Kentucky Pioneers As Tradesmen

By R. S. Cotterill - 1921
The Louisville Herald

In these latter days of freight trains, automobile trucks and airplanes, it is difficult to realize the hardships of the early Kentuckians in managing their commercial affairs. If they went to market in New Orleans, they had to walk back; and if they carried their goods east, they had to cross the mountains. Yet, they did both and were so far from complaining of the difficulties that they even boasted about the ease of transportation.

All the imports into pioneer Kentucky came from the East, and this meant the two cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia. The goods, of all kinds and descriptions, but always including a large percentage of copper stills, were hauled on wagons from the Coast to the Ohio River, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or Wheeling, West Virginia; and thence sent on flatboats to Maysville, Kentucky, for transportation into Central Kentucky.

For these goods, the Kentuckians paid in such fashion as they could. After 1795, Spanish silver dollars came in from New Orleans over the Natchez Trace, and quite promptly found their way east. There was always some trade east from Kentucky, but never so important as the New Orleans trade, decidedly more picturesque.

For the most part, only those products could be taken over the mountains as had feet of their own. One of the most interesting of all trades was the driving of horses and mules to market at Charleston, South Carolina. There was a great demand for Kentucky mules for use in the cotton fields. No Southern planter could hold up his head unless he owned some Kentucky saddle horses for his family.

In the fall of the year, Kentucky dealers would combine in great caravans and drive the mules and horses south, always taking an armed guard along for protection against robbers, both red and white. The route taken was the old Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap and over the mountains of western North Carolina. The horse and mule trade in Charleston was a lucrative one and was still being carried on a generation ago.

In the early days, the drivers would go by boat from Charleston to Baltimore, and thence overland to the Ohio River, then back down the river into Kentucky. This commercial intercourse between Charleston and Kentucky had more than one reaction on politics of the time. It was certainly one influence that induced Clay to help settle the nullification trouble and keep South Carolina in the Union. It was this trade that gave to Calhoun and Hayne their great idea of building a railroad from Charleston to Louisville and Lexington, a project actively started, but abandoned on account of the panic of 1837.

More important in the lives of early Kentuckians than the trade to Charleston was the cattle trade to Baltimore. As in the case of the Charleston trade, the Kentucky dealers banded together and drove their cattle overland under guard. The usual point of departure for both trades was Crab Orchard, and the route taken was the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap. But the cattle drive was usually begun in the spring, and after crossing the mountains, the cattle were allowed to graze during the summer of the luxuriant pastures of the Shenandoah Valley. When fall came, they were driven on down the Shenandoah by way of Harper's Ferry and Frederick to Baltimore. The drivers had to make their way home by land, as well as they could.

Whenever a drove of mules, horses, or cattle went over the mountains to the East, pack horses were taken along, laden with articles for sale in the eastern markets. These necessarily were bulked small and sold at a high price. Kentucky had very few such articles for sale. Most of its ginseng went to market this way to Baltimore or Philadelphia and was thence exported to China. Occasionally, peach brandy or corn whiskey was carried across the mountains when the caravans crossed, but there was always danger that the commodity would undergo consumption before the destination was reached.

It was rare that Kentuckians brought any goods back across the land route; it was much easier to bring the imports in by water, down the Ohio River. Commerce on the Ohio, however, was always more or less precarious, until peace was made with the Ohio Indians.

Early Kentuckians did not send sheep to the eastern markets. The reason was they had no sheep to send. Sheep-raising was too precarious a venture for a new country, where wolves and wildcats had not yet been cleared from the forests, and the ordinary dog was as wild and fierce as the fabled hyena.

Sometimes, hogs were driven across the mountains, but not very often. The reason for this was the Kentucky hog was of such a character that a market was not to be found for him away from home. The hog was admittedly the unloveliest object in the West. Raising hogs in Kentucky consisted of turning them out into the woods to shift for themselves. This they did indeed, feeding on the masts of trees and growing so ferocious that Kentucky dogs would run away from them on sight. His manner of living tended to make him more muscular than edible. He was a razorback hog and possessed a speed that today would do credit to a contender for the Kentucky Derby.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about early Kentuckians was the long distances they were accustomed to travel as everyday affairs. Apparently, they thought no more of setting out on a thousand miles' jaunt than we do of walking around the block. Boone and Stoner traveled a thousand miles when they came to Kentucky to warn the surveyors. The traders to New Orleans walked home without complaint, and the stockdrivers to Baltimore and Charleston thought little of the long trip back home. Certainly walking was the only mode of locomotion open to them and they did not hesitate to make use of it.


R. S. Cotterill was an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville some 80 years ago.