January 27, 2010

Have Feet, Will Travel

How mobile were our ancestors? Most of us tend to think of our ancestors living in the 18th and 19th centuries for example, as staying pretty close to home. Of course many of them traveled great distances by ship to immigrate to the New World. But once they got to Canada or America, did they travel as frequently as we do?

I was guilty of believing that travel any great distance was difficult. But then I stumbled on letters written by my great-great grandfather Levi Peer to his mother Elizabeth. One letter was sent by Levi from his home in from Halton County Ontario to his mother Elizabeth (Marical) Peer in Hamilton County Illinois in February 1847. In that letter Levi tells his mother
"I had some thought of coming to see you last fall but it so happened that I fell in with an opportunity of purchasing some land... which caused me to omit my visit..."

This casual remark in an 1847 letter made me sit up and take notice. Obviously my assumptions of limited travel were erroneous! Assuming that Levi would not have walked the entire way from Ontario to Illinois, I had a look at the map. It became fairly evident that Levi could have taken a stagecoach to a bigger center, then hopped aboard a ferry or raft (commercial, not Tom Sawyer type!) or boat to travel down the Ohio River from Pennsylvania.

The Ohio River flowed westwardly and became a convenient means of westward movement by pioneers traveling from western Pennsylvania. There were many Ohio River boatmen and boats to choose from. There are several cities in Illinois that are on the Ohio River and Levi would simply have chosen a stop near his mother's home which was in or near Shawneetown Illinois.

And so my pre-conceived ideas of limited travel for our ancestors was put to rest. We should not assume that they did not travel far and wide to visit loved ones. And thus we should keep our minds open to the possibility that we might find an ancestor in a genealogy record far from where we expect him to be.

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