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Getting Around In The Days Of Yore - Part 1

It's not only possible, but probable that some of your ancestors worked in the horse transportation trades. Understanding what they did will help you understand more about how they and others lived in the good ‘ole days.


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Until Henry Ford invented the Model T, the main means of transportation for everyone was the horse. Sure, there were some automobiles around before the Model T appeared on the scene, but only wealthy folk could afford them. If five autos descended on a small town, many considered that a traffic jam. And although it may seem as if the automobile took over rather quickly, in fact, the horse continued to be the main means of transportation for many throughout the first two decades of the 20th century.

So it's not only possible, but probable that some of your ancestors worked in the horse transportation trades. Understanding what they did will help you understand more about how they and others lived in the good ‘ole days.

Besides helping people get from one point to another, horses allowed the delivery of mail and valuables, a job entrusted to the post rider and the express who rode hard and fast from town to town to complete their missions. The most famous of these services was the Pony Express.

Founded to carry mail, express, and valuables across the prairies and mountain states to the Far West, the Pony Express used 500 ponies, stationed at intervals along the 1,960 miles of the Overland Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The rugged riders on their fast ponies made the trip in 10 days, by changing mounts and riders at frequent intervals. A similar trip by stagecoach on the Santa Fe Trail required 25 days.

The 80 express riders had to be tough and hardy individuals and, in addition to being a expert horseman, had to be alert and resourceful, to protect themselves against hostile Indians and highwaymen. They rode from St. Joseph through Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, Julesburg, Colorado, Fort Laramie and Casper, Wyoming, Salt Lake City, Utah, Carson City, Nevada, and Placerville, California. They ended up in Sacramento because riverboats could take the mail from there to San Francisco. However, less then a year after it began, the railroad, which could cover the distance much faster, took over the job of delivering the mail from the express rider and made his job superfluous.

Horses also shared the work of pulling wagons, pony, and donkey carts and such with mules and oxen. Traffic jams involving vehicles pulled by animals became an everyday occurrence, especially in larger cities. But horses required a good and steady supply of fresh grass or hay, so unlike the those who pulled the pioneer wagons in Hollywood films, most of the pioneers used oxen to pull their wagons.

Teamsters, also known as drovers, drove the two, four, eight-horse teams that pulled the Conestoga or freight wagons from wharf or depot to factory and warehouse, then from warehouse to retail store, and from town to town. Even though today's truck drivers, who replaced the teamsters, belong to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers Union, known collectively as the Teamster's Union, this doesn't make them teamsters. These early freight drivers had a lot more to worry about than keeping a big rig on the road.

Hordes of smaller delivery wagons, carrying ice, groceries, bakery goods, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, coal, lumber, feed, crowded the streets of every town. There were also drivers of horse-drawn sprinkler wagons used to fight fires, hearses, and ambulances, including horse ambulances. In cold weather, many of these same drivers shifted to sleds and sleighs. One unique horse driver was the tobacco roller, who used a team of horses or oxen to roll huge hogsheads of tobacco from farm to wharf. Another was the packhorse driver, usually mounted on another horse himself, who used a horse or mule as a light truck on prospecting expeditions.

Other drivers included muleteers or mule skinners, who drove mule teams, the bullwagon bosses, who drove wagons filled with pigs and other small livestock on their way to be butchered, the bullwackers, who drove teams of oxen, and the draymen, who drove low carts used to haul heavy loads.

An entire economy grew up around the horse. Next time we'll see how taking care of horses and using them as modes of personal transportation affected society before the coming of the automobile.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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