Porters, Hostlers, and Teamsters: Change and resistance in England's First North American Frontier

This essay considers violent opposition to technological change in surface cargo carriage. It is geographically limited to consideration of change in England's southeaster North American colonies. Land cargo carriage technology changed two or three times during the colonial era in the southeast. Not unlike change in our own time, each change bred violent resistance to change. Sometimes it was government violence directed at malefactors of small wealth (e.g. the imposition of market economy values on frontiers people that produced at least a part of the War of the Regulation), and other times it was the violence of displaced workers directed at the technology that displaced them.

Actually, the first change to be considered isn't really a technological change at all but was, rather, a sociological and political change in who traded with whom. In earliest colonial times, say from 1585 through the First Powhatan War (1622) English colonists competed with one another with no restraint whatsoever for trade with Native American neighbors. During this period trade can be characterized as personal and extemporized. Individuals or villages of Native Americans brought food to English settlers and traded these goods, probably as often as not to dissuade the English from attacking them and taking the food by force. John Smith found private trade to be a bane as hungry men would trade anything for a bit of food and that produced inflated prices; one one received an ax for a basket of corn, one would not accept anything less for the same basket of corn. So, commerce in these early years was largely a matter of barter for essential Indian food stuffs; free marketing of the most fundamental sort. Eventually colonial authorities brought this raw entrepreneurship under control by executing a few individual traders and presuming a monopoly on trading and raiding for food. This deserves mention only to show that there was a history of exchange before formalization of trade processes between 1622 and the Second Powhatan War (1644).

After the second Powhatan War, Virginia structured a set of trade monopolies that were intended to keep Native American traders well away from tidewater settlements. Frontier forts became official points for trade. The colony granted the forts along with trade monopolies on trade in contiguous geographic regions to a handful of Governor Berkeley's favorites. Of these, we have a relatively good picture of the trade monopoly of Abraham Wood out of his fort at the falls of the Appomattox Rive, above Bermuda Hundred, the current location of Petersburg, VA.

Woods learned early that trade for deer hides was most cost-effectively handled by sharing his monopoly with one group of Indians, the Occaneechi, a people already specialized in facilitating trade. Working with the Occaneechi did not prevent Wood from trying to work with other peoples (e.g. he attempted to reach the Tuscarora) but the Occaneechi, working with neighboring people like the Meherrin and Nottoway were apparently able to effectively deny passage to would-be traders with the Tuscarora (centered on the Tar River drainage in NC). But of all this we know too little to make certain this assertion. We do know, though, that Woods traded in the backcountry through the Occaneechi who provided him portering and essential protection for his goods going into and coming out of the backcountry.

Some times, as in the case of John Needham (one of Abraham Woods' traders), using porters was prohibitively expensive. In 1673 one of his Occaneechi bearers killed him quite intentionally and with post mortem flourishes, it seems, over his management style. This labor action probably reflected more the diminished respect held for porters by traders who could see coming the extinction of that way of life.

The porters, not being blind could see it coming too. As horses became more common in the colonies, packhorses supplanted porters. As with most displaced workers or workers made obsolete by technology, porters extended their anger beyond the horses to the hostlers and to the managers who hired the hostlers and the owners that paid the hostlers. Anybody involved in the changing English trade matrix became a target.

By the middle of the 17th century there was a rapidly growing population of former indentured servants crowding on to the frontier. Virginia put former indentures on the frontier after the Second Powhatan War as a barrier. They were effective in that role but, owing to bad roads and the remoteness of markets, these new frontier folk had very limited prospect of advancing economically beyond subsistence farming. Some became "ponyboys" and scoured the woods of the southeast for herds of mustangs for sale in the coastal regions where they were worth enouugh to make an enterprising and desperate young man a grub stake. Naturally enough, some frontier folk turned to trading with Native American neighbors quite in defiance of official colonial monopolies. Informal, local trade quickly grew into more formal commerce but with a difference. The frontier folk were able to beat the monopolists prices by carrying cargo in and out of the backcountry on horseback thus doing away with the cost of portering.

Economies of scale drove this change and proved irresistable to Indians and governors alike. People carry tens of pounds. A typical porter load might by 80 pounds or less. Horses carry hundreds of pounds and might typically carry 150 to 200 pounds. They didn't whine (whinny?) about conditions, and never threatened to go on strike. One hostler could manage five or even more horses, thus labor costs plummeted with the advent of the new technology. The Occaneechi, needless to say, were miffed at the intrusion on their by then classic role in the trade matrix. Their anger and violent response to being displaced brought on a ruthless retaliation called "Bacon's Rebellion" in which the new horsebourne tradets and other frontier folk tried to exterminate every Indian in proximity to the Virginia frontier.

Something similar happened when wagons replaced packhorses. It is likely, given labor cost in a labor short country, that traders sought the cheapest hostelers possible to run their horse trains. The hostelers would need to be seasoned frontier folk accustomed to moving far away from the settlements and uncomplaining under the most arduous conditions. So, former porters, pony boys, and failed independent traders probably were the hired hands that ran packhorse trains of over a hundred horses (reported by William Byrd II) that carried trade goods in to and hides, herbs, and crafts out of the backcountry. Their hayday lasted from 1676 until the beginning of the second quarter of the 18th century.

William Byrd II, in his History of the Dividing Line, besides telling us that there were packhorse trains of over a hundred horses, incidentally told us that they were no longer using their preferred route across Moniseep Ford over the Roanoke River (about a mile downstream from modern Interstate 85). This may mean that packhorse trade had shifted westward or could mean that packhorse trading was on the wane, and probably meant both. The Tuscarora War (1712-1715) probably destroyed the trade partners closest to Moniseep Ford forcing traders to concentrate on trade with the Catawba and Cherokee. But road orders in Brunswick County, VA indicated that wagons were already crossing the Roanoke by the late 1720s too; packhorses were being put out of business by a more efficient technology.

A horse may carry a couple of hundred pounds of goods, but a horse or ox pulling a wagon can draw hundreds of pounds down the road. Teams of horses or oxen were even more efficient and were able to carry a thousand pounds or more per draft animal. But a wagon needs a road, so the advent of wagon travel says even more about social and economic conditions than it does about transportation technology. But more on that later. Suffice for now that packhorsement wrecked wagons and killed wagoners with great relish when first that technology breeched the frontier.



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