Before interstate highways, before blacktopped state roads, before rough gravel county roads, rivers were the roadway of choice for travelers headed into the western territories. Overland trails were rough, one horse wide paths through overgrown forest. When a man wanted to transport his family, supplies and livestock to start a new life in the land of Kentucky, he built or rented a flat-bottomed boat and traveled down the Ohio River.
The Ohio River (the Indian name O-Y-O means “the great river”) is formed near Pittsburgh, PA, where two rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela come together. Flowing nearly 900 miles south and west, the Ohio forms a natural border for the states of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois before flowing into the Mississippi.
This river carried my ancestors to Kentucky sometime around 1780-83.
William Edward Collings and his wife Anne (my 6th great grandparents) were in their 60s when they moved to Kentucky. Several, if not all their grown children came as well.
Their son Zebulon was around 38 and unmarried
Another son, Spencer was 35. He and his wife Jane Jones had five children.
Daughter Elizabeth (Betsey or Besy) was 33 and married to George Heinrich Crist. They had three children.
William Elston was about 25, married to Phobe Hoagland (my 5th great grandparents) and at that time they had two boys, Richard and Zebulon.
Other family probably traveled with them, but these are the family members for whom I have the best records. These are the family members who will be present through the rest of my story.
They traveled down the river on flat-bottomed vessels, called Kentucky boats or Natchez boats, which were approximately 16 ft. wide by 55 ft. long. There was typically a pen at the back for livestock, boxes and barrels of supplies stacked in the center, and a small cabin in front where the passengers could sleep and stay relatively dry on rainy days.
As a woman, I can only try to imagine packing for such a trip. The men had just returned from war where they carried everything they needed on their backs. As a woman overseeing the move of an entire family, I’d have to make sure we had cooking utensils, bedding, food and medical supplies, candle molds, sewing materials, and clothing.
The items I would assume necessary for a family would have to share space with the men’s hunting equipment, tools to build cabins and plant crops, as well as seeds and cuttings, and livestock.
Travel on the river involved a special set of difficulties. Those traveling in this manner had to carefully choose (or build) their boat to ensure that it would survive the trip. A boat made of old lumber or not sealed well could spell tragedy halfway to Kentucky.
There were hidden sandbars that could ground a boat high and dry and the boats themselves were difficult to steer. For this reason, the boatman had to keep constant watch. They usually pulled into shore for the night to avoid hidden dangers that were even more invisible in the darkness.
The river itself was broad enough that Indians on shore were not usually a danger…until nightfall. Tied up on shore, the boat and occupants were vulnerable to attack. Well-built boats were like floating forts. The cabins had thick walls, no windows, only shooting holes, and one door which could be padlocked.
The trip from Pittsburgh to Louisville could take from 20 to 30 days, long days floating with the current, long nights waiting anxiously for daylight so they could push away from the shore and into the river again.
For mothers, the trip was a time of anxiety, worrying about children falling overboard, wondering if they had packed enough, wondering what they would find ahead…wondering if they would even make it to their new homes.
The Ohio River is extremely navigable. For nearly 700 miles between Pittsburgh and Louisville there were no impediments, but for travelers who planned to travel on to New Orleans, the so-called Falls of the Ohio near the tiny settlement of Louisville offered the first navigational challenge.
You could say the city of Louisville owes its existence to the Falls of the Ohio, because it became the custom for boats traveling to the Mississippi to stop at that tiny settlement. There the passengers disembarked and traveled by land to meet their boat a few miles downriver. Meanwhile the boatman navigated through the rough water of the “falls,” usually successfully but not always easily.
I’m not sure who called this part of the river a “falls.” It’s more rapids than falls, lacking the precipitous drop one would expect. It is a rather long stretch of rough water with sharp limestone ledges. The river surface drops some 24 feet but it does so over a distance of about 2 miles, so a skilled pilot could work his way through to smoother water.
At this spot in the river, in this tiny settlement of less than 100 small cabins, some travelers chose to end their river journey and travel by land to new homes in Kentucky.
This is how my family came to Kentucky. At Louisville, they unloaded the boat and somehow transported all their belongings to an area some 20 miles south. Here, at a settlement that came to be known as Breshear’s Station, they began their new lives.
For the men who had already seen and walked this new territory, responsible only for themselves and the man next to them, there was the new pressure of having their families with them. They knew the dangers and the work that awaited, they knew they had to build shelters and plant crops and find game to feed, but there was industry here along the salt creeks.
This was not a trip taken lightly. Their lives and the lives of their families…and even the lives of future generations…my life…was changed dramatically by the decision to make this journey and the choices they would make in the future.
This was my family. This is how we came down the river to Kaintuck.
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