Travel Writing . François André Michaux was a French doctor who visited America in the first decade of the nineteenth century. France’s Interior Ministry had sent Michaux to inspect the plants of the Ohio River valley. Interested in more than plants, Michaux, like many other European travelers, wrote a book about his experiences, The North American Sylva, or A Description of the Forest Trees, of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia (1817–1819). From his book we get a detailed picture of life in America, and because he saw more of the country than many people who would live their entire lives in it, from his account we can reconstruct the nature of travel in America. Michaux intended to explore the interior of the United States, seeing the Ohio River and the new settlements in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Charleston to Philadelphia . Michaux landed in Charleston, South Carolina, in July 1802. He discovered that to reach the Ohio River he needed to start in Philadelphia, which was fifteen days away by stage. In 1802 direct stagecoach service was begun between Boston, Massachusetts, and Savannah, Georgia; the entire trip took twenty-two and one-half days and cost seventy dollars, not counting food or lodging along the route. Meals averaged two dollars a day, lodging nearly the same. The stage from Charleston to Philadelphia would cost fifty dollars. Michaux, like most travelers, learned that on the
East Coast it was much faster to go by boat. He took a packet sloop to New York, taking about ten days and costing less than fifty dollars, and then took a stage to Philadelphia, reaching that city one day and a half after leaving New York. The five-dollar stage ride did not include meals or lodging or the fifty-cent tip for the driver.
To Pittsburgh . From Philadelphia Michaux set out for Pittsburgh. After three days on the stage he learned that it only went as far as Shippensburg, 170 miles from Pittsburgh. A traveler would be “obliged to perform the rest of the journey on foot, or to purchase a horse, of which there are always many for sale; but the country people are such cheats that they always make you pay double the value for them; and on arriving at Pittsburgh you are obliged to dispose of them for half what they cost.” Michaux thought of walking, but instead he and a companion bought a horse, which they took turns riding to Pittsburgh. They arrived in Pittsburgh nine days after leaving Philadelphia; another traveler who walked reached Pittsburgh in twenty-seven days.
On the River. From Pittsburgh Michaux walked to Wheeling, Virginia, a town of twenty-six houses on the Ohio River. He and another traveler bought a canoe, and left Wheeling one evening, traveling twelve miles down the river before growing tired of paddling. The next morning they took to the river again, covering thirty miles that day, forty the next. For ten days they rode the river before reaching Limestone, Kentucky, a distance of 348 miles from Wheeling. Michaux was startled to see what appeared to be a fleet of six or seven enormous boxes floating down the river. “I could not conceive what such large square boxes could be, which seemed abandoned to the current, presenting alternately their ends, their sides, even their angles. As they advanced I heard a confused noise, without distinguishing anything, on account of the height of the sides. On ascending the banks of the river I perceived in these boats several families, bringing with them their horses, cows, fowls, carts, ploughs, harness, beds, instruments of husbandry; in short, all the furniture requisite for housekeeping, agriculture, and the management of a farm. These people had thus abandoned themselves to the water for several hundred miles, probably without knowing where they might stop, to exercise their industry and to enjoy in peace the fruit of their labors.” This migration into the Ohio River valley had begun before the Revolution, and it would pick up in volume, though not in speed, after the United States bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and after the Shawnee and Creek Indians were defeated in the War of 1812. The pace of travel would not change until well after 1811, when Nicholas Roosevelt built the steamboat New Orleans at Pittsburgh, and brought her down the river. In 1807 another traveler on the Ohio would meet a man from Saint Louis paddling his canoe upriver. On his way to visit his brother in Pittsburgh, the man going against the current expected his trip to take ten weeks.
To Nashville . Michaux decided to go by foot to Lexington, sixty-five miles away, and he reached the town after walking for two and one-half days. He bought a horse in Lexington and rode to Nashville, Tennessee, making an average of thirty miles a day. Michaux left Nashville on 5 September, taking an old Indian road east and reaching Morgantown, North Carolina, six hundred miles away, one month later. On 18 October he returned to Charleston, South Carolina, “three months and a half after my departure from Philadelphia, having gone through a space of nearly eighteen hundred miles.” Of the eighteen hundred miles, Michaux had used a stagecoach for only 140 miles. On his best days Michaux traveled between thirty and forty miles.
François André Michaux, The North American Sylva, or A Description of the Forest Trees, of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia (Philadelphia: Sold by T. Dobson / Paris: Printed by C. d’Hautel, 1817–1819).