Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Cross-Country Travel in the 1800s – by Donna Schlachter – with giveaway


We take a lot for granted today when we hop in our car or line up at the airport or consider taking a train across the country. Not only did travel in the 1800s take tens or hundreds of times longer than today, it was far more dangerous, expensive in relation to the cost of living, and uncomfortable.

Regardless of the mode of travel, just about every trip could prove deadly. From runaway horses to buffalo blocking the rail line, to your ship sinking in a storm or your canoe or barge sinking in a flash flood, your arrival was never a done deal.

But the 1800s were a time of immense progress, and the tales of rich soil and forests and gold fields west of the Mississippi lured many. In fact, many of those tales were fabricated by men who’d never even been west of the Old Man River.

Photo Courtesy of Donna Schlachter

Expansion to the west began primarily by settlers following in the tracks of previous explorers, hunters, and trackers. Employing covered wagons, these settlers left most of their lives behind, trading it for a pair or two of oxen or mules, a wagon, and enough supplies to last for several months. Prices for food, clothing, and wagon parts were inflated along the trail because mercantiles and way stations knew they had little competition. But fording rivers, dysentery, and attacks from Indians killed many. It’s said that there is a body buried every mile along the Oregon Trail.

Other dangers included horses stampeding, hunger, getting caught in an early storm in the mountains, losing the trail and perishing from hunger, not packing enough water to cross the desert, along with animal attacks, snake bites, and the various maladies that come along, including appendicitis, broken limbs, and childbirth.

Westward travelers typically left from one of three points: Independence, MO; Saint Joseph, MO; or Council Bluffs, IA. The trails from these cities converged in central Nebraska, following the local rivers across Nebraska and Wyoming. On the western side of the Continental Divide, the Mormon Trail led to Salt Like City, while the Oregon-California Trail took settlers to Idaho. Journeys usually left in the spring to avoid winter storms, but often an early storm caught travelers unawares.

While the Oregon Trail was one of the best-known roads—if it were to be called such—the Cumberland Road transformed the country around the turn of the 1800s. It was the first road funded by the federal government, and it took decades to complete. By 1825, the road was celebrated in song, story, painting, and poetry. It ran from Cumberland, Maryland and terminated in Vandalia, Illinois. While we wouldn’t consider it cross-country today, it crossed the known union of the time.

From Wikipedia Common Files

Traveling by steamboat was usually much more pleasant, unless you ran aground, as Mark Twain did. Steamboats were popular passage on the Mississippi, although there were other routes, as well, such as Providence to New York. Sailing on the seaward side, strong gales often threatened passengers and ships alike.

From Wikipedia Common Files

Canals were thought to be the next best thing. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, reduced the time it took to get from New York to Chicago in half, plus it was much more comfortable than riding in a carriage on a gravel or unpaved road.

One comment often made about the ships was that the food was excellent, even compared to the finest of hotels. However, while the cruise sounds luxurious, calm, and filled with good food, not all was well. In some cases, the bridges were so low that folks had to lay flat on the deck to avoid being decapitated.

From Wikipedia Common Files

Railroad passenger travel has almost disappeared today due to other faster modes of transportation, but in 1812, it was still a dream that passengers could travel almost as fast as a bird (15-20 miles an hour). With speeds like that, they could set out from Washington in the morning, breakfast in Baltimore, midday meal in Philadelphia, and supper in New York the same day.

In 1827, the first thirteen miles of track opened, and because there was a lot of money to be made, expansion happened quickly. However, with no government oversight and substandard construction, train derailments happened often and people died.

Westward expansion of the railroad was slow to catch on, however, mostly because of the Rocky Mountains. Laying rail along that path seemed a fool’s errand. Instead, individual local railroads cropped up, unconnected or duplicative. With the local expansion of railroads, technically, track only needed to be laid between Nebraska and California. Now folks could travel from one end of the country to the other in less than four days, so long as there were no washouts, bison or cattle herds blocking the rail, deep snow, floods…

Passengers asserted that the train seating was far more comfortable than a stagecoach, a covered wagon, or a horse.

From Wikipedia Common Files

Prior to land crossings, the only way to get from one coast to the other was via a ship southward, around Cape Horn, then north, for the better part of a year. Being on the sea for an extended time like that increased your chances of falling ill or getting injured or even dying. Re-supplying along the way meant opportunities to run amuck of the local natives, who were often distrustful of white people.


In my book, Tina, we find an orphaned young woman who lives in a covered wagon in Loveland, Colorado, who is left in charge of her younger sisters. She must earn money to feed and house them, but when she falls victim to danger, what will she do? You can check out the book here:  and the series here:




About Donna:

A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 60 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both, and is an avid oil painter. She also coaches writers at any stage of their manuscript. Learn more at

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  1. Thank you for posting today. I've always been fascinated by stories of the brave people who traveled from one side of the country to the other.

  2. Donna, I enjoyed this post. Train travel is coming back. I'd like to do a cross country trip in a sleeper car just for the experience. I visited a train museum where they had train cars you could tour. Considering how cramped a stage coach was I can see why they felt a train was more comfortable. Still there was the smoke from the coal engine that often floated on the breeze into the train cars. And if you road third class you sat on a wooden bench rather than cushioned seats.Still it was a far safer choice to reach your destination than any other. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love reading about travel in the 1800's, especially by wagon train.

  4. Very interesting I imagine there were a lot of perils. My Grandmother traveled by Covered wagon from Missouri to Arkansas and she said people would not even give them water to drink.