# Forum: Story Discussion and Feedback

#### How did they measure miles in the Old West

odave44

I'm reading one of my old favorite westerns again right now. It reminds me of a puzzle I've had in reading many westerns. It's a wagon train and they talk about how many miles they traveled every day. So my question: Did people back then actually talk about how many miles were covered? And if so, the big question is how would they know. They are covering all kinds of terrain. I just cannot imagine how anyone would have an idea of how many miles they covered. So has anyone done historical research about this. I appreciate your insight. Thanks.

Replies:   red61544
Ernest Bywater

In most wagon trains they had some people who walked, and often it was one of the regular animal handlers used to walking beside the wagon, so they counted their steps and worked it out as so many steps per mile.

In a lot of the regular trails the guides and wagon masters had information and how many miles between stopping points and water holes etc, and just used that as their guide.

Often it was a simple calculation of this type of animal does x miles per hour in this type of terrain, we spent y hours travelling today = z miles.

Some of the better equipped wagons actually had a device on one of the wheel hub or axle that kept track of the number of revolutions of the wheel, and they knew x revolutions meant a mile, so they calculated from that.

In the majority cases it was an experienced educated guess.

Replies:   Not_a_ID  Crumbly Writer
sunkuwan

When even official prospectors and surveyors can't walk straight and get their borders wrong, then "educated guess" is a good metaphor. Just look at some of the examples of the border gore in the US. Some, like the borders in Minnesota, are even miles above the 49th line between Canada and USA.

Replies:   Michael Loucks
Michael Loucks

@sunkuwan

When even official prospectors and surveyors can't walk straight and get their borders wrong, then "educated guess" is a good metaphor. Just look at some of the examples of the border gore in the US. Some, like the borders in Minnesota, are even miles above the 49th line between Canada and USA.

Oh, it's worse than that! If you didn't go to High School in Ohio or Michigan, you might not know about this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toledo_War

1835-1836. :-)

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater

Some of the better equipped wagons actually had a device on one of the wheel hub or axle that kept track of the number of revolutions of the wheel, and they knew x revolutions meant a mile, so they calculated from that.

The Mormons used this on their first trek across "The Mormon Trail" although as I recall the story. I'm under the impression they actually were the creators of that particular methodology.

Edit:

On April 19, 1847, William Clayton, lead his wagon train from Omaha, Nebraska to Utah an in his journals he recorded his mileage. On this trip Clayton employed the use of a "roadometer" which was made of wooden cogs and gears that made use of the same rudimentary calculating methods that the later brass wheel odometer would use (you can see a reproduction of the original "Exodus Odometer" on the "Heritage Gateway" link below) .

Not_a_ID

@Michael Loucks

Oh, it's worse than that! If you didn't go to High School in Ohio or Michigan, you might not know about this:

There's a Fort in New England that the Americans thought they'd built on their side of the border. Only to later discover it was in Canada during some subsequent negotiations (where the borders were surveyed again) regarding borders. Needless to say, after all was said an done, the Yanks kept their fort(presumably at the cost of land elsewhere) and acquired territorial rights to that land.

Replies:   BlacKnight
red61544

@odave44

I thought they simply checked the oat-o-meter.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

In most wagon trains they had some people who walked, and often it was one of the regular animal handlers used to walking beside the wagon, so they counted their steps and worked it out as so many steps per mile.

No sense counting steps. Humans generally walk at about 3mph. If you walk for ten hours, then that's 30 miles, minus however long you were forced to stop, for whatever reason.

It's not an accurate measurement, but given this wasn't a government funded enterprise, I doubt anyone had access to more sophisticated method. And for those without an expensive pocket watch, they simply watched the sun passing by overhead.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Crumbly Writer

@red61544

I thought they simply checked the oat-o-meter.

Or the quartermaster simply said, "Ayup. We's 'bout done for t'day. Recken we musta gone close on thirty miles."

Not_a_ID
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

It's not an accurate measurement, but given this wasn't a government funded enterprise, I doubt anyone had access to more sophisticated method. And for those without an expensive pocket watch, they simply watched the sun passing by overhead.

Until the Mormons came up with the "roadometer" in 1847, it likely was an amalgam of different averages(and wildly varying degrees of accuracy). They knew roughly what "the average _____" could do in certain circumstances, so based on that(and the matter that caravans move at the speed of the slowest member) they could "make an educated guess" on ground covered in general.

More specifically however, there were "trail guides" with landmarks, and those landmarks had (roughly) known travel distances between them. So while they might not know total distance traveled in a given day. They would know when they passed Chimney Rock and when they reached Independence Rock. At which point they could come up with an "average day's travel" based on the distance traveled and time taken.

A group with an in-person guide rather than a printing of dubious origins would be likely to have other more numerous guide points to use. As to how those distances were determined? Who knows? Might have been some random guy with a sextant and pocket watch, or maybe someone with more formal training in surveying.

More often than not, they probably made a educated guess based on prodigy to various landmarks they were aware of. Obviously, someone with "local knowledge" would be better at such guesswork. Unless they had a roadometer, of course.

Replies:   Dominions Son
Dominions Son

@Not_a_ID

As to how those distances were determined? Who knows? Might have been some random guy with a sextant and pocket watch, or maybe someone with more formal training in surveying.

They were most likely determined by the BLM's Public Land Survey System which goes all the way back to 1785 and used / uses professional surveyors.

https://nationalmap.gov/small_scale/a_plss.html#two

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID
Updated:

@Dominions Son

Those surveys didn't get into much of the western interior until much later. Haven't looked, but wouldn't be surprised to find the first government surveys probably didn't happen until either the railroads came through, or active settlement was happening nearby. In other words, much of the Oregon Trail went unsurveyed by the government until sometime in the 1850's or later.

This would also be consistent with the exact route and other details being unknown today. Something which a proper survey in that time frame would have likely resolved or outright prevented. For example, there are at least a couple "landmark" forts along the trail which nobody knows the location of today(and a few others had multiple locations over the years--Forts Bridger and Boise come to mind; but their sites are known). Granted, the likely location of one is suspected of being in a reservoir today(making it hard to dig up intentionally or otherwise locate), but those are things which did happen.

awnlee jawking

Surely the American Indian population had ways of measuring distance. Does any record exist?

AJ

odave44

I appreciate all the feedback. I was wondering about some kind of measuring device, so this is interesting. However, let me be a little more specific. Do we believe that people crossing huge expanses were actually thinking in terms of miles back then. I'm from Kansas and many of these stories cross Kansas or Nebraska which is much the same...endless seas of grass back then with barely any landmarks. I can certainly see people moving from one landmark or river to another. But so many stories say, "we made 17 miles today". To me that still doesn't ring true. And these are not organized wagon trains, but rather small groups, sometimes without wagons. Just still wondering if these was truly how success was measured versus landmarks, mountain ranges, rivers, etc.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater  Not_a_ID
Ernest Bywater

@odave44

Do we believe that people crossing huge expanses were actually thinking in terms of miles back then.

The people actually doing the travel were usually more concerned about the time taken to reach known locations or landmarks than the actual distance covered. However, they did know how much they usually expected to travel each day because it was known how fast the animals travelled.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@odave44

However, let me be a little more specific. Do we believe that people crossing huge expanses were actually thinking in terms of miles back then.

Well, as already mentioned, if they were Mormon, there is a decent chance they were, and had a reliable means to do so. Everyone else? Depends on the year, where they are(and available landmarks), and a number of other things. Which isn't to mention the matter of "which mile?"

More often than not, I think you would find "most people" would often be speaking of distance as a measure of time rather than actual distance. So you'll hear what the expected travel time is rather than distance, although an approximation of that may be given as well.

Not_a_ID

@Ernest Bywater

The people actually doing the travel were usually more concerned about the time taken to reach known locations or landmarks than the actual distance covered. However, they did know how much they usually expected to travel each day because it was known how fast the animals travelled.

And this goes doubly so for wagon trains where shortest distance may not be fastest route. Often it was faster/safer to go around the mountain rather than go over that 7+% mountain grade.

Wheezer

Did any wagon trains ever use a sextant & chronometer to chart their positions? I doubt they had the accuracy to do so daily, but maybe once a week?

Ernest Bywater

@Wheezer

Did any wagon trains ever use a sextant & chronometer to chart their positions?

Not settler trains, but some of the longer official survey groups who went with several wagons used to do that. Most survey groups went by horse with pack mules.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@Ernest Bywater

Not settler trains, but some of the longer official survey groups who went with several wagons used to do that. Most survey groups went by horse with pack mules.

With the tend of thousands of people that migrated. It is a reasonable assumption that a few wagon trains had a surveyor among their number. Certainly more of an exception than the rule, but it's probable that it happened.

sejintenej

Working in the mountains in the UK with decent maps we used several of the methods mentioned. For fairly level tracks it was an average of 3.5mph, on steepish uphills it was 2mph level equivalent.
Abroad we didn't have any accurate maps - the previous ones were drawn in 1902 - apparently the Germans drew some during WWII but they were "not available" (in fact one glacier from 1902 had disappeared and another was moving at 5m per day)

For guestimates it was always hours but it was a question of "whenever you get there"

BlacKnight

@Not_a_ID

There's a Fort in New England that the Americans thought they'd built on their side of the border. Only to later discover it was in Canada during some subsequent negotiations (where the borders were surveyed again) regarding borders. Needless to say, after all was said an done, the Yanks kept their fort(presumably at the cost of land elsewhere) and acquired territorial rights to that land.

"Fort Blunder", at the northern end of Lake Champlain. When they realized that it was actually in Canada, construction was aborted and the site abandoned, and a new fort (Fort Montgomery) was constructed on the right side of the border. No actual shifting of borders occurred.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Montgomery_(Lake_Champlain)

oyster50

Back in the days of my misspent youth I was in the army. In our land navigation courses, we often had to measure distances. I was blessed with a natural thirty-nine inch stride. That's right. One step was one meter. All I had to do was count. It worked well for me and my associate on the land nav courses, especially the night course where comparison with landmarks was hampered.

As I aged, that stride got smaller. now it's thirty-six inches - a yard - and that's more compatible with my present work which is carried out in English units - feet and occasionally yards.

This is not a new technique.

Replies:   BlacKnight
Crumbly Writer

@Wheezer

Did any wagon trains ever use a sextant & chronometer to chart their positions?

Sextants were more commonly used for sea travel, where knowing an exact position was both more difficult, and more vital to avoid being shipwrecked or lost at sea.

For land travel, knowing distance traveled was handy, but hardly vital, so exact distances were hardly a necessary requirement. Most people would likely talk about 'miles traveled', but mostly to contrast how much ground they traveled one day vs. the previous day. In other words, the exact miles wouldn't really matter in either case.

BlacKnight

@oyster50

This is not a new technique.

So "not new" that it's literally where the word "mile" comes from. It's derived from Latin mille passus, "a thousand paces". The Roman legions would measure distances overland by counting paces as they marched. Every thousandth time the left foot hits the ground, you set a milestone.

NC-Retired

Ancestors on my moms side of the family actually migrated to Oregon via the Oregon Trail in 1853, taking their land claim to a valley about 25 miles north of Portland in what was then Washington Territory in the spring of 1854.

One of my cousins has a diary from that trip west and I've been fortunate to read it. In there the authoress (my 19th cousin or some such) told of the heat and dust along with the boring sameness of one foot in front of the other, day after day after day. Apparently she walked most of the way, often with a hand grip on the rear corner of the wagon so she did not fall by the wayside from exhaustion.

It's been a decade or two since I saw the diary, but I recall that she wrote about days from some place or 'there is talk that we'll cross the Platte in two or three days'. I cannot recall that she mentioned specific mileage very much.

So... apparently the actual miles were less important to the average migrant than the number of days on the trail as long as their daily average of miles made good was maintained, 12-18 miles for average/flat-ish terrain and when the going got tough... 2-3 miles made good when steep hills or water crossings got in the way.

The irony of this is that when I lived in San Antonio I commuted about 14.7 miles each way from my house to my office building... 20-25 minutes in heavy commute time traffic. And that same mileage was what a good ox team would be able to haul a Conestoga in a full day of travel.

Cheers!

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID
Updated:

@NC-Retired

The irony of this is that when I lived in San Antonio I commuted about 14.7 miles each way from my house to my office building... 20-25 minutes in heavy commute time traffic. And that same mileage was what a good ox team would be able to haul a Conestoga in a full day of travel.

To be fair to the ox team, if they were pulling wagons across the kind of roads we have now, they'd be likely to do a lot better than 11 to 12 miles in a day. The even and consistent surface alone would probably add several miles to their day, and that's without manipulating the road grades.

Also, I would strongly suspect a number of journals from that time are available online, it is just finding the right place to look. I strongly suspect the LDS Church, by way of BYU probably, has a number of such journals in some kind of digital and public form.

Replies:   oyster50
oyster50

@Not_a_ID

I dunno. Oxen are not known for speed.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@oyster50

I dunno. Oxen are not known for speed.

Not having to work against ruts, low spots in the dirt/mud (potholes would still be a pain for them, but at their speed, also possible to avoid, and probably shallower than what they frequently encountered.

Fact is that "level ground" for a wagon train usually wasn't very level. It also was a contributor to the first railroads being built, so that the mules/other beasts of burden would have a consistent surface to work with. Yes, there were railroads before there were steam powered locomotives. They just happened to exist in a narrow window of time between both iron being available in the quantity needed to build them and the means needed to do so, and the additional advent of the locomotive.

Replies:   AmigaClone
AmigaClone

@Not_a_ID

Oxen are not known for speed.

Even without roads, good bridges over the streams and rivers along the way likely would save several days for a wagon train.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@AmigaClone

Even without roads, good bridges over the streams and rivers along the way likely would save several days for a wagon train.

And before that there were ferry crossing, which feature in many of those stories. However, they cost money to cross, as the national government was in no hurry to pay for public infrastructure. They save you time, but add to your expenses, so many simply went 'around', adding weeks to their overall travel time. :(