In A Journey through the West, Thomas Rodney writes vividly about flea-infested taverns, bad roads, drunken crew members, squatters, Indians sodden berths, food from the wild and treacherous waters. His is one of the most detailed early-nineteenth-century travel accounts.
Rodney, a Revolutionary War patriot and veteran, had been active in Delaware politics and had served in the Continental Congress. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him as a land commissioner and a territorial judge in the newly formed Mississippi Territory. To assume his duties, Rodney and a small party traveled overland from Delaware across the length of southern Pennsylvania to Wheeling, (West) Virginia. From there, they boarded their newly constructed boat on the Ohio River and rowed, sailed, and drifted along the borders of (West) Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky.
Finally they left the clear rapids of the Ohio and entered the muddy yet majestic Mississippi. They traveled southwesterly into a vast, exotic wilderness valley. The western shore of the Mississippi was still owned by Spain, and foreign soldiers were spotted. Under pressure to meet Rodney’s deadline for arrival in Mississippi Territory, the travelers were grateful for the Mississippi’s fast current. Yet in the journey’s last days they were faced with adventures and with near disaster when their boat struck a snag and partially sank.
Rodney kept a precise journal and sent letters to President Jefferson documenting his trek from the settled East through the barely chartered paths of the western wilderness. He hobnobbed with Meriwether Lewis, enjoyed the hospitality of Harman Blennerhassett, and received a tour of Cincinnati from Arthur St. Clair.
Dwight Smith and Ray Swick have compiled, edited and annotated Rodney’s story to present it in complete form for the first time. A Journey through the West is both a travel adventure and a colorful glimpse into the life of his day.
Dwight L. Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at Miami University (Ohio). He is currently investigating British naval surveillance in the Canadian Pacific Northwest coastal waters in the 1860s. More info →
Ray Swick, the historian of the West Virginia State Park System, is based at Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park. He is the co-editor of A Journey through the West: Thomas Rodney's 1803 Journal from Delaware to the Mississippi Territory. More info →
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Log construction entered the Ohio territory with the seventeenth-century fur traders and mid-eighteenth-century squatters and then spread throughout most of the area after the opening of the territory in the 1780s. Scottish-Irish and German settlers, using techniques from the eastern states and European homelands, found the abundant timber resources of the Ohio country ideally suited to this simple, durable form of construction.
The first Mississippi steamboat was a packet, the New Orleans, a sidewheeler built at Pittsburgh in 1811, designed for the New Orleans-Natchez trade. Packets dominated during the first forty years of steam, providing the quickest passenger transportation throughout mid-continent America. The packets remained fairly numerous even into the first two decades of the twentieth century when old age or calamity overtook them.
As a Wisconsin historical marker explains: “After 1837 the vast timber resources of northern Wisconsin were eagerly sought by settlers moving into the mid-Mississippi valley. By 1847 there were more than thirty saw-mills on the Wisconsin, Chippewa, and St. Croix river systems, cutting largely Wisconsin white pine. During long winter months, logging crews felled and stacked logs on the frozen rivers. Spring thaws flushed the logs down the streams toward the Mississippi River.