Transportation: Animal Power

views updated

Transportation: Animal Power

Before 1830 walking remained the most common mode of human transportation, but throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries people increasingly used animals to move goods and themselves over land. Advances in horse technology, such as improved wagons, continued selective breeding, and new uses of the horse, paralleled steady improvements in infrastructure such as turnpikes and canals. Although oxen continued to provide a less costly source of power for transportation into the mid-nineteenth century (in part because they doubled as a food source), horses were generally preferred for their greater speed.

Excessively poor road conditions throughout the colonial period made travel on horseback the only practicable method of long-distance conveyance. Early U.S. government–sponsored road construction in the 1790s allowed for greater use of carriages and wagons, but improvements were sporadic. Thomas Jefferson's journey from Philadelphia to Monticello (a distance of about 260 miles) in January 1794, by combination of stagecoach and horseback, took eleven days. Despite a top speed of forty miles per hour, a horse could sustain such high speed only for about two miles. Thirty miles was generally considered a day's journey.

The four-wheeled Conestoga wagon, with its distinctive boat-shaped body and cloth top, became the dominant freight vehicle in eastern America after 1750, reaching its peak of use between 1820 and 1840. First built by German immigrants in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the first decades of the eighteenth century, the Conestoga's first major use came in May 1755 when General Edward Braddock called on Benjamin Franklin to hire 150 such wagons, along with the drivers and horses, to carry supplies on his expedition to retake Fort Duquesne (on the site of modern Pittsburgh). In 1789 the physician Benjamin Rush commented that it was common to see 100 such wagons per day enter Philadelphia from western settlements. The largest wagons, with a team of six sturdy horses, could haul up to five tons.

By 1750 horse herds of formerly domesticated stock from New Spain had spread northward throughout the Great Plains and the Columbia Plateau. Tribes such as the Sioux, Blackfoot, and Nez Perce quickly took advantage of the greater efficiency of equestrian hunting and greater mobility offered by horses, though many tribes that encountered horses did not turn to a nomadic lifestyle. The Chickasaw and Nez Perce tribes were especially noted for their success at selectively breeding strong, rugged horses.

Mules made their debut in America shortly after 1785 when George Washington acquired "Royal Gift," a prized Spanish donkey eventually used to sire a line of American mules. By the early nineteenth century, mules were in use throughout the South, working primarily as draft animals on plantations. Despite their higher cost and sterility, mules were preferred over horses in plantation agriculture owing to their innate ability to avoid injury. This was an important trait because less direct supervision by owners often meant that overseers or slaves were prone to injure—or in extreme cases kill—a draft horse through overwork or neglect.

During the height of the canal era (roughly 1815 to 1840), animal power reached its greatest efficiency. A single horse or mule was capable of towing a forty-ton canal boat for six hours on the Erie Canal (completed in 1825). Replacement horses were simply towed along with the rest of the cargo and brought to the hitch by way of a plank extended to the towpath.

A system of stagecoaches offered long distance public transportation along the eastern seaboard by 1780. The first urban public transportation system in America consisted of a horse-drawn "omnibus" that ambled along Broadway Street in New York beginning in 1829. Other cities such as Philadelphia (1831) and Boston (1835) soon followed with their own oat-powered public transport. A fixed rail horse-drawn streetcar or "horsecar" was introduced in New York in 1832 and was quickly adopted by most major U.S. cities.

See alsoErie Canal; Livestock Production; Railroads; Technology .


Haines, Francis. Horses in America. New York: Crowell, 1971.

Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860. Vol. 4: The Economic History of the United States. New York: Rinehart, 1951.

Stephen Servais

About this article

Transportation: Animal Power

Updated About content Print Article


Transportation: Animal Power