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18th-Century Modes of Travel

Colonial Williamsburg's new traveling coach.

In the eighteenth century, people traveled for many of the same reasons we travel today—business, pleasure, or to visit friends and family. Most eighteenth-century travelers were men from the middling and upper levels of society. Women and children traveled much less often than men did. Slaves often accompanied their masters. When a slave traveled alone, he carried a pass from his master showing that he had permission to travel. Without a pass, African-Americans could be arrested as runaways.

People moved around the colony by foot, wheeled vehicle, horse, or small boat. The least expensive and most common way to get from one place to another was by foot. Walking was the common mode of transportation for poor whites and slaves.

The first step up for a traveler with extra money was the purchase of a horse. Virginians were extremely fond of horses. Even poor whites purchased a horse and saddle as soon as they could afford them. Horses sold for as little as £5, but a fine racehorse cost as much as £500.

Many Virginians also acquired some type of vehicle. Farmers and small planters found carts or wagons useful. These all-purpose work vehicles hauled produce to market and carried families on journeys. Wealthier individuals bought riding chairs, carriages, or coaches. A new riding chair, or lightweight two-wheeled vehicle, cost £10 to £45, a used chair as little as £2. The gentry often purchased elaborate vehicles. George Washington, for example, imported a four-wheeled chariot that cost £315 from England in 1768. Some public transportation was also available. Stagewagons offered a form of public transportation along routes between towns, particularly in the northern colonies, in the 1780s and 1790s.

Water travel was another important part of eighteenth-century travel. Ships were the only method of transportation across the Atlantic. The voyage from England to any of the major colonial American ports took an average of six to eight weeks. . . if all went well. Ships also sailed the coastal route between American ports such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, or Charleston. Similarly, ships and small boats plied the major rivers and inland waterways throughout the colonies. In some situations, it was actually easier to travel by water than by land.

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Colonial Williamsburg's newest vehicle (shown above) is a well-appointed, accurate reproduction of an eighteenth-century traveling coach patterned after one owned by Robert Carter, a resident of Williamsburg and one of the wealthiest Virginians of the time. Carter's original coach was built by Joseph Jacobs Jr. at his shop on St. Mary's Avenue in London. When the coach arrived in Leeds, Virginia, on September 12, 1774, Philip Fithian, tutor to the Carter children, described the coach as "a plain coach with the upper part black and the lower part Sage or Pea Green." The new carriage features those same colors and was crafted in Austria by carriage maker Florian Staudner.

The new coach and other reproduction vehicles are used in the Historic Area to interpret eighteenth-century travel and transportation. The following simple slideshow was created in PowerPoint and imported into QuickTime. It offers images depicting the various modes of eighteenth-century travel, including several Colonial Williamsburg vehicles.

Click on the image below to play the "18th-Century Modes of Travel" slideshow. In order to view it you will need the free QuickTime Player.

"18th-Century Modes of Travel" Slideshow.

To learn how to create your own Quicktime movie/slideshow, visit the Technology Tips section of this E-Newsletter.