Colonial Travel with Pack Horses

Magnificent forests lined the hillsides and valleys in Colonial America. Their beauty didn’t make them easier to navigate. Pioneers blazed trails to the west by foot and then by horseback.

Settlers heading westward during this time traveled before roads had been cut. Skinny paths left no room for wagons. They hauled their worldly possessions on pack horses.

By tying each horse to the tail of the one immediately in front, one driver led a line of pack horses. Drivers controlled up to a dozen horses in one line.

Each animal could carry up to two hundred pounds on primitive pack saddles. Pioneers created their own saddles using sturdy, forked limbs, trimmed to fit a particular load. Some frontiersmen made a living by selling their pack saddles in the back woods.

Once these courageous souls settled in Western Pennsylvania or the Ohio country, they made yearly trips back east to sell their produce and replenish supplies. Traveling in caravans, they took ginseng, rye, bear’s grease, snakeroot, and hides back east. They returned with such goods as gunpowder, salt, nails, and iron.

Early U.S. military operations utilized pack horse trains in traveling to confront Native Americans. Captain Robert Benham served as Conductor General of pack horses in the late 1700s, taking part in expeditions with Wayne, Harmar, St. Clair, and Wilkinson.

While at Fort Harmar (near present-day Marietta, Ohio) in June of 1787, Colonel Harmar wrote that the cheapest cost of hiring pack horses was fifty cents a day.

-Sandra Merville Hart


“Fort Harmar,” Ohio History Central, 2017/04/22

Schneider, Norris F. The National Road: Main Street of America, The Ohio Historical Society, 1975.

Venable, W.H., LL. D. Westward by Hoof, Wheel, and Keel. Extracted from Footprints of the Pioneers in the Ohio Valley, originally published in 1888.