Ah! Those Horse and Buggy Days!

Ah! Those Horse and Buggy Days!
Martha Washington: First Ladies' Lives

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: Two class periods


Most people in the Washington’s time never traveled more than five miles from the place where they were born—partly because the roads were terrible (or non-existent!), the weather was unpredictable, and overnight accommodations were scarce, far between, and often dirty.  Nevertheless, both George and Martha Washington traveled extensively, he in his days as a surveyor in the “west,” (Pennsylvania and Ohio), as a General, and as President, and she in her efforts to be with him.


Students who participate in this activity will investigate and compute the time it took to travel by various means in the 18th century, and learn about the types of vehicles available to people of different social classes.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; (optional: map of the colonies; art supplies; tag board).


1.  To introduce the lesson, engage students in a discussion of contemporary travel, especially how long it takes to get somewhere.  If students have gone on vacation or to visit relatives, how have they traveled and how long did it take?  Keep a record of different means of travel and lengths of time on the chalkboard.
2.  Explore with students or have students individually explore the three websites listed below as background on 18th century travel.
3.  Then, divide students into six groups, assigning each group the task of researching how long it would have taken representatives to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to travel from their home colonies, if they traveled on horseback or by carriage.   (The delegates from Pennsylvania were meeting in their home Colony).
4.  Assume that travel by horseback could be accomplished at about 7.5 miles per hour, and travel by coach or carriage at about 9 miles per hour.  Travel would occur about eight hours per day. 
The distances (using today’s roads) are as follows:

  • Group 1:
    From Hartford, Connecticut to Philadelphia: 213 miles
    From Wilmington, Delaware to Philadelphia: 29 miles
  • Group 2:
    Savannah, Georgia to Philadelphia: 728 miles
    Baltimore, Maryland to Philadelphia: 103 miles
  • Group 3:
    From Boston, Massachusetts to Philadelphia: 316 miles
    Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Philadelphia: 364 miles
  • Group 4:
    New York, New York to Philadelphia: 97 miles
    Trenton, New Jersey to Philadelphia: 34 miles
  • Group 5:
    Raleigh, North Carolina to Philadelphia: 428 miles
    Providence, Rhode Island to Philadelphia: 276 miles
  • Group 6:
    Charleston, South Carolina to Philadelphia: 682 miles
    Williamsburg, Virginia to Philadelphia: 300 miles

5.  When students have calculated the times required, ask them to calculate the same distances if they were driving at 65 miles per hour.
6.  End the lesson with a discussion of the dedication of the delegates to the Continental Congresses—if the students had been delegates, would they have traveled so far under such conditions?

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by having students graph the relative times it took to travel to Philadelphia, or by having students actually map the most direct travel route in each case.

Sources & Resources:


Traversing the 18th Century Landscape

18th Century Modes of Travel

History of Transport and Travel


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.