Traversing the Past: Colonial Travel in Eastern North Carolina

by | Mar 8, 2024 | 1 comment

Country roads in eastern NC

Traveling through New Bern on Martin Luther King Jr Blvd or to Chocowinity on Hwy 17 or Greenville on 43, we can take for granted how easy it is to get from one place to another — and in about a half hour or less to or from any of these places if Vanceboro is your starting point. But it wasn’t always that way. Roads were dirt paths, maps were scarce, and the journey between towns like Swift Creek, New Bern, Martinsborough (now Greenville), and Chocowinity was an adventure in itself.

Horseback and Foot – The Main Modes of Travel

In the 18th century, the main way to get from here to yonder was either on foot or horseback.

Let’s talk about horse travel first, because that is going to get you the most variable ranges. Here’s why:

  1. Horse’s Pace: The speed at which a horse can comfortably travel varies. A horse’s trot generally ranges between 5 to 10 miles per hour. The horse’s breed, age, health, and stamina, as well as the weight of the rider and any cargo, can affect this speed. A horse is going to labor a lot harder — and will likely be slowed down — by a heavy load more so than carrying just one lightweight adult and little cargo. Pulling a wagon would also slow things down.
  2. Terrain: The terrain of the route plays a crucial role. Flat and open paths would have allowed for quicker travel, but overgrown, uneven, or muddy terrain — all common in rural eastern NC in the colonial era — would slow a horse down considerably.
  3. Road Conditions: The condition of colonial roads was often poor by modern standards. Roads could be little more than cleared paths, and in bad weather, they could become muddy and difficult to navigate.
  4. Rest and Care for the Horse: Horses need rest and care, including breaks for water and food. On longer journeys, the need to rest the horse every so often would add to the travel time.
  5. Weather Conditions: Weather can have a major impact in determining travel speed. Good weather allows for steady progress, while inclement weather like rain or (as rare as it is) snow can slow down a journey considerably.

Given these variables, it’s challenging to pinpoint an exact travel time for travel by horse between the towns I’ll talk about below, which explains the use of broad ranges to provide a general estimate.

From Swift Creek to New Bern, a journey of about 20-25 miles, would have been a day’s travel by horseback, taking approximately 2-5 hours. On foot, this could extend to a more grueling 7-8 hours.

A shorter journey, like from Swift Creek to Chocowinity, covering 15-20 miles, might take 2-4 hours by horse, or 5-7 hours if you were on foot.

Traveling from Swift Creek to Martinsborough (modern day Greenville) presented a longer route, about 30-35 miles. This distance could mean 3-7 hours on horseback and about 10-12 hours walking.

Ferry and River Travel – Navigating the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers and their tributaries

But what about those vast and winding rivers? In an era long before bridges crisscrossed the waters, ferries were the lifelines that connected communities. Eastern NC naturally relied heavily on these ferry services.

Trips that now take mere minutes by car could have been day-long endeavors. For example, crossing the Neuse River, a vital waterway for towns like New Bern, involved waiting for a ferry – a process that could take hours or even a day, depending on the weather and the ferry schedule. And this is exactly why they often had an inn or tavern on both sides of a ferry crossing, to accommodate travelers no matter which way they were going.

The Challenge of Travel

These trips weren’t just time-consuming; they were chock full of challenges. Unpaved, often muddy roads in rainy seasons, the threat of highwaymen, and the absence of inns or resting places could add to troubles while traveling.

And yet, these journeys were essential. They were the lifelines for trade, news, and maintaining social connections. Not to mention, if you’ve done any research in court records in the colonial era, or even into the 1800s, you’ll have no doubt seen Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions minutes that would’ve documented some of your ancestors having to attend the court in New Bern to either serve on a jury or handle some legal matter or another.

Connecting with Our Past

As we do family research, keeping in mind these travel challenges can help us understand our ancestors, their relationships, and their movements in a helpful, and perhaps more meaningful, way.

Have you been surprised by some of the distances that your ancestors traveled or moved in the 18th and 19th centuries? Leave a comment below.

1 Comment

  1. Duane Hodges Bell

    My great grandparents lived in what is now Pender County, a few miles east of Burgaw (non-existent at that time,) They went to Wilmington (the nearest town) on the Northeast Cape River. Roads were almost non-existent where they lived


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