How Far Could Our Ancestors Travel in One Day?

Short Answer: roughly 24 miles or 3 mph.

Long Answer: Before you argue with me, let me explain how I came upon the answer because the devil is in the details.

An older gentleman with whom I attend church raised horses years ago. He divulged that, when he was a bit younger, he and several others with the same interest would drive their wagons behind a team of horses in a wagon train to different venues around the state (North Carolina). Although the roads in NC have been paved for many years, they were indeed backroads, not four-lane highways, or busy thoroughfares.

My friend went on with how it took him two days to drive his wagon and horses to Mt. Airy, NC (Mayberry to you Andy Griffith fans) from the Winston Salem area: That’s a distance of 36 miles on highway US 52 on the map. But the distance is farther because the wagon train took the backroads so the mileage may be increased to as much as 45-50 miles.

He told me he could travel 3 miles per hour. In that timeframe, however, you have to stop every 4 to 5 hours to let the horses rest NO LESS than 20 minutes. How often you stop has to do with whether you’re traveling on flat land or uphill and how heavy the load is that you’re hauling. You might eat and drink and take care of business while the horses rest but your meal amounted to what we would think of as more of a snack. A “light repast,” if you will. Your main meal was the evening meal.

How far you could travel also depends on an injury to one of the horses or something substantial on the wagon breaks – a wheel or an axle. Then you stop for however long it takes to fix it.

Then there is weather to consider, rain being the worst, I think, because I can’t imagine anyone intentionally setting out on a journey of some distance if it was going to snow or winter had already begun. Wood (for lighting fires) is wet and you either slept in the wagon (or under it if packed to the gills) in the cold. Thoroughly wet ground, even if the path before you is packed, is great for creating ruts and getting stuck in the mud.

And how many hours per day did he travel? 8 hours. When you stop for the evening, there’s wood to gather to build a fire and a meal to cook. Then dishes to wash after. Plus, you must unhook the horses from the wagon – you don’t want them getting spooked and taking off with you sleeping in it – or run over you while sleeping under it and it packed with hard-to-replace household goods and farming implements attached to the sides. Absolutely, you must unhook the horses and tie them up or hobble them. They’ll rest better and can easily graze nearby. Our ancestors would have had to look for water to fill the canteens for the next day’s journey. And dishwashing.

Now imagine if you had small children and perhaps some livestock: If you’re moving to a brand-new location, take into consideration that adults can walk a good distance but children, not so far. They can alternate riding with walking but I also imagine a very young child could slow you down a bit.

Therefore, if you were traveling alone, you could probably walk 24 miles faster than if you drove a wagon. On horseback, you may be able to travel a little further. In a best-case scenario – no foul weather, no injuries, no breakages – you may accomplish 24 miles in 8 hours. But accompanied by a loaded wagon, children, livestock, and other necessities, I think a shorter distance per day should be expected.

His final words were, “if you travel a week and a half, expect to take the next week and a half resting and repairing.”