The Technologies of Colonial Transportation: How people and cargo moved in pre-modern times

People, common people made commercial transportation work in England's southern colonies in North America. From over-burdened porters to vernacular engineers, people made it happen.

Before the invention of mechanized transportation cargo traveled on the backs of porters, on the backs of beasts of burden, in carts and then in wagons. Perhaps the greatest tonnage carried in pre-modern times, when muscles powered transportation was carried in water-craft. We will not deal with watercraft now, but limit this short note to terrestrial transportation of goods.

Before and immediately after the English invasion of southeastern North America at Roanoke Island and at Jamestown, Native Americans carried most commercial cargo. These porters carried tens of pounds over hundreds of miles. They were replaced by pack horses. Their replacement culminated with Bacon's Rebellion, the definitive moment of technological change. After 1676 there would be little porter borne commerce in England's southeastern colonies.

Pack horses carried hundreds of pounds for hundreds of miles, were less expensive to fuel, and almost never killed the boss. Horses carried terrestrial cargo from 1676 until the 1720s when they too were replaced. Wagons replaced pack horses because they could. Wagons carried thousands of pounds hundreds of miles with less fuel than a the number of pack horses needed to carry the same amount of cargo.

It is interesting to speculate on the costs of portering and pack horse transport. There are reports of pack horse trains of one hundred horses. How many horses could a hostler handle? How many hostlers could a hunter feed? How many cooks and bottle washers and other specialists did it take to move people or horses in large numbers through the forest primeval?

The US Army required a holder for every four horses in a cavalry column. When the cavalry dismounted to fight it sacrificed twenty-five percent of its manpower to hang on to its motive power. Is that the same ration used by pack horse operators? So far, nobody knows.

In Tecumseh: A Life by John Sugden the author describes an entire village making a seasonal move. The day before the move hunters and scouts laid out the course of the move and hung food sufficient for the village in trees at the first night's camp site. The morning of the young people moved out early in the day and spent the day improving the trail. When the dew had risen, the village rose, grabbed their burdens and moved out on a clear trail toward fresh food at a prepared campsite. He makes no mention of the ratio of hunters to burden bearers.

Clearly, moving burdened people or horses took a considerable support staff. Records are too sketchy to say whether or not carts were an interim step between pack horses and wagons. But it is interesting to not that some carts had their wheels "toed" in to fit in horse tracks. With each change in transportation technology there was an increase in capitol investment required to move the first item of cargo. Of all the terrestrial cargo carriers, wagons were the most expensive as they needed not only specialized vehicle construction, they also needed roads.

The answer to the greater cost of moving commerce by wagons was to legally extort enough money from the beneficiaries of commerce, consumers, to pay for the construction of roads. Road work was, for tithable males aged 16 to 60, which is to say militiamen, the most expensive tax they paid each year. English law (1555) required six days of road work per year. The same law specified that wagon roads would be 10 feet across at the rolling surface and have a decline of no more than five feet in one hundred.

Almost every colonial highway was made by militiamen, not engineers, not construction firms, but common soldiers. Let us call this vernacular engineering.


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