Transportation in Pennsylvania in 1776

The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

During the Revolution, Pennsylvania was a central stage from the standpoint of geography, leadership, manpower, and supplies. Therefore, its transportation facilities were of special significance. The southeastern part of the State produced large quantities of the very materials needed by the Continental Army. A modest network of roads made possible the transporting of those materials to Valley Forge, Philadelphia, and other critical places. Pennsylvania farms were rich in hay, corn, and wheat. They produced a surplus of horses, cattle, hogs, and grain. The numerous grist mills in Southeastern Pennsylvania turned wheat into flour. Pennsylvania’s iron furnaces and forges produced cannon, cannon balls, shot, the rifle barrels needed by the gunsmiths of Lancaster, Northampton, and a few other Pennsylvania counties, and the iron and steel needed to make sabres and other items required by the army. Lancaster County produced heavy wagons and draft horses then so essential for military purposes.

Much of Pennsylvania was still unsettled in 1776. The northwestern part was not yet open to white settlement. Fifteen of Pennsylvania’s present sixty-seven counties (Erie, Crawford, Mercer, Lawrence, Warren, Venango, Forrest, Clarion, Butler, McKean, Elk, Jefferson, Potter, Cameron, and Tioga) and parts of eight others (Bradford, Lycoming, Clinton, Clearfield, Indiana, Armstrong, Allegheny, and Beaver) were Indian territory until 1784. The last part of Pennsylvania to be acquired from the Indians was the Erie Triangle, purchased in 1792. By then few Indians remained in the domain that had been granted in 1681 to William Penn by King Charles II of England. The numerous Indian paths that crisscrossed Pennsylvania were largely aban­doned, except by a few Indians who still traveled through the State and by hunters, trappers, and traders who crossed the Alleghenies to the area drained by the Youghiogheny, Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers.

Just before the beginning of the Revolution, men and their families moved from place to place in Pennsylvania on foot, on horseback, or in wagons, or traveled on streams and rivers. The soldiers of 1776 traveled in these same ways.

Transportation by land was primitive in America until a decade after the Revolution, and then developed only gradually. In general, the very best roads were the ones that connected the cities along the Atlantic coast. Wagons carrying freight and passengers moved on a common carrier basis and regular schedule between Philadelphia and New York in 1765. The next year a third fine between those two cities was started. The owners of the new line boasted that they had “good stage wagons with the seats set in springs.” The trip was to be made in two days in summer and three in winter. The wagons of this third line were called “Flying Machines.”

William Penn had visions of roads being constructed in his province. In his “Frame of Government,” the first charter to the people of Pennsylvania, 1682, he stated that the Governor and the Provincial Council “shall appoint all necessary roads and highways in the province.” (Tenth section of the Frame as given on pages 93-99, Duke of Yerke’s Book of Laws, etc., 1879. There are at least two versions of the Frame). Bridges ten feet wide were to be built within eighteen months over creeks and rivers on the King’s highway from opposite the site of present Trenton to the present State of Delaware. The court in each county was to appoint three overseers annually who in turn were to summon “all their inhabitants” to assemble and build roads and bridges. Those failing to report to the job were to be fined twenty shillings sterling. (Act of March 10, 1683, Chapter LXXXI X, repeated in act of May 15 or June 1, 1693, the record is not clear as to date, but it was act number 16. An act approved May 10, 1699, empowered justices of each county court to lay out local roads that would connect with “publick or High-roads.” (Act Number 6).

Even so, road building in Pennsylvania proceeded rather slowly until after the Revolution, and almost entirely within seventy-five miles of Philadelphia. Meanwhile a primitive wagon road was opened in Southwestern Pennsylvania, from present Cumberland, Maryland, to the Youghiogheny River, in 1752. At the time of the French and Indian War, in 1755, the road was extended to the Monongahela River by the troops of General Edward Braddock’s unsuccessful expedition against Fort Duquesne which had been built at the Forks of the Ohio by the French. In the same year, 1755, Colonel James Burd supervised the construction of a military road from Shippensburg to the top of the Allegheny Mountain. In 1758 the Forbes Expedition against the French at the Forks of the Ohio extended the road to a point approximately ten miles west of Ligonier. From the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 the hastily constructed Braddock, Burd, and Forbes Roads were neglected but were probably used by persons settling west of the mountains. Dr. George Swetnam takes the view that the Forbes and Braddock Roads were not badly neglected during the few years immediately prior to the Revolution. This is noted in his Pennsylvania Transportation, Pennsylvania History Studies: No. 7, The Pennsylvania Historical Association, Gettysburg, Second Edition, 1968. Nevertheless, in 1776 western Pennsylvania was almost impassable except on foot, on horseback, and by raft, canoe, or other light craft on streams and rivers. In the east the crossing of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers at Philadelphia had long been made ferries. The first bridge over the Schuylkill was built during the winter of 1776-1777 by General Israel Putnam. It consisted of floating stages used by ship carpenters. During British occupancy of Philadelphia, September 1777-May 1778, they built two floating bridges. One was built on pontoons (large boats) but was unsuccessful. Then the British built a bridge on floating logs.

Men who died in the Revolution did not live long enough to see Pennsylvania’s beautiful stone bridges or its awe-inspiring long covered wood bridges. Those structures were built from about 1800 to about 1860, when turnpikes were constructed by private companies incorporated by acts of the General Assembly and before the days of the large iron and then steel bridges. However, in 1776 there were several well-known Pennsylvania ferries beyond Philadelphia, such as Wright’s Ferry and John Harris’s Ferry across the Susquehanna, the former connecting the sites of the present towns of Wrightsville and Columbia, and the other situated at the site of present Harrisburg. The Cornwallis Papers in the Library of Congress include a description of the Susquehanna River as of 1778 by a French engineer. The description was written for Congress, and perhaps also for the French army, but got into the hands of the British. It would have been important to the Americans to know which crossing points they should defend in case of their retreat beyond the Susquehanna. The description contains the following about Harris’s Ferry: “The river is 350 feet in this place. This ford is frequented in summer by horsemen, and even sometimes by wagons, although the bed of the river is very rocky here. The fordable passage is located several feet above the ferry house on the north bank (the Dauphin County side). Then it comes to the point of Turkey Island, which is almost in line with the two ferries; from there it comes to the ferry house on the south bank.”

In 1776 Pennsylvania’s small network of roads scarcely extended beyond the southeastern part, the area in which most of its population was then located.

Wherever there are heavy concentrations of population there are numerous avenues of travel, usually roads. Unfortunately the distribution of population in Pennsylvania in 1776 is not a matter of record. We know there were then no white inhabitants in what is now Erie County. The number of persons living in Philadelphia in 1776 is not known but John K. Alexander estimated nearly 200 years later that Philadelphia’s population in 1774 stood at 33,482 and in 1777 at 34,244. He did not give an estimate for 1776. There was no census taken in Pennsylvania before 1776 even though the Board of Trade in London attempted to obtain population data concerning this large and flourishing English Colony. See Robert V. Wells, The Population of the British Colonies in America before 1776, A Survey of Census Data, Princeton University Press, 1975, page 143. William A. Hunter. chief. Division of History. Bureau of Archives and History, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, believes a useful estimate of Pennsylvania’s population as of 1776 could be arrived at by an analytical statistician who would start with county tax lists. define them carefully, and compare them with statistics for better documented colonies. He states “only an expert could do this and apparently none has tried.”(Letter, March 8, 1976, Hunter to HTR).

In the absence of census data and a gazetteer, three early maps indicate in a general way the relative dispersion of population in Pennsylvania in 1776. They are William Scull’s map of Pennsylvania published under date of April 4, 1770; the Pennsylvania section of Thomas Pownall’s map of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Quebec, published in 1776; and a map of Pennsylvania printed in London, perhaps in 1776, for Robert Sayer and J. Bennett, “Map and Printseller in Fleet St.” and “Published as the Act directs 10 June 1775.” This latter map, as well as Pownall’s, is based largely on the Scull map of 1770.

The three maps give. the impression of a rather large sys­tem of roads in Southeastern Pennsylvania and a good road from Philadelphia to the Forks of the Ohio. All three maps are somewhat misleading. In 1776 the road from Shippensburg to Fort Loudon. to Fort Littleton, to Bedford, to “Shawnee Cabbins,” to Fort Ligonier, to Bushy Run, and on to the site of present Pittsburgh was little more than an abandoned military road, the one that had been cut through the wilderness in 1755 by Burd and extended in 1758 for the Forbes Expedition. Two roads are shown from the site of Cumberland, Maryland, to Fort Pitt and one from Cumberland to Bedford. The roads in Southeastern Penn­sylvania in 1776 may have been fairly well cleared of stumps, as for example the road from Philadelphia to the approximate location of present Downingtown. From that point the Paxtang Road led to Harris’s Ferry. and the Conestoga Road went to Lancaster. From Philadelphia another road extended to Reading and continued from there to Bethlehem and Easton, whereas still another went from Philadelphia directly to Bethlehem and another from Philadelphia to a place on the Delaware River about ten miles below Easton. A road connected Philadelphia and Bristol. A triangle of roads connected Philadelphia and Bristol. A triangle of roads connected Carlisle, York, and Hanover. Carlisle also was con­nected with Harris’s Ferry and Shippensburg. Six roads led from York like spokes from the hub of a wheel. Five roads led into Shippensburg. From Reading a road pushed through to the Susquehanna, at the mouth of the Mahanoy Creek. below Fort Augusta, site of present Sunbury. The 1770 Scull map and the map published by Sayer and Bennett show a road from “Fort Pitt formerly Fort Duquesne” to “Venango Fort” at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny River, and continuing northwestward from Fort Venango. The Scull map shows the road extending to Presqu’ Isle. The road from Fort Pitt to Presqu’ Isle seems to have been the only road in Northwestern Pennsylvania in 1776.

The Scull map and the one published by Sayer and Bennett show a number of paths from as far east as the Pocono Mountains to Fort Venango, some of them connecting with each other. An “Indian Path” is shown on the Scull map from the confluence of Marsh Creek and Bald Eagle Creek in present Clinton County to “Chingleolamouk,” site of the present town of Clearfield.

It is remarkable that the network of roads was fairly extensive in 1776, no matter how narrow some may have been, or how rutted or filled with stumps.

River traffic down the Delaware to Philadelphia and down the Susquehanna to Middletown, carried the products of farm, and on the Delaware the products of furnace and forge. The Durham boat carried a cargo of fifteen tons. It was named for a famous builder of river boats, Robert Durham of Pennsylvania. The Durham boat was a keel-boat that was pointed in the front and in the back and had lines much like those of an Indian bark canoe. Durham started his boat building about 1750 for Delaware River use and his boats became popular. They were sixty feet long: eight feet wide, and two feet deep. They had a mast and two sails. A crew of five men operated a Durham boat. One man steered. Two men on each side pushed with poles.

Much of the travel in Pennsylvania in the 1770’s and 1780’s was difficult because Pennsylvania had no seacoast, had few waterways running to or from the interior, and had high mountains that obstructed movement of persons and freight between Philadelphia and the Forks of the Ohio. Until a fairly good road was built across the mountains, before the day of the Pennsylvania Canal and the Allegheny Portage Railroad, packhorses carried much freight between eastern and western Pennsylvania. The packhorse era in that part of Pennsylvania beyond the Alleghenies began soon after 1764, on the Burd, Forbes, and Braddock roads. The settlers moving into Southwestern Pennsylvania brought their household equipment on horses having pack saddles. For some years, up to and beyond 1776, the settlers in Southwestern Pennsylvania continued to carry their freight by means of packhorse. It was not until May, 1805, that the first stage started from Pittsburgh to Chambersburg. A year later an advertisement appeared in Pittsburgh newspapers for the construction of a turnpike road between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

In 1846 I. D. Rupp described the packhorse traffic of approximately 1776-1786, from Carlisle westward, as follows:

… Sixty or seventy years ago five hundred pack horses had been at one time in Carlisle, going thence to Shippensburg, Fort Loudon, and further westward, loaded with merchandise. also salt. iron. &c. The pack-horses used to carry bars of iron on their backs, crooked over and around their bodies – barrels or cags were hung on each side of these.

Colonel Snyder of Chambersburg, in a conversation with the writer (August 1845), said that he cleared many a day from six to eight dollars in crooking, or bending iron, and shoeing horses for western carriers, at the time he was carrying on a blacksmith shop, in the town of Chambersburg.

The pack horses were generally led in divisions of twelve or fifteen horses, carrying about two hundred weight each, all going single file, and being managed by two men, one going before as the leader, and the other at the tail, to see after the safety of the packs. Where the bridle road passed along declivities or over hills, the path was, in some places, washed out so deep that the packs or burdens came in contact with the ground, or other impeding obstacles, and were frequently displaced. However, as the carriers usually travelled in companies, the packs were seen adjusted, and no great delay occasioned.

The packhorses were generally furnished with bells, which were kept from ringing during the day drive, but were let loose at night, when the horses were set free and permitted to feed and browse. The bells were intended as guides to direct their whereabouts in the morning. Rupp continued:

In the early days (about 1775, the year of William Smith’s death) of this county (Franklin, then part of Cumberland County) Smith’s (Mercersburg) was an important place, where an extensive trade was carried on with the Indians and first settlers on the western frontier. It was nothing uncommon to see here from fifty to one hundred pack horses in a row, laden with salt, iron. and other commodities, for the Monongahela country.

In speaking of freighting from the East to Fort Pitt, Rupp also tells us that “All government stores, as well as groceries and goods of ever(y) description, were for a long time carried west on pack-horses. One man would some times have under his control as many as a hundred horses.”

Joseph Doddridge described the packhorse era of Southwestern Pennsylvania as of 1763-1783, in these words:

The acquisition of the indispensable articles of salt, iron, steel and castings, presented great difficulties to the first settlers of the western country. They had no stores of any kind, no salt, iron, nor iron works; nor had they money to make purchases where those articles could be obtained. Peltry and furs were their only resources before they had time to raise cattle and horses for sale in the Atlantic states.

Every family collected what peltry and fur they could obtain throughout the year for the purpose of sending them over the mountains for barter.

In the fall of the year, after seeding time, every family formed an association with some of their neighbors for starting the little caravan. A master driver was selected from among them who was to be assisted by one or more young men and sometimes a boy or two. The horses were fitted out with pack saddles, to the hinder part of which was fastened a pair of hobbles made of hickory withes; a bell and collar ornamented his neck. The bags provided for the conveyance of the salt were filled with feed for the horses; on the journey a part of this feed was left at convenient stages on the way down, to support the return of the caravan; large wallets well filled with bread, jerk, boiled ham and cheese furnished provisions for the drivers. At night after feeding, the horses, whether put in pasture or turned out into the woods, were hobbled and the bells were opened.

… Each horse carried two bushels of alum salt weighing eighty four pounds to the bushel. This, to be sure, was not a heavy load for the horses but it was enough, considering the scanty subsistence allowed them on the journey.

James Veech, too, speaks of the extensive packhorse freighting in Southwestern Pennsylvania. For the period as late as 1784 he declares “Except as to Army roads, they were all mere paths through the woods, and among the laurel and rocks of the mountains.”

The cost of land transportation in 1776 from points seventy-five miles inland from Philadelphia or over into New Jersey was approximately twice as high as for carriage across the Atlantic. The Journals of the Continental Congress for that year show that the government paid a bill “To Thomas Chessman, for carriage of 32 cwt. 1 qu. 3 lbs. saltpetre from Egg Harbor (New Jersey) to Cooper’s Ferry (now Camden, New Jersey) opposite Philadelphia, $22.52/90.”

In 1776 there were three routes of travel across the Pennsylvania Alleghenies. Those routes followed in part the_ Indian paths. The three routes converged at the Forks of the Ohio. The southernmost of the three came from the area that is now Cumberland, Maryland, via the Youghiogh­eny and Monongahela Rivers. That route foreshadowed the competition of Baltimore with Philadelphia for the trade of Western Pennsylvania and of the Ohio country lying be­yond the Forks of the Ohio. One of the three routes went up the Juniata Valley or took a more direct course, from Carlisle to Shippensburg, and then over the Burd and Forbes Roads to Ligonier and to the Forks of the Ohio. The third proceeded via the West Branch of the Susque­hanna, then up the Bennett Branch of the Sinnemahoning Creek, over the divide, and by Toby Creek, now known as the Clarion River, to the Allegheny River and down the Allegheny to the Forks.

There was not much migration beyond the mountains in 1776, and not until after the Revolution. Then “Easterners” and newly arrived immigrants from Europe pushed toward the Ohio country, especially after the Second Continental Congress passed the Ordinance of 1787 for the government of the Old Northwest – the land north of the Ohio River. With the tide sweeping west across Pennsylvania, the roads received attention. Transportation was now becoming far easier in the Keystone State than it had been at the beginning of the Revolution.


Dr. Homer T. Rosenberger is a professional historian whose most re­cent publication is The Philadelphia and Erie Railroad: Its Place in American Economic History. The author of numerous other books, he also has a well known collection on Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Germans. He is a member of the PHMC.