Thomas Ashe’s Journey through Pennsylvania and Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during 1806

An Englishman by the name of Thomas Ashe visited the United States during 1806 and wrote about his experience in a book that was published during 1808 and is available for free online (See: ).  His account of the natural history, people, and early American towns fascinates me.

He began his journey in eastern Pennsylvania and traveled over some mountains.  One night, darkness overcame him before he could reach the next settlement, and he was forced to stop on the trail because he was afraid he or his horse might walk off a cliff.  Animals kept him awake all night.  First, a bobcat noisily toyed and killed an opossum next to his camp.  Then whip-or-wills, owls, and wolves serenaded him.

Ashe was already too late to see live bison, though all of the overland trails followed former bison migration routes.  He talked to 1 old-timer who told him that he made the mistake of building his log cabin on a bison trail.  When the bison came through, they rubbed themselves on his cabin and eventually pushed all the logs apart and destroyed it.  The next year he killed more than 600 and when the rest of the herd saw the carnage they never returned to the area.  Deer and elk were still abundant in some areas Ashe visited but not all.  Bear were so common that a bear skin rug sold for $1.  Ashe shot and killed a bear for no reason, though he instantly regretted it.  Wild hogs roamed the forest for acorns and roots.  Settlers didn’t want them near their cabins because they attracted predators.

Ashe bought a 40 foot long Kentucky boat complete with roof, chimney, and chicken coop; and he brought along 2 servants and a dog.  He boated down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and explored some tributaries.  Occasionally, he anchored his boat and took some overland forays.  In Louisiana he bought some ducks and put them in his chicken coop, but a large alligator stopped the boat, seized the chicken coop in its jaws, carried it to shore, smashed it, and ate the ducks.  Ashe claims the alligator was 20 feet long, but I’m sure that was an overestimate.  He killed another “20 foot long” alligator with 3 shots and kept 2 juveniles as pets to take back to England.

Image result for flat-bottomed Kentucky boat

A Kentucky boat.  They had flat bottoms.  Snags and rapids made boat travel difficult during the 19th century.

Ashe saw 30 species of snakes and over 180 species of birds.  The richest forest he saw was near Dayton, Ohio–it consisted of sugar maple, sycamore, mulberry, oaks, walnut, butternut, aspen, basswood, ironwood, ash, sweetgum, chestnut, hickory, cherry, horse chestnut, honey locust, magnolia, elm, crabapple, sassafras, pawpaw, plum, crabapple, dogwood, grape, and wild cotton.  Past Dayton were a chain of beautiful prairies with geraniums and passion flowers.  The topsoil in some areas he visited was an astonishing 30 feet deep.  The soil was too rich for wheat, causing it to grow tall and make little seed.  Settlers told him they had to grow corn 7 years in a row on a plot before it was exhausted enough to produce a wheat harvest.  Ashe also came across salt springs which attracted game, and places where petroleum flowed near the surface.  People then didn’t know the future value of this resource and thought it might be medicinal.

At this early date developers had yet to level or bury Indian mounds and abandoned villages.  Ashe was critical of the locals for pilfering through old Indian gravesites and mounds, yet he did it too.  At 1 site he went through hundreds of graves searching for gold.  All he found was fools gold.  He explored a cave in Indiana that sported hieroglyphics.  These possibly represented Pleistocene mammals–elephant (mammoth or mastodon?), wild boar (peccary?), and sloth. I’ve never found a report of this in the scientific literature.  Ashe got lost in the cave and fired his gun, so his companions could locate him.  This aroused all the owls and bats in the cave.  The cave was the former haunt of a gang that robbed and killed hundreds of river travelers.  It was also the site of a battle between Indians and settlers, resulting in hundreds of deaths as well, and there were piles of human and animal skeletons all about.  Ashe did find fossil bones at several sites, including a mammoth tusk.  1 site was known as “bone valley.”

It’s interesting to read Ashe describe modern day large cities the way they were during their infancy.  Pittsburgh was a town of 400 houses, 2000 people, and 40 stores where beef sold for 3 cents a pound.  Most residents were Irish.  Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) had 250 homes along with saw mills and flour mills.  St. Louis was a town of Cajuns where the women worked, the children played, and the men performed music all day.  Every house had a band with a guitar player, fiddler, and lead singer.

Image result for earliest painting of pittsburght

Earliest known painting of Pittsburgh, circa 1804.  

When Ashe traveled through the wilderness between towns there was usually an inn within a day’s journey.  An inn meant a log cabin where cornbread, bacon, and whiskey were served–not necessarily in that order.  Lodging was 25 cents a night and meals were the same.  Back then, a dollar was a coin and to make change the dollar was literally cut into quarters, dimes, and nickels.  The culture in some of the frontier towns was rough.  In Wheeling the entire town closed up shop for the rest of the day when there was an horse race or cock fight.  Fighting between men was popular too.  Ashe witnessed 2 men fighting in a “rough and tumble” bout.  They were given a choice of fighting with rules but they chose “rough and tumble” which meant anything goes.  While a crowd of people bet on the outcome, the 2 men fought a brutal battle, and the smaller more skillful man “won” by permanently blinding the larger man.  He suffered an ear completely torn off.  At a bar in town later that night 2 naked black men played banjos while people drank, gambled, and danced.  The noise was so loud Ashe couldn’t hear the banjos.  Towns settled by Irish were mostly like this.  Towns settled by transplanted New Englanders were more orderly and the town fathers outlawed gambling, fighting, and horse racing.

The first cabin Ashe stopped at on his journey served passenger pigeon, cornbread, and coffee made from burned wild peas.  He ate wild game often when traveling through the wilderness.  For example he shot 12 ducks, 1 turkey, and a deer in 1 afternoon.  Boating down the river gave him constant access to a variety of fish including catfish, bass, bream, sturgeon, shad, pickerel, and paddlefish.  He visited a French settlement at Gallipolis where 1 man produced 400 gallons of peach brandy per year for barter.  He shared a feast with them, and his biscuits were the first wheat flour they’d had in months.  They gave him cornbread, cheese, milk, and fruit.  The kids at Gallipolis kept an array of pets–piebald and albino deer, Carolina parakeets, blue jays, wood ducks, woodchucks, opossums, and even a bear.  Some of these doubled as a food source.  One meal Ashe enjoyed was turtle steaks.  During this meal he was serenaded by a flock of Carolina parakeets–what a forlorn nature scene.  Ashe met a man on the road in Kentucky and followed him to his home.  His wife served hot toddies, bacon, squirrel soup, and hominy.  Though the man had been away from home for months, Ashe noted he showed absolutely no affection for his wife or children and didn’t even talk to them.  Divorce wasn’t much of an option then.

In Louisiana at a fort on Chickasaw bluff Ashe was honored with a supper of fish, squirrel, venison, bear, fruit, and pecans.  They served wine made from local grapes, and many of the men ended up literally sleeping  under the table, but Ashe made it back to his boat about 2 am, nearly breaking his neck climbing down the bluff.  Nevertheless, this was a welcome diversion of civilization because most of this region until he arrived at New Orleans consisted of uninhabited forests, canebrakes, and bayous.


Ashe, Thomas

Travels in America Performed in 1806

William Savage Company 1808


One Response to “Thomas Ashe’s Journey through Pennsylvania and Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during 1806”

  1. ina puustinen westerholm Says:

    The number of trees you found listed..was amazing! I truly wish I could take the time, HAD the look up the found. Please keep bringing up..history, the way things were..and snippets people/communitys..were. We may well be ..looking into our the ugly old demented man in the nations white ruining..everything he can..lay his covetous hands to. Remind..the rest of us..what was..and how fast ..that which was lovely, sustainable and nurturing..has been..worn down..degraded..from so many situati Long may you bring us..reading/information..which is..worthy! ina.

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