Lincoln Boyhood
Historic Resource Study
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Pioneer Lifeways


The first wave of settlers to southern Indiana generally relied upon the region's rivers and streams to move people and goods. Settlement and economic development were intricately intertwined processes in which transportation was the principal theme. As farms became established and moved beyond a subsistence level of production, transportation improvements to waterways and roads proved critical to their ability to access the national market economy. While rivers and streams initially served as the primary transportation corridors, a network of local roads developed along the system of range and township lines used by the county surveyors and parallel to the waterways. The range and township system defined parcel boundaries, and it was within this imposed grid that local settlement patterning occurred, based on topography, water, roads, and community services such as mills and smiths.


Rivers and streams comprised the first major transportation network in Indiana. Most of the state's first farms and communities were established along rivers, such as the Ohio, Wabash, Whitewater, and White. In southern Indiana, tributary streams, including the Little Pigeon Creek, Crooked Creek, Patoka River, and Great Pigeon Creek, provided routes to inland settlements. Waterways were the first and most important outlet for farmers wishing to sell surplus agricultural products in distant markets. Geography dictated that southern Indiana was oriented toward the Ohio-Mississippi river trade from the late eighteenth century through the onset of the Civil War. The Ohio River was the most significant artery for commerce, as it joined the Mississippi River and provided a direct route to New Orleans. From the port city, Indiana's agricultural products could be shipped to a worldwide market. Furthermore, it was only from New Orleans that Indiana farmers could gain access to the well-established East Coast markets. The Appalachian Mountains posed a major barrier to shipping goods overland to eastern markets in Philadelphia and New York, and rivers and streams generally flowed southwest, making it prohibitively expensive to ship products upriver. [130]

Manually powered flatboats were the primary means available to farmers for shipping their goods (Figure 15). Measuring approximately 10 feet wide and 40 feet long, the wooden boats had a steering oar (also known as "sweep") at the stern, side sweeps or poles, and often a short bow oar (also called a "gouger") for keeping the boat in the current. For the most part these vessels drifted downstream on the current; flatboats were poorly suited to upstream travel. A rough wood shelter covered the boat, shielding both crew and cargo from the elements. Cargo included agricultural products such as corn, flour, pork, honey, hay, and whiskey, as well as raw materials such as lumber and lime. [131]

Figure 15: Drawing of Early Ohio River Flatboat (Sieber and Munson, 1994: 27)

Given their small size and light draft, flatboats could navigate narrow and shallow streams, allowing farmers in the remote interior access to the Ohio River trade artery. Farmers often pooled their resources to construct a flatboat and ship their goods to market. The trip downstream to New Orleans generally required from eight to twelve weeks, depending upon weather conditions. Because the boats were so simple and inexpensive, and because upstream travel was so difficult, upon reaching New Orleans farmers usually had their boats broken up and sold for lumber and then set off for home on foot. In 1828, nineteen-year-old Abraham Lincoln was among the farmboys making the journey from the Little Pigeon Creek to New Orleans. This occasion marked the first time he left Indiana outside the company of his family. [132]

For shipping goods upstream, keelboats were the best option available in the early years of the nineteenth century. Approximately 10 feet wide and 80 feet long, the boat was pointed at both ends to facilitate travel against the current. Keelboats typically were fitted with a mast and sail, but often moved upstream by manually poling the boat against the current or by pulling it with tow ropes like a canal boat. The work was extremely laborious, and a boat with a cargo of 10 to 40 tons and a crew of 8 to 20 men generally progressed only an average of 6 miles a day. As a result, keelboats were practical only for shipping goods of low bulk and weight, or of very high value. Coffee, molasses, salt, and sugar were among the goods sent upriver from New Orleans to Indiana in keelboats. [133]

During the 1810s, river transportation was transformed by the introduction of the steamboat. Robert Fulton and his associates, including Nicholas Roosevelt, played an instrumental role in establishing steam navigation on the Ohio River. In 1811, their first steamboat, the New Orleans, traveled from Cincinnati to Louisville and back, and then continued south to New Orleans. [134] Advances in design allowed the boats to travel in shallow water and at increasing rates of speed. In 1817, a round trip from Louisville to New Orleans could be accomplished in only 41 days; within two decades, the upstream journey from New Orleans required only 8 days. Farmers also had the option of continuing to ship their goods downstream by flatboat, then making the return journey upstream via steamboat; greatly reducing travel time and permitting three or four trips a year to the New Orleans markets instead of only one. Shipping by steamboat proliferated, with the number of boats licensed for the Mississippi trade rising from 72 in 1820 to 130 by 1824; this number increased to 230 by 1834 and to 450 in 1842. [135]

Yet river travel presented a number of obstacles. Low water during the summer and ice during winter often closed the river to navigation. Shipping routes were forced to follow existing waterways, leaving many areas beyond reach. Unpredictable weather, storms, and obstructions in the river, including snags and sandbars, led to numerous accidents. Shipment of high-bulk, heavy freight with a comparatively low value, such as coal and lumber, was not economically profitable. Finally, the primitive steamboat engines often exploded. In Indiana, these problems were fitfully addressed by the State legislature. In 1820, construction of mill dams on navigable rivers was prohibited to preserve the stream flow. In 1827, a safety inspection of steamboats was passed, but enforcement proved lax. The Federal government also initiated efforts to remove river obstructions and improve navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. [136] Many of the problems with river travel proved intractable, and as swelling populations sparked settlement away from navigable rivers, improvements in overland travel became increasingly essential.


Construction and Maintenance

In the early nineteenth century, most roads were simple dirt tracks maintained on an irregular basis at the county or township level. Local statutes often permitted property owners to "work off" their road tax by spending a few days per year helping with maintenance. The road surface was smoothed using hand-held rakes or horse-drawn scrapers. Deep ruts and holes were usually filled with saplings or cut logs and then covered with a layer of dirt. [137] The haphazard character of the maintenance, the essentially unstable quality of the building material, and changing weather conditions generally assured that dirt roads of this type were in very poor condition, if passable at all.

In an effort to address the shortcomings of dirt roads, several other road building technologies were employed. During the early to mid-1800s, timber plank roads enjoyed a popularity far out of proportion to their durability and cost. This paving was created by laying milled wood planks over longitudinal stringers compressed into a sand ballast, creating a wood roadway flush with the ground. Most plank roads had only one lane, albeit with wide earthen shoulders that could be used for passing. Turnpike companies, which charged users a toll, were responsible for construction of many plank roads. The paving originally was touted as lasting seven to twelve years, which would have allowed turnpike companies to recoup construction costs through tolls. In fact, plank roads generally lasted scarcely three years, and their unexpectedly high maintenance costs bankrupted many turnpike companies. [138]

Gravel proved a highly effective road surface, although construction and maintenance remained labor intensive. Several means of gravel construction were pioneered during the nineteenth century. Developed in 1805, the Telford system called for a foundation of large flat stones topped with layers of smaller, broken pieces. The pressure of passing traffic would compress the stone layers into a firm surface. [139] Perhaps the best known graveling technique is macadam, named for its inventor, John Loudon McAdam (or Macadam). With a macadam road, the roadbed began with a twelve-to-fifteen foot wide trough cut slightly below grade and compacted. Three layers of broken stone gravel were laid into the trough. The first layer was about four inches thick and comprised of stone pieces between two and two-and-one-half inches in size. The middle four-inch course was made of stone broken into pieces between three-quarters of an inch and two inches in size. The top two-inch layer featured rock varying in size from sand to three-quarter inches. Each layer was compacted before the next layer was applied. The dust created from breaking the stone was applied last, and then the top layer was regraded to create a crowned roadbed with slight berms and ditches flanking the road for drainage. A final rolling was undertaken to compact the sand and dust into the gravel, creating a smooth hard surface capable of shedding water. [140] Although gravel surfacing was extremely effective, the laborious process of building such roads meant that they generally were concentrated around larger communities and densely settled areas, such as the moderately prosperous town of Rockport in Spencer County.

Figure 16: Early Roads and Trails in Indiana (Madison, 1990: 76) (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Consequently, in frontier Indiana during the early nineteenth century, dirt roads predominated. A modest network of overland routes developed by the 1820s, including local roads, stagecoach routes, and turnpikes (Figure 16). Local roads often followed the system of range and township lines used by the county surveyors or paralleled waterways such as Little Pigeon Creek. Tax-supported county roads were not common in Indiana until after State legislation in 1879; before that date most local roads were either informally maintained or private toll roads. [141]

Roads in Southern Indiana

The Vincennes-Troy Road ranked among the earliest roads in southern Indiana. In 1814, a survey was undertaken for the portion of this route that ran from Darlington, the county seat of Warrick County, to Troy, the seat of Perry County. The following year, the Perry County Court authorized construction along an alignment that followed an earlier trail to Polk Patch in Warrick County. The roadway was to be twelve feet wide and sufficiently cleared to allow the passage of carriages. In 1816, this was the road followed by Thomas Lincoln and his family as they traveled to their new homestead in Section 32 of Carter Township in Spencer County. How much the road had been improved by that time is unknown. According to family tradition, the sixteen-mile trip from Troy to the new farmstead was the most difficult part of the Lincolns' migration from Kentucky. Although the Vincennes-Troy Road presumably had been cleared by this date, its unimproved earthen surface was undoubtedly in poor condition. Moreover, the farm site was located four miles west of the road, and the bottomlands in between were filled with dense, almost impenetrable thickets and underbrush. The Lincolns reportedly had to cut their way through the thickets and fell trees with an ax in order to make room for their wagon's passage. [142]

Another early overland route was the Buffalo (or Vincennes) Trace. Originally surveyed in 1805, this route began at the Ohio River near Jeffersonville and continued across the state to Vincennes and the Wabash River. During the early nineteenth century, this roadway was the principal means for crossing southern Indiana and provided settlers with a way to reach Indiana's remote inland areas. Established in 1820, the first stagecoach line in southern Indiana followed the Buffalo Trace. Another road ran from Vincennes south to the Ohio River along the Red Banks Indian trail and extended north to Terre Haute. The Three-Notch Road followed an Indian trail from the Falls of the Ohio to Indianapolis. It was joined at the East Fork of the White River by Berry's Trace, which led to settlements in southeastern Indiana. [143]

Statehood brought increased government interest in road construction. The Enabling Act of 1816 allowed the allocation of 3 percent of proceeds from the sale of government lands within Indiana to be used for transportation improvements. In 1821, the State Legislature appropriated funds for the construction of 24 state roads, with the majority of these radiating from the new state capital at Indianapolis. The legislation's intent was to develop a road system that would reach all areas of the state. Unfortunately, primitive road building technologies and high costs meant that the designated roads were poorly constructed and maintained. Many were little more than partially cleared trails with numerous stumps. The road from Vincennes to Indianapolis, for example, was laid out by dragging a log behind an ox team through the woods, prairies, and marshes that comprised the route. During rainy spring and fall weather, the roads became quagmires that challenged the most daring traveler. [144]

Beginning in 1826, the State government also undertook construction of the Michigan Road, which was intended to connect Lake Michigan to the Ohio River at Madison, by way of Indianapolis. Construction of the federally funded National Road through Indiana began at around this same time. The project's goal was to provide an east-west corridor from Maryland to the western frontier. Construction began as early as 1806 in Maryland, but proceeded at a slow and fitful pace for the next two decades. The road crossed Indiana through Richmond, Indianapolis, and Terre Haute, and ultimately terminated in Vandalia, Illinois. West of Indianapolis, however, the National Road was never fully improved by the Federal government and this segment reverted to state control in 1839. Despite this shortcoming, the road created an important link for the small Indiana towns along its route, and served as the main overland route to and from the East. Both the Michigan and National roads also facilitated settlement of Indiana's interior beyond those areas accessible by waterway. [145]

As the frontier receded and southern Indiana became more densely populated, the need for improved transportation became increasingly critical. Expensive improvements also became feasible for the first time, as the population base was sufficient to support such projects. In Spencer County, the Rockport & Gentryville Plank Road Company was established in November 1850. This organization sprang from the demand for rapid transportation from the farms in the northern half of the county to shipping points along the Ohio River. The road extended a distance of 17 miles, operating as a toll road for seven years, before it fell victim to the falling revenues and high maintenance expenses that typically forced such companies to cease operations. [146]

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2003