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The Paths of Inland Commerce; A Chronicle of Trail, Road, and Waterway By Archer Butler Hulbert Characters: 22421

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The Passing Show Of 1800

Foreign travelers who have come to the United States have always proved of great interest to Americans. From Brissot to Arnold Bennett, while in the country they have been fed and clothed and transported wheresoever they would go-at the highest prevailing prices. And after they have left, the records of their sojourn that these travelers have published have made interesting reading for Americans all over the land. Some of these trans-Atlantic visitors have been jaundiced, disgruntled, and contemptuous; others have shown themselves of an open nature, discreet, conscientious, and fair-minded.

One of the most amiable and clear-headed of such foreign guests was Francis Baily, later in life president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain, but at the time of his American tour a young man of twenty-two. His journey in 1796-97 gave him a wide experience of stage, flatboat, and pack-horse travel, and his genial disposition, his observant eye, and his discriminating criticism, together with his comments on the commercial features of the towns and regions he visited, make his record particularly interesting and valuable to the historian. 1 Using Baily's journal as a guide, therefore, one can today journey with him across the country and note the passing show as he saw it in this transitional period.

1 Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 and 1797 by the late Francis Baily (London, 1856).

Landing at Norfolk, Virginia, Baily was immediately introduced to an American tavern. Like most travelers, he was surprised to find that American taverns were "boarding-places," frequented by crowds of "young, able-bodied men who seemed to be as perfectly at leisure as the loungers of ancient Europe." In those days of few newspapers, the tavern everywhere in America was the center of information; in fact, it was a common practice for travelers in the interior, after signing their names in the register, to add on the same page any news of local interest which they brought with them. The tavern habitués, Baily remarks, did not sit and drink after meals but "wasted" their time at billiards and cards. The passion for billiards was notorious, and taverns in the most out-of-the-way places, though they lacked the most ordinary conveniences, were nevertheless provided with billiard tables. This custom seems to have been especially true in the South; and it is significant that the first taxes in Tennessee levied before the beginning of the nineteenth century were the poll tax and taxes on billiard tables and studhorses!

From Norfolk Baily passed northward to Baltimore, paying a fare of ten dollars, and from there he went on to Philadelphia, paying six dollars more. On the way his stagecoach stuck fast in a bog and the passengers were compelled to leave it until the next morning. This sixty-mile road out of Baltimore was evidently one of the worst in the East. Ten years prior to this date, Brissot, a keen French journalist, mentions the great ruts in its heavy clay soil, the overturned trees which blocked the way, and the unexampled skilfulness of the stage drivers. All travelers in America, though differing on almost every other subject, invariably praise the ability of these sturdy, weather-beaten American drivers, their kindness to their horses, and their attention to their passengers. Harriet Martineau stated that, in her experience, American drivers as a class were marked by the merciful temper which accompanies genius, and their perfection in their art, their fertility of resource, and the gentleness with which they treated female fears and fretfulness, were exemplary.

In the City of Brotherly Love Baily notes the geniality of the people, who by many travelers are called aristocratic, and comments on Quaker opposition to the theater and the inconsequence of the Peale Museum, which travelers a generation later highly praise. Proceeding to New York at a cost of six dollars, he is struck by the uncouthness of the public buildings, churches excepted, the widespread passion for music, dancing, and the theater, the craze for sleighing, and the promise which the harbor gave of becoming the finest in America. Not a few travelers in this early period gave expression to their belief in the future greatness of New York City. These prophecies, taken in connection with the investment of eight millions of dollars which New Yorkers made in toll-roads in the first seven years of this new century, incline one to believe that the influence of the Erie Canal as a factor in the development of the city may have been unduly emphasized, great though it was.

From New York Baily returned to Baltimore and went on to Washington. The records of all travelers to the site of the new national capital give much the same picture of the countryside. It was a land worn out by tobacco culture and variously described as "dried up," "run down," and "hung out to dry." Even George Washington, at Mount Vernon, was giving up tobacco culture and was attempting new crops by a system of rotation. Cotton was being grown in Maryland, but little care was given to its culture and manufacture. Tobacco was graded in Virginia in accordance with the rigidity of its inspection at Hanover Court House, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and Cabin-Point: leaf worth sixteen shillings at Richmond was worth twenty-one at Hanover Court House; if it was refused at all places, it was smuggled to the West Indies or consumed in the country. Meadows were rapidly taking the place of tobacco-fields, for the planters preferred to clear new land rather than to enrich the old.

At Washington Baily found that lots to the value of $278,000 had been sold, although only one-half of the proposed city had been "cleared." It was to be forty years ere travelers could speak respectfully of what is now the beautiful city of Washington. In these earlier days, the streets were mudholes divided by vacant fields and "beautified by trees, swamps, and cows."

Departing for the West by way of Frederick, Baily, like all travelers, was intensely interested upon entering the rich limestone region which stretched from Pennsylvania far down into Virginia. It was occupied in part by the Pennsylvania Dutch and was so famous for its rich milk that it was called by many travelers the "Bonnyclabber Country." Most Englishmen were delighted with this region because they found here the good old English breed of horses, that is, the English hunter developed into a stout coach-horse. Of native breeds, Baily found animals of all degrees of strength and size down to hackneys of fourteen hands, as well as the "vile dog-horses," or pack-horses, whose faithful service to the frontier could in no wise be appreciated by a foreigner.

This region of Pennsylvania was as noted for its wagons as for its horses. It was this wheat-bearing belt that made the common freight-wagon in its colors of red and blue a national institution. It was in this region of rich, well-watered land that the maple tree gained its reputation. Men even prophesied that its delightful sap would prove a cure for slavery, for, if one family could make fifteen hundred pounds of maple sugar in a season, eighty thousand families could, at the same rate, equal the output of cane sugar each year from Santo Domingo!

The traveler at the beginning of the century noticed a change in the temper of the people as well as a change in the soil when the Bonnyclabber Country was reached. The time-serving attitude of the good people of the East now gave place to a "consciousness of independence" due, Baily remarks, to the fact that each man was self-sufficient and passed his life "without regard to the smiles and frowns of men in power." This spirit was handsomely illustrated in the case of one burly Westerner who was "churched" for fighting. Showing a surly attitude to the deacon-judges who sat on his case, he was threatened with civil prosecution and imprisonment. "I don't want freedom," he is said to have replied, bitterly; "I don't even want to live if I can't knock down a man who calls me a liar."

Pushing on westward by way of historic Sideling Hill and Bedford to Statlers, Baily found here a prosperous millstone quarry, which sold its stones at from fifteen to thirty dollars a pair. Twelve years earlier Washington had prophesied that the Alleghanies would soon be furnishing millstones equal to the best English burr. As he crossed the mountains Baily found that taverns charged the following schedule: breakfast, eighteen pence; dinner and supper from two shillings to two shillings and sixpence each. Traversing Laurel Hill, he reached Pittsburgh just at the time when it was awakening to activity as the trading center of the West.

In order to descend the Ohio, Baily obtained a flatboat, thirty-six feet long and twelve feet broad, which drew eighteen inches of water and was of ten tons burden. On the way downstream, Charleston and Wheeling were the principal settlements which Baily first noted. Ebenezer Zane, the founder of Wheeling, had just opened across Ohio the famous landward route from the Monongahela country to Kentucky, which it entered at Limestone, the present Maysville. This famous road, passing through Zanesville, Lancaster, and Chillicothe, though at that time safe only for men in parties, was a common route to and from Kentucky.

On such inland pathways as this, early travelers came to take for granted a hospitality not to be found on more frequented thoroughfares. In this hospitality, roughness and good will, cleanliness and filth, attempts to ape the style of Eastern towns and habits of the most primitive kind, were singularly blended. In one instance, the traveler might be cordially assigned by the landlord to a good position in "the first rush for a chance at the head of the table"; at the next stopping place he might be coldly turned away because the proprietor "had the gout" and his wife the "delicate blue-devils"; farther on, where "soap was unknown, nothing clean but birds, nothing industrious but pigs, and nothing happy but squirrels," Daniel Boone's daughter might be seen in high-heeled shoes, attended by white servants whose wages were a dollar a week, skirting muddy roads under a ten-dollar bonnet and a six-dollar parasol. Or, he might emerge from a lonely forest in Ohio or Indiana and come suddenly upon a party of neighbors at a dreary tavern, enjoying a corn shucking or a harvest home. Immediately dubbed "Doctor," "Squire," or "Colonel" by the hospitable merrymakers, the passer-by would be informed that he "should drink and lack no good thing." After he had retired, as likely as not his quarters would be invaded at one or two o'clock in the morning by the uproarious company, and the best refreshment of the house would be forced upon him with a hilarity "created by omnipotent whiskey." Sometimes, however, the traveler would encounter pitiful instances of loneliness in the wide-spreading forests. One man in passing a certain isolated cabin was implored by the woman who inhabited it to rest awhile and talk, since she was, she confessed, completely overwhelmed by "the lone


Every traveler has remarked upon the yellow pallor of the first inhabitants of the western forests and doubtless correctly attributed this sickly appearance to the effects of malaria and miasma. The psychic influences of the forest wilderness also weighed heavily upon the spirits of the settlers, although, as Baily notes, it was the newcomers who felt the depression to an exaggerated degree. As he says:

It is a feeling of confinement, which begins to damp the spirits, from this complete exclusion of distant objects. To travel day after day, among trees of a hundred feet high, is oppressive to a degree which those cannot conceive who have not experienced it; and it must depress the spirits of the solitary settler to pass years in this state. His visible horizon extends no farther than the tops of the trees which bound his plantation-perhaps five hundred yards. Upwards he sees the sun, and sky, and stars, but around him an eternal forest, from which he can never hope to emerge:-not so in a thickly settled district; he cannot there enjoy any freedom of prospect, yet there is variety, and some scope for the imprisoned vision. In a hilly country a little more range of view may occasionally be obtained; and a river is a stream of light as well as of water, which feasts the eye with a delight inconceivable to the inhabitants of open countries.

In direct contradiction to this longing for society was the passion which the first generation of pioneers had for the wilderness. When the population of one settlement became too thick, they were seized by an irresistible impulse to "follow the migration," as the expression went. The easy independence of the first hunter-agriculturalist was upset by the advance of immigration. His range was curtailed, his freedom limited. His very breath seems to have become difficult. So he sold out at a phenomenal profit, put out his fire, shouldered his gun, called his dog, and set off again in search of the solitude he craved.

Severe winter weather overtook Baily as he descended the Ohio River, until below Grave Creek floating ice wrecked his boat and drove him ashore. Here in the primeval forest, far from "Merrie England," Baily spent the Christmas of 1796 in building a new flatboat. This task completed, he resumed his journey. Passing Marietta, where the bad condition of the winter roads prevented a visit to a famous Indian mound, he reached Limestone. In due time he sighted Columbia, the metropolis of the Miami country. According to Baily, the sale of European goods in this part of the Ohio Valley netted the importers a hundred per cent. Prices varied with the ease of navigation. When ice blocked the Ohio the price of flour went up until it was eight dollars a barrel; whiskey was a dollar a gallon; potatoes, a dollar a bushel; and bacon, twelve cents a pound. At these prices, the total produce which went by Fort Massac in the early months of 1800 would have been worth on the Ohio River upwards of two hundred thousand dollars! In the preceding summer Baily quoted flour at Norfolk as selling at sixty-three shillings a barrel of 196 pounds, or double the price it was bringing on the ice-gorged Ohio. It is by such comparisons that we get some inkling of the value of western produce and of the rates in western trade.

After a short stay at Cincinnati, Baily set out for the South on an "Orleans boat" loaded with four hundred barrels of flour. At the mouth of Pigeon Creek he noted the famous path to "Post St. Vincent's" (Vincennes), over which he saw emigrants driving cattle to that ancient town on the Wabash. At Fort Massac he met Captain Zebulon M. Pike, whose tact in dealing with intoxicated Indians he commended. At New Madrid Baily made a stay of some days. This settlement, consisting of some two hundred and fifty houses, was in the possession of Spain. It was within the province of Louisiana, soon to be ceded to Napoleon. New Orleans supplied this district with merchandise, but smuggling from the United States was connived at by the Spanish officials.

From New Madrid Baily proceeded to Natchez, which then contained about eighty-five houses. The town did not boast a tavern, but, as was true of other places in the interior, this lack was made up for by the hospitality of its inhabitants. Rice and tobacco were being grown, Baily notes, and Georgian cotton was being raised in the neighborhood. Several jennies were already at work, and their owners received a royalty of one-eighth of the product. The cotton was sent to New Orleans, where it usually sold for twenty dollars a hundred weight. From Natchez to New Orleans the charge for transportation by flatboat was a dollar and a half a bag. The bags contained from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty pounds, and each flatboat carried about two hundred and fifty bags. Baily adds two items to the story of the development of the mechanical operation of watercraft. He tells us that in the fall of 1796 a party of "Dutchmen," in the Pittsburgh region, fashioned a boat with side paddle wheels which were turned by a treadmill worked by eight horses under the deck. This strange boat, which passed Baily when he was wrecked on the Ohio near Grave Creek, appeared "to go with prodigious swiftness." Baily does not state how much business the boat did on its downward trip to New Orleans but contents himself with remarking that the owners expected the return trip to prove very profitable. When he met the boat on its upward voyage at Natchez, it had covered three hundred miles in six days. It was, however, not loaded, "so little occasion was there for a vessel of this kind." As this run between New Orleans and Natchez came to be one of the most profitable in the United States in the early days of steamboating, less than fifteen years later, the experience of these "Flying Dutchmen" affords a very pretty proof that something more than a means of transportation is needed to create commerce. The owners abandoned their craft at Natchez in disgust and returned home across country, wiser and poorer.

Baily also noted that a Dr. Waters of New Madrid built a schooner "some few years since" at the head of the Ohio and navigated it down the Ohio and Mississippi and around to Philadelphia, "where it is now employed in the commerce of the United States." It is thus apparent, solely from this traveler's record, that an ocean-going vessel and a side-paddle-wheel boat had been seen on the Western Waters of the United States at least four years before the nineteenth century arrived.

Baily finally reached New Orleans. The city then contained about a thousand houses and was not only the market for the produce of the river plantations but also the center of an extensive Indian trade. The goods for this trade were packed in little barrels which were carried into the interior on pack-horses, three barrels to a horse. The traders traveled for hundreds of miles through the woods, bartering with the Indians on the way and receiving, in exchange for their goods, bear and deer skins, beaver furs, and wild ponies which had been caught by lariat in the neighboring Apalousa country.

Baily had intended to return to New York by sea, but on his arrival at New Orleans he was unable to find a ship sailing to New York. He therefore decided to proceed northward by way of the long and dangerous Natchez Trace and the Tennessee Path. Though few Europeans had made this laborious journey before 1800, the Natchez Trace had been for many years the land route of thousands of returning rivermen who had descended the Mississippi in flatboat and barge. In practically all cases these men carried with them the proceeds of their investment, and, as on every thoroughfare in the world traveled by those returning from market, so here, too, highwaymen and desperadoes, red and white, built their lairs and lay in wait. Some of the most revolting crimes of the American frontier were committed on these northward pathways and their branches.

Joining a party bound for Natchez, a hundred and fifty miles distant overland, Baily proceeded to Lake Pontchartrain and thence "north by west through the woods," by way of the ford of the Tangipahoa, Cooper's Plantation, Tickfaw River, Amite River, and the "Hurricane" (the path of a tornado) to the beginning of the Apalousa country. This tangled region of stunted growth was reputed to be seven miles in width from "shore to shore" and three hundred miles in length. It took the party half a day to reach the opposite "shore," and they had to quench their thirst on the way with dew.

At Natchez, Baily organized a party which included the five "Dutchmen" whose horse boat had proved a failure. For their twenty-one days' journey to Nashville the party laid in the following provisions: 15 pounds of biscuit, 6 pounds of flour, 12 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of dried beef, 3 pounds of rice, 1? pounds of coffee, 4 pounds of sugar, and a quantity of pounded corn, such as the Indians used on all their journeys. After celebrating the Fourth of July, 1797, with "all the inhabitants who were hostile to the Spanish Government," and bribing the baker at the Spanish fort to bake them a quarter of a hundredweight of bread, the party started on their northward journey.

They reached without incident the famous Grindstone Ford of Bayou Pierre, where crayfishes had destroyed a pioneer dam. Beyond, at the forks of the path where the Choctaw Trail bore off to the east the party pursued the alternate Chickasaw Trail by Indian guidance, and soon noted the change in the character of the soil from black loam to sandy gravel, which indicated that they had reached the Piedmont region. Indian marauders stole one horse from the camp, and three of the party fell ill. The others, pressed for food, were compelled to leave the sick men in an improvised camp and to hasten on, promising to send to their aid the first Indian they should meet "who understood herbs." After appalling hardships, they crossed the Tennessee and entered the Nashville country, where the roads were good enough for coaches, for they met two on the way. Thence Baily proceeded to Knoxville, seeing, as he went, droves of cattle bound for the settlements of west Tennessee. With his arrival at Knoxville, his journal ends abruptly; but from other sources we learn that he sailed from New York on his return to England in January, 1798. His interesting record, however, remained unpublished until after his death in 1844.

Not only to Francis Baily but to scores of other travelers, even those of unfriendly eyes, do modern readers owe a debt of gratitude. These men have preserved a multitude of pictures and a wealth of data which would otherwise have been lost. The men of America in those days were writing the story of their deeds not on parchment or paper but on the virgin soil of the wilderness. But though the stage driver, the tavern keeper, and the burly riverman left no description of the life of their highways and their commerce, these visitors from other lands have bequeathed to us their thousands of pages full of the enterprising life of these pioneer days in the history of American commerce.

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