Posted by Ancestry Team on October 19, 2015 in Family History Month

Type of transportation
[Photo credit: Library of Congress]
How did your ancestors get around? Go back far enough, and they primarily walked or rode horses (which were domesticated about 4,000-3,000 B.C.). But how about in more recent times?

Not sure? Have a look at Ancestry’s helpful explanation of its collection of map, atlases and gazetteers from across the U.S. Looking at the lay of the land, and knowing what places they moved between, might give you some clues about your forebears’ lives. And this general info might help, too:


Though Leonardo da Vinci came up with the idea of “flying machines” back in the late 1400s, and drew hundreds of drawings of how his theory of flight might work, he was many, many years before his—and manned flight’s—time.


Travel was still slow and leisurely. Most people didn’t travel far from home. Those who did walked or took a stagecoach, which traveled through the English countryside at about 2 mph.


Transportation was starting to be a bit more organized. Stagecoaches were running between major English towns regularly, but they were expensive, uncomfortable (they traveled on rough roads and had no springs), and there was danger of being held up on the highway. Turnpike roads opened, which you had to pay to use.

The first omnibus, or organized public transit system in a city, seems to have started up in Paris in 1662—though it failed when its founder died, and omnibuses didn’t show up again for about 150 years after that.

Some wealthy people in England and Europe were carried in sedan chairs.

Sedan Chairs
[Photo credit: Library of Congress]


By this time, stagecoaches in England were traveling a little faster, but not much—about 5.5 mph. The first steamboats appeared. In America’s pioneer era of the 1700s and 1800s, cowboys were traveling on horses, families in wagons, and goods by stagecoach.


Travel was getting faster. The 1800s saw a lot of innovation in transportation, with the first modern bicycles, first steam-powered locomotive, the first motorcycle, and the first cable car.

But first and foremost, it was the era of the railway: The first passenger horse-drawn railway opened in 1806 in South Wales, UK. In 1825, the first public steam railway in the world was operating in northeast England. By the mid-19th century, railways had connected most towns in Britain and a few decades later, many smaller villages as well.

The first underground railway in Britain was built in London in 1863. Steam locomotives pulled the carriages. The first electric underground trains began running in London in 1890.

And things were speeding up on the ocean, too. Whereas before it took several weeks to cross the Atlantic, in 1838 a steamship made the journey in an unprecedented 19 days.

And then came the potential for even more speed: cars. In 1885 and 1885, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler made their first cars. The motorbike, too, was patented in 1885.


From 1890 to about 1920, it was all about the streetcar in bigger American cities as well as European ones. The Paris Metro (underground railway) opened in 1900, the Wright Brothers flew the first engined airplane in 1903, and in that same year, Henry Ford improved the assembly line for manufacturing automobiles.

And then cars took off; that was in the 1920s spurred by Henry Ford’s Model T.  The highway era started in American in 1945, and it hasn’t slowed down yet.

—Leslie Lang



  1. Karen

    “The first automobile was the Ford Model T”. Really? Maybe a timeline would have improved this post.

    • Juliana Szucs

      Good catch, Karen! while we had mentioned Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler in a prior paragraph, that last paragraph wasn’t worded correctly and we’ve corrected it. Thanks for keeping us on our toes. 🙂

  2. Barbara Jean

    It would be nice to have a blog with more information on wagons — and what was used other places besides England and the US. (e.g. Conestoga vs. covered wagons). The Western US developed more sophisticated modes of travel much later than the big cities in the east.

  3. Mary

    Being from what were the Danish West Indies, now the US Virgin Islands, it would be appreciated to have access to pictures, articles, etc., of things pertaining to the Danish era in the islands. Also, citations of the Danish period should reflect “Danish West Indies or DWI” not US Virgin Islands. In my humble opinion, it makes the citation incorrect if it is an item prior to March 30, 1917.

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