the region whither the emigrant is bound, that he rarely provides more than one miserable Rosinante [the horse of Don Quixote] to transport his whole family to the far west. The strength of the poor animal is of course half the time unequal to the demand upon it, and you will, therefore, unless it be raining very hard, rarely see anyone in the wagon, except perhaps some child overtaken by sickness, or a mother nursing a young infant.

The head of the family walks by the horse, cheering and encouraging him on his way. The good woman, when not engaged as hinted above, either trudges along with her husband, or, leading some weary little traveler by the hand far behind, endeavors to keep the rest of her charge from loitering by the wayside. The old house-dog-if not chained beneath the wagon to prevent the half-starved brute from foraging too freely in a friendly country-brings up the rear.

I made acquaintance with more than one of these faithful followers in passing, by throwing him a biscuit as I rode by, and my canine friend, when we met at an inn occasionally afterward, was sure to cultivate the intimacy. Sometimes these invaluable companions give out on the road, and in their broken-down condition are sold for a trifle by their masters. I saw several fine setters which I had reason to suspect came into the country in this way; and the owner of a superb brindled greyhound which I met among the mountains, told me that he had bought him from an English emigrant for a dollar. He used the animal with great success upon deer, and had already been offered fifty dollars for him.

'Well, young man, I understand you are a carpenter by trade.'

The hardships of such a tour must form no bad preparatory school for the arduous life which the new settler has afterward to enter upon. Their horses, of course, frequently give out on the road; and in companies so numerous, sickness must frequently overtake some of the members. Nor should I wonder at serious accidents often occurring with those crank conveyances among the precipices and ravines of the mountains. At one place I saw a horse, but recently dead, lying beneath a steep, along the top of which the road led; and a little farther in advance I picked up a pocketbook with some loose leaves floating near the edge of the precipice."

    This account appears in Hoffman, Charles Fenno, A winter in the west, by a New-Yorker (1835, republished 1966)

How To Cite This Article:
Traveling the National Road, 1833, EyeWitness to History, (2009).