How fast could they travel?

This question comes up a lot when people are writing westerns or historicals set in early time periods. The answer is not that black and white. How long would it take to drive from Texarkanna to Brownsfield in Texas today? It depends, are the roads wet or slick? Would you have a flat? Will the traffic be heavy? How many times will you stop for gas or to eat and for how long? There are a lot of intangibles that enter into travel time on a trip and it was no different in the late 1800’s.

 

Travel time would depend on the terrain, the condition of the stock and the equipment, the weather, even on whether there might be those around who were intent on impeding your progress. These were always factors to consider. However, considering these complicating factors a group of published western writers gathered around our virtual online campfire and talked about realistic travel times. The result of this discussion has been very useful to me.

 

We figured a man walks around three miles an hour. A man on foot can easily walk 30 miles in a day, 40 if he pushes it. Jackson’s ‘foot cavalry’ consistently did more than that.

 

A horse will walk 3-4 mph, trot about 8-10 mph and gallop depending on the ability of the animal and the terrain at 30-40 mph. According to the U S Cavalry a horse can cover some 30-40 miles a day but can be pushed to double that but then will be pretty much spent for several days while he recuperates. The US Cavalry mounted service cup race averaged 60 miles a day for five days carrying a rider and over 200 pounds of gear. A Pony Express rider would cover 75-100 miles on their portion of the mail run and would change horses at way stations every 10-15 miles. The entire 2000 miles of the trail would be covered in 10 days with riders riding 24 hours a day. That makes an average of about nine miles an hour according to express records, but daylight riders did much better and night riders moved much slower. By means of comparison modern racehorses have achieved records up to 40 mph.

 

How fast could a single horse if pushed to the limit? The 100-mile Tevis Cup race, held annually in Nevada and California. It goes over the Sierras, and the record time to win is 10 hours, 46 minutes (riders have 24 hours to complete it). It's a VERY rugged course, and the race is held during the full moon in July each year to give maximum "light" hours. These horses are strictly monitored along the way at veterinary checks and must be found "fit to continue" at the end. Think about THAT for minute! The Best Conditioned award is as coveted as the winning time award. Of course, these horses are well trained for the event for months in advance (LONGEST time for a winner of the Tevis over the years--since 1961—is 16 hours, 23 minutes). Endurance riding began with cavalry exercises in which troopers rode 100 miles a day for three days. So, yes, horses can carry a person that far that fast if they are in good shape.

 

A wagon might do 15-25 miles in a day if it was being pulled by horses or mules. Oxen on the other hand only traveled one or two miles and hour but didn’t require as much rest or as good a forage as horses or mules. They might do 10-12 miles in a 10 hour day. A train would make good time where there was something of a road or trail but then might spend an entire day or even more lowering wagons down a bad grade or floating them across a river. Then, wagon trains didn’t travel the most direct route either. A scout out front took them through the most favorable, or more level terrain, and they could only carry so much water so choosing a route that took advantage of available water had a lot to do with how directly toward their objective they were traveling. Still, wagons moved at a pace where occupants often walked alongside and since we’ve established the speed of a man or horse walking at some 3-4 mph, that’d be the speed of the wagon too if no obstacles are involved.

 

A stagecoach would run on an established route similar to the Pony Express and would make much better time than a wagon train. Running 24 hours a day and with relays of fresh teams they usually covered the route in a little better than half the time of the feisty express riders. Of course they also stopped to rest and feed passengers. This generally had them covering some 100-150 miles in a 24 hour period depending on how good the roads were and the other factors mentioned above. The Wells Fargo site says  the coaches traveled 5 to 12 mph, depending on terrain. When they used the "southern route" (pre-Civil War 1857-1861) they went from St. Louis to San Francisco in 25 days (leaving twice a week for this route). In 1861 they started using the route the Pony Express had used (across the plains farther north) and no doubt cut the time, though I don't see exactly how long this route took (the Pony did it in 10 days from St. Joseph to Sacramento).

 

Railroads were subject to terrain factors as well. A steam engine capable of 60-80 mph on a flat grade with no load could be reduced to five or ten mph pulling a steep grade with a load. They might haul a 50 ton load at some 25-30 mph but would stop at towns to let passengers on or off and pick up or drop mail as well as to take on fuel and water. When the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869 it became possible to go from San Francisco to New York in only ten days. That’s close to 3000 miles giving an average of about 30 mph.

 

These are ball park figures that I use to help keep me within the bounds of reality when time and travel come into play in my writing. Perhaps they will be helpful to you as well.