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The Trip West: Indiana to Iowa in 1848

By Guest Author
May 1, 2023

When “travel” came up as a blog topic, I was instantly intrigued.  While researching NEVER LET GO, I assembled large batches of information about Laura Duley’s journey from Indiana to Iowa. I’m delighted to share some of it with all of you.

Overland travel in 1848 was rudimentary, even east of the Mississippi. Indiana had gained statehood in 1816 but its road system was still largely limited to military routes and supply roads. When newlyweds William and Laura Duley departed Ripley County, Indiana, their route would have followed the Michigan Road.

The Michigan Road was commissioned in 1826 to run from the Ohio River in the south to Lake Michigan. By 1837, the dirt road had been leveled and log bridges built across waterways. Each spring, the bridges needed repair or replacement due to decay brought on by the winter snows and many were eventually replaced with stone bridges. The road was later planked but the Duley trip predated those improvements. The journey was likely jolting, the road rutted from winter moisture. It would have been chilly (they left in May) and spring rains (or snow) may have dogged them.

Squeezing treasured belongings into the wagon was a task Laura likely disparaged. Conestoga wagons, the largest of the nineteenth century wagons were used for freighting or emigration along the major pioneer trails west of the Mississippi. William most likely selected the smaller “Prairie Schooner”, which measured 4 x 8 feet with two foot high sideboards. For Laura, this would have meant paring down her possessions to allow for food, other supplies, and space to sleep (I doubt she would have agreed to sleeping under the wagon). It would not have been an ideal way to begin a marriage.

William Duley would have had two options, to turn west at Indianapolis and take a direct route on smaller dirt roads or continue to Michigan City then head west through Chicago on the Chicago Road and State Road to Galena. With Laura’s penchant for comfort, he likely chose the better road system. By the 1840s, some 200 wagons a day traveled on the State Road, a major transportation throughfare. Laura would have been fascinated by the bustling city of Chicago (with thousands passing through daily), and William may have even booked a hotel room there before heading into less settled territory. By 1848, Chicago had grown to 20,000 residents and was connected to the East via telegraph. It was likely the largest city Laura had ever seen and her delight with the creature comforts offered there would have been evident. This would have been the highlight of her trip.

Moving westward, things would have changed. Because this was a major route, the couple was likely able to stop at taverns or restaurants along the way. It’s doubtful Laura knew anything about cooking over a campfire. As they moved further west, taverns would have grown scarce. At Galena, Illinois, things became more primitive. Though the last leg of their journey would be the shortest, it was likely the worst for Laura.

The road from Galena south to the Mississippi River was dirt, leveled but likely rutted from the volume of traffic and the spring melts. The diagonal route would shave at least fifty miles and days from their journey but may not have been the best choice. The crossing at Dubuque offered a ferryboat; at Bellevue, there was a rope ferry. While I don’t know which route William chose, I suspect Laura’s increasing displeasure and the high costs of taking the ferryboat would have prompted him to head straight to Bellevue.

The Mississippi River was wide, its waters turbulent. The rope ferry was a small flat boat constructed of logs lashed together.  It bobbed with each wave, heaving upward often. There was a small area at the center, posts with a rail for passengers to grab onto during the crossing. Once horses and wagon were on the unstable platform, blocks were nailed next to the wheels to keep the wagon from rolling off (it still rolled back and forth just a bit with each swell of the current). Then, the crossing began, laborers with poles pushing the raft, which was kept (somewhat) on course by a rope cable above or beside the platform.

Though their route was not nearly as rough as those taken by emigrants along the major trails west of the Mississippi, travel had a long way to go before it reached comfortable standards!

Guest Author

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1 Comment

  1. Anne Beggs

    Thank for the insights and travel – so many places and things.


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