River Crossings

October 14 history blog post: One of a series of short essays to provide the cultural, political and geographical context for the 1766 travelers.

River crossings in 1766 were difficult and dangerous, especially if there had been heavy rains, and they could cause significant delays in traveling.

In some places, the 1766 group crossed streams or rivers by simply wading through, if the depth and current were not dangerous for the wagon and the horses. The deeper rivers required ferries. Ferries were operated by landowners near shallow crossings, or fords, in rivers. Ferry boats were simple flat boats to accommodate wagons, livestock and pedestrians. They were propelled by poles, or occasionally by rowing, sailing or stretching a line between banks.

Tolls were set by the regional assemblies and were paid to the owner of the ferry. From Salome Meurer’s journal, we learn that many of the ferries were operated by enslaved people.

The 1766 group crossed multiple rivers during their journey, including the Susquehanna, Potomac, Rappahanock, James, and Roanoke. These crossings were perhaps the most dangerous portion of the journey, as Salome Meurer describes in these excerpts from her journal:

October 7th: At 10 o’clock we reached the Susquehanna. After making it about half-way across the river we had to turn back. The wind blew so strongly that the waves were lapping onto the raft. The ferry people were afraid because the boat was so full – 22 people and 9 horses were riding on it…. After a couple of hours we risked crossing again. Sisters Schrobbin and Utley remained on the wagons. After much anxiety and work we finally made it.

October 11th. At 8 o’clock in the morning we reached the Potomac. The Negro that got us across the river didn’t know what he was doing. He fell in the water four times and left us stranded three times.

October 14th. In the afternoon we came to a river called the Rappahanock. Only four persons could ride in the canoe. Brother Holder paddled us across.

October 24th. We covered five miles by 10 o’clock, when we reached the Roanoke…. We and the horses crossed the Roanoke with no problems, but the wagon was in great danger. The Negro, who had been drinking too much, had only one pole and was pushing the raft toward a large cliff. Just before we hit the cliff Brother Holder quickly made an oar and paddled toward us in the canoe. There was a brother, a sister, and a young girl on the raft. In the meantime Sisters Brentlin and Liesel Buhlern took care of the horses…. Luckily everyone made it across the river, except for one of the dogs, who was still on the other side. It took us from 10 until 1 o’clock to finish. The brothers were completely exhausted.

Virginia S. Hart A’75

Ferry Boats of Colonial America

Aaron S. Fogleman, “Women on the Trail in Colonial America: A Travel Journal of German Moravians Migrating from Pennsylvania to North Carolina in 1766