A road trip that predates cars

A view of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill in the 1860s.
A view of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill in the 1860s.Library of Congress

In May 1865, a month after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives set off on a coast-to-coast journey across the newly reunited nation. Schuyler Colfax, a Republican from Indiana, gave speeches and met with local dignitaries along the way, but otherwise his traveling party had no official business to conduct. And that was exactly what made the trip so unprecedented.

By the middle of the 19th century, many people had crossed the continent as explorers, traders, and pioneers. But the idea of traveling from ocean to ocean simply for its own sake was new. When Colfax made his trip, the transcontinental railroad was still under construction from both east and west. Those two spurs were four years away from meeting — indeed, one purpose of the trip was to generate publicity for the rail line and urge its completion. Most of the expedition west of the Mississippi — some 2,000 miles — was by stagecoach, across plains, deserts, and mountains. The travelers arrived in San Francisco in July 1865.


Samuel Bowles
Samuel Bowles

Accompanying Colfax were a few friends, including Samuel Bowles, editor and publisher of the Springfield Republican, one of the most respected newspapers in the country. Bowles sent a series of letters from the road back to his Massachusetts paper, which were quickly bundled into a book, “Across the Continent: A Stage Ride Over the Plains, To the Rocky Mountains, the Mormons, and the Pacific States.” It’s one of the earliest books about traveling across the United States and — a century and a half later — remains a highly readable account of what Bowles calls “these infant and struggling years of this country,” a moment that represented not only a “new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln had put it in his Gettysburg Address, but also the birth of an expansive empire.

The book itself is something of a travel guide to Manifest Destiny: Conceived as national policy more than two decades earlier, it finally became a reality after the Civil War. Bowles’s passages on the Indians, excerpted below, make clear that one of the primary motives behind their near-extermination was a desire to make the passage west safer and more economical. Implicated in the very idea of the American road trip, then, are some deeply unsettling notions about what Bowles calls, in a standard formulation of his time, “the subjugation and civilization of the continent.” Though it has been out of print for 150 years, “Across the Continent” remains a powerful read today, not least because of the challenging questions it poses about the classic American association of freedom with the road.


Braving the elements

Library of Congress//www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.32195/

The chief sensation and experience of our ride so far was a storm of thunder and lightning, hail and rain, upon the Plains. Such storms are memorable in all travel or life in this country for severity; and we had one of the very best of them. It struck us this morning, about six miles back, and just as we had come to the banks of the Platte. First came huge, rolling, ponderous masses of cloud in the west . . . then followed a tornado of wind. Horses, coach and escort turned their backs to the breeze, and bending, awaited its passing. It stripped us of every loose bit of baggage; and we sent out scouts for their recovery. Next fell the hail, pouring as swift rain, and as large and heavy as bullets. The horses quailed before its terrible pain.

Drill, baby, drill

All reports, all facts, whether floating in the air from mouth to mouth, or ground out by hard experience, and put down in black and white, go to sustain the broadest and fullest meaning of the dying statement of President Lincoln [in a conversation with Colfax just hours before his assassination], that the United States hold the treasury of the world; and establish beyond reasonable doubt that the countries of and adjacent to the Rocky Mountains are freighted with the most precious of ores — gold first, next silver . . . and then copper (with which the Colorado mineral veins are richly loaded), and also lead, iron and coal. . . . The western half of the American nation will fast move forward in civilization and population; this wilderness will blossom as the rose, and the East and the West will stand alike equal and together, knowing no jealousy, and only rivaling each other in their zeal for knowledge, liberty and civilization. But of what effect upon the currencies and the values of the world will be all this tide of gold and silver pouring into the lap of nations?


The homesteader

Library of Congress//www.loc.gov/item/2001700590/)

Most agreeable of all our experiences here are the intelligent, active, earnest, right-minded and right-hearted young men and women we meet; people, many of whom have been here for years, but, instead of losing anything of those social graces that eastern towns and cities are wont to think themselves superior. . . but gained a higher play for all their faculties, and ripened, with opportunity and incentive and necessary self-reliance, into more of manhood and womanhood. . . . I see less drunkenness; I see less vice here among these towns of the border, and of the Rocky Mountains, than at home in Springfield; I see personal activity and growth and self-reliance and social development and organization, that not only reconcile me to the emigration of our young people from the East to this region, but will do much to make me encourage it. To the right-minded, the West gives open opportunity that the East holds close and rare; and to such, opportunity is all that is wanted, all that they ask.


The natives

The government is ready to assist in their support, to grant them reservations, to give them food and make them presents; but it must and will, with sharp hand, enforce their respect to travel, their respect to lives and property, and their respect to trade throughout all this region.

And if this cannot be secured, short of their utter extermination, why extermination it must be. Else, we may as well abandon this whole region; give up its settlement, its subjugation to civilization, its development to wealth and Christianity. It is the old eternal contest between barbarism and civilization, between things as they have been and are, and material and moral progress; and barbarism and barbarity must go to the wall, somewhat too roughly perhaps, as is always the case with new, earnest, material communities. . . . Montana is disturbed with reports of Indian outrages; this whole region of mountains and plains is sensitive and suffering with the apprehensions or the realities of their general recurrence; commerce suffers; prices go up; emigration stops; and all the development of the great West is clogged. No wonder is it, then, that the entire white population of the Territories clamors for positive measures of restraint and punishment. . . . Do not suppose, however, we lost sleep or rations, or eyes for passing scenery, as we rolled over the mountains, and passed the divide between the great oceans of America. We rested proudly on our own prowess and the rifles of our escort.


The wonder of Yosemite

This image of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley was originally published in 1866.
This image of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley was originally published in 1866.Library of Congress

The overpowering sense of the sublime, of awful desolation, of transcending marvelousness and unexpectedness, that swept over us, as we reined our horses sharply out of green forests, and stood upon high jutting rock that overlooked this rolling, upheaving sea of granite mountains, holding far down its rough lap this vale of beauty of meadow and grove and river, — such tide of feeling, such stoppage of ordinary emotions comes at rare intervals in any life. It was the confrontal of God face to face, as in great danger, in solemn, sudden death. It was Niagara, magnified. All that was mortal shrank back, all that was immortal swept to the front and bent down in awe. We sat till the rich elements of beauty came out of the majesty and the desolation, and then, eager to get nearer, pressed tired horses down the steep, rough path into the Valley.

Wanted: steel-driving men

The engineers of the Union and Central Pacific locomotives shook hands upon completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
The engineers of the Union and Central Pacific locomotives shook hands upon completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.Library of Congress//www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c16354/)

Men of the East! Men at Washington! You have given the toil and even the blood of a million of your brothers and fellows for four years, and spent three thousand million dollars, to rescue one section of the Republic from barbarism and from anarchy; and your triumph makes the cost cheap. Lend now a few thousand of men, and a hundred millions of money, to create a new Republic; to marry to the Nation of the Atlantic an equal if not greater Nation of the Pacific. Anticipate a new sectionalism, a new strife, by a triumph of the arts of Peace, that shall be even prouder and more reaching than the victories of your Arms. Here is payment of your great debt; here is wealth unbounded; here the commerce of the world; here the completion of a Republic that is continental; but you must come and take them with the Locomotive!

Richard Kreitner is the archivist of the The Nation magazine.

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