Many of us do not know how our ancestors traveled during the great migration years of the 18th-century. In other words, we don’t know if they walked the entire way, if they traveled by wagon or by cart. The way they traveled would also detail the length of the trip. To understand the number of people migrating during this period, one needs to grasp the actual population numbers. According to statistics and ground study, North Carolina’s population during 1729 consisted of approximately 30,000 people. By 1752, the number increased to over 50,000 and 80,000 by 1755. Further research demonstrates 120,000 by 1765, and ten years later, 345,000 people were living in North Carolina. These numbers not only prove the great migration years but also emphasizes the importance of colonial travel.
You will find several articles describing the Conestoga wagons on Piedmont Trails giving dimensions, type of wood used, wheel characteristics, and how loaded items affected overall weight for travel. What you won’t find is detailed information about the early carts until today. As the GWRP Research Team continues to dig deeper into the past, it appears that an overwhelming amount of families used large carts, especially during the early years of the great migration. You may discover that your ancestor traveled by cart instead of by wagon. There are several reasons why the cart’s popularity outweighs the Conestoga wagon. The majority of today’s people picture in their minds long caravans of wagons climbing steep hills and crossing many streams and creeks. But, that may change after you research and study the cart.
For years, wagon parts scattered along the early roads of the colonial period, including the Great Wagon Road. Remnants of these parts discovered during the 1980s speak to the truth of colonial transportation in the Stokes County, NC area. Wagons were expensive, not only with the price but with upkeep and maintenance as well. Over the many miles, the wheel hubs would become loose, and wheelwrights were few during the early years of the Great Wagon Road.
The early carts are equipped with large wooden wheels, allowing the hubs 3-foot clearance from the ground. This statement is remarkable as we picture ourselves standing at this wheel and the center of the wheel reaching up to our waistlines. Carts pulled by oxen can easily travel on any road. We often hear about the conditions of these early roads, but it seems carts endured these much better than wagons. The families sought river crossings with rocky bottoms, which prevented any sinking due to weight into the river mud. These water crossings resulted in fewer wheel damage with carts versus wagons. The deep ruts were no match to the cart as the broader wheel resulted in more torque to maneuver these obstacles more easily. The maintenance was less with two wheels versus four, and other components played a factor. It’s important to point the risk of traveling with damaged wheels. All four wheels on a wagon must work together just as the balanced tires work together on modern vehicles. If damages occur on one, then pressure builds to the remaining three. Over time, this can result in extensive mishaps or accidents along the way.
The cost factor is the dominant argument using carts versus wagons. Often made by the individual, they would display particular handicrafts and various woods. Many of these survived their colonial days of travel. Thousands of people each year view them in museums and other facilities. The storage capacity may be slightly less, but the other components seem to make the carts worthy of the trip long ago.
Carts are still in use today. The average household tends to use the wheelbarrow or hand cart when moving heavy items from one place to another. It makes the task much easier due to the leverage and the reliable wheel. Our ancestors felt the same way as they made their way to a new home.