We often take for granted the incredible advances in transportation that have taken place over the course of the last two centuries. In the nineteenth century, the advent of the steamboat and railroad – along with vast improvements in the road system – inaugurated what Daniel Walker Howe has called a “transportation revolution.” Unfortunately for the War Department in the 1790s however, none of these technologies were yet available. Transporting much-needed supplies – such as stationary, muskets, gunpowder, cartridges, knives, clothing, food, and other key military provisions – was a costly and risky endeavor that often frustrated the department. Provisions had to be waggoned over scarcely maintained and often impassable roads and trails, often for incredible lengths through thinly-inhabited areas.
In the autumn of 1792 we catch a glimpse of just how difficult transportation in 1790s America could be. In August, for instance, Secretary Knox had to scold Major Isaac Craig for demonstrating impatience over the slow arrival of waggoners to Pittsburgh, writing, “a sufficient time has hardly elapsed… it requires from twenty one to twenty five days for this journey.”
Sometimes the waggoners contracted by the War Department failed in their duty, causing great delay in delivering key supplies. In the following letter the Quartermaster General was said to have expressed great displeasure with the clerk William Knox for employing “improper waggoners – in several Instances men who are not to be depended on.” In September a waggoner who was found tardy was “refused any further employ by way of punishment.”
When a wagon had to be sent across a river, nature itself could get in the way, as we see in this August letter regarding the Ohio River – “the River is now so low that it is impossible for any Craft of Burthen to descend.” Overall, transportation in the 1790s was a difficult issue that the War Department frequently struggled with – a difficulty that, over time, would gradually disappear.