Articles & Stories

Early Kentuckians Had Hardships
In Managing Commercial Affairs

Transportion Of Goods Was A Problem For Tradesmen

By R. S. Cotterill - 1921

In these latter days of freight trains, automobiles, and airplanes, it is difficult to realize the hardships of the early Kentuckians in managing their commercial affairs. If they went to market to 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 percent of copper stills, were hauled on wagons from the coast to the Ohio River at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, or Wheeling, West Virginia, and thence sent on flatboats to Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky, for transportation to 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 in Kentucky, never so important as the New Orleans trade, but 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 to use in the cotton fields, and no Southern planter could hold up his head unless he owned some Kentucky saddle horses for his family. In the fall of the year, the Kentucky dealers would combine in great caravans and drive the horses and mules south, always taking an armed guard along for protection against robbers. The route taken was the old Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap and over the mountains of western North Carolina. The horse and mule trade to 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, Maryland, and thence overland to the Ohio River and back down the river to 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, Kentucky, a project actively started but abandoned on account of the panic of 1837.
More important in the life of the 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 and under guard. The usual point of departure for both trades was Crab Orchard, Lincoln County, and the route taken as the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap. The cattle drive was usually begun in the spring, and after crossing the mountains the cattle were allowed to graze during the summer on 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 articles that bulked small and sold at a high price. Kentucky had a 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 the Kentuckians brought any goods back by 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.
The early Kentuckians did not send sheep to the Eastern markets, and the reason was that they had no sheep to send. Sheep raising was too precarious a venture for a new country, where the wolves and the wildcats had not yet been cleared from the forests and the ordinary dog was as wild and fierce as the fabled hyena. Sometime hogs were driven across the mountains, but not often. The reason for this was that the Kentucky hog was of such a character that a market was not to be found for it away from home. The hog was admittedly the unloveliest object of the West. Raising hogs in Kentucky consisted in turning them out in the woods to shift for themselves. That they did indeed, feeding on the mast of the trees and growing so ferocious that dogs would run from them on sight. The hog's manner of living tended to make it more muscular than edible. The razorback hog possessed a speed that today would do credit to a contender for the Kentucky Derby.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the early Kentuckians was the long distances they were accustomed to travel as everyday affairs. Apparently, they thought no more of setting out on a 1,000-mile jaunt than we do of walking around the block. Boone and Stoner traveled 1,000 miles when they came to Kentucky. 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.



To view stories such as this one and many others with accompanying photos, subscribe to The Kentucky Explorer.