The Ohio River Route

©Illinois Trails History & Genealogy


It would naturally seem that the way to Kentucky by the Ohio River would have been preferred to the Wilderness Road by the early immigants. A broad, deep stream, with a gentle current, and no obstruction from Pittsburgh to Louisville, would strike the mind as a provision of nature, by which population might be carried westward after passing the mountains. But the experiences of those who made the voyage were so severe, and the accounts which went back of delays, hardships, and dangers were so terrfying, it excites no wonder that the toilsome journey by way of Cumberland Gap was selected, even by those who came from the Northern States.

Though Pittsburgh had been a military post since 1754, it could afford but little aid to families bound for Kentucky in the earlier stages of the emigration. In 1775 it really had no more inhabitants than Boone and Henderson had gathered that same year at Boonesboro. It was ten years afterward, when its population had reached a thousand, that it began to be, as McMaster says, "the centering point of emigrants to the West." from whence "travelers were carried in keel-boats and Kentucky flat-boats and Indian pirogues down the waters of the Ohio." The difficulty of procuring such transportation must be taken into account. It was a tedious process to prepare the lumber and construct boats at that starting point in the wilderness, for Pittsburgh itself was in the depths of the wilderness. It required courage of the highest order to put out from that post for a river voyage of weeks, and no friendly shelter or harbor at which to stop on the way. It was known that the banks were infested with Indians, and to be attacked on the water was more dreadful than upon land. The boats were rude and small; they were crowded with human beings, and their baggage and stock. It wa task enough to make the voyage unmolested, and terrible fate to encounter savages on the way. A more pitiable plight is not conceivable than a cargo of emigrants on a rude, drifting craft, fifteen feet wide by forty or fifty feet in length, helpless on the bosom of the Ohio, receiving a murderous fire from the bank.

Imlay, writing in 1792, says at Redstone, Old Fort, or Pittsburgh, emigrants could either buy a boat at about five shillings per ton, or freight their goods to Kentucky at one shilling per hundred weight; but this was toward the close of Indian molestation. Even then there was no regular business of this sort, and emigrants must put up with delays and unsatisfactory accommodations.

To illustrate the character of the travel to Kentucky by way of the river, I will quote a passage from "Taylor's History of Ten Baptist Churches," an old and rare book. Taylor came out from Virginia in 1783. He says it was then regarded a gloomy thing to move to Kentucky. After alluding to the contemplated horrors that lay in the way, he says:

"We took water at Redstone, and from want of a better opening, I paid for a passage in a lonely, ill-fixed boat of strangers. The river being low, this lonesome boat was about seven weeks before she landed at Beargrass. Not a soul was then settled on the Ohio betwwen Wheeling and Louisville, a space of five hundred or six hundred miles, and not one hour, day or night, in safety; though it was now winter, not a soul in all Beargrass settlement was in safety but by being in a fort. I then meditated traveling about eighty miles to Craig's Station, on Gilberts' Creek, in Lincoln County. We set out in a few days; nearly all I owned was then at stake. I had three horses, two of them were packed, the other my wife rode, with as much lumber beside as the beast could bear. I had four black people, one man and three smaller ones. The pack horses were led, one by myself and the other by my man. The trace, what there was being so narrow and bad, we had no chance but to wade through all the mud, rivers and creeks we came to. Salt River, with a number of its large branches, we had to deal with often; those waters being flush, we often must wade to our middle.....Those struggles often made us forget the dangers we were in from Indians....After six days painful travel of this kind, we arrived at Craig's Station a little before Christmas, and about three months after our start from Virginia.

The experience of Captain William Hubbell illustrates the dangers of the river route even as late as 1791.

He procured a flat-boat on the Monongahela; nine men, three women, and eight children went on board. As they floated down the Ohio they discovered signs of Indians, and kept watch night and day. One morning about daylight a voice from the shore was heard begging to be taken on board; Captain Hubbell refused to land. The Indians, seeing their decoy was unsuccessful, attacked the flat-boat; twenty five or thirty approached in canoes. Firing commenced on both sides. The lock of Captain Hubbell's rifle was shot off by a bullet from an Indian gun, but he coolly seized a fire-brand and fired his piece with fatal effect. His right arm was disabled but he continued the fight, using pistols and hurling billets of wood. The Indians were driven off; but of the nine men only two remained unhurt, and three were killed. After the one of the children, a little boy, asked to have a bullet taken out of his head. On examination it was found that a bullet was indeed lodged in his scalp. "That ain't all." said he, showing a wound in his arm which had broken a bone. He had made no outcry, because the children had been ordered to keep quiet. The horses were all killed but one. In a spae five feet square, on the side of the cabin, one hundred and twenty two bullet-holes were counted.

Mention has already been made of a road which led out from Richmond, following the track of Braddocks old road to Redstone, Old Fort, from which point the travel to Kentucky was by water.

The following is a very interesting itinerary of that journey, with "observations and occurrences," by William Brown. It very aptly shows the tediousness of the river route, and suggests the perils incident to it, when Indians lurked along the Ohio, especially on the "Indian sie," at every point where the current might draw the drifting boat near to their murderous clutches. Not the least important information supplied by this old journal is the noting of the islands in the river from Pittsburgh to Maysville. From these data the scientist is helped to chronicle the insular changes ever occurring in the washing away of one island and the forming of another along the course of this river. Another suggestive fact recorded in this journal is the few human habitations along the river banks as late as 1790. And finally, the river pilot of today many compare the courses of the channel in the last century as given in this journal, with those of the present, and philosophized upon the every-changing currents of the Beautiful River.

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