This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Friday, March 13, 2009

Guestpost: Terry Burns on Traveling in History

Please welcome Terry Burns, my literary agent. A few months ago I had some questions regarding how fast my characters could travel in the early 1800's. My agent came to the rescue with the advice below with permission to post it on my blog. Terry is an agent with Hartline Literary Agency and a historical author with a new release of his own, Beyond the Smoke.

This question comes up a lot when people are writing westerns or historicals set in early time periods. The answer is not that black and white. How long would it take to drive from Texarkanna to Brownsfield in Texas today? It depends, are the roads wet or slick? Would you have a flat? Will the traffic be heavy? How many times will you stop for gas or to eat and for how long? There are a lot of intangibles that enter into travel time on a trip and it was no different in the 1800’s.

Travel time would depend on the terrain, the condition of the stock and the equipment, the weather, even on whether there might be those around who were intent on impeding your progress. These were always factors to consider. However, considering these complicating factors a group of published western writers gathered around our virtual online campfire and talked about realistic travel times. The result of this discussion has been very useful to me.

We figured a man walks around three miles an hour. A man on foot can easily walk 30 miles in a day, 40 if he pushes it. Jackson’s ‘foot cavalry’ consistently did more than that.

A horse will walk 3-4 mph, trot about 8-10 mph and gallop depending on the ability of the animal and the terrain at 30-40 mph. According to the U S Cavalry a horse can cover some 30-40 miles a day but can be pushed to double that, but then will be pretty much spent for several days while he recuperates.

The US Cavalry mounted service cup race averaged 60 miles a day for five days carrying a rider and over 200 pounds of gear. A Pony Express rider would cover 75-100 miles on their portion of the mail run and would change horses at way stations every 10-15 miles. The entire 2000 miles of the trail would be covered in 10 days with riders riding 24 hours a day. That makes an average of about nine miles an hour according to express records, but daylight riders did much better and night riders moved much slower. By means of comparison modern racehorses have achieved records up to 40 mph.

A wagon might do 15-25 miles in a day depending on whether it is being pulled by horses, mules or oxen. They would make good time where there was something of a road or trail, but then might spend an entire day or even more lowering wagons down a bad grade or floating them across a river. Then, wagon trains didn’t travel the most direct route either. A scout out front took them through the most favorable, or more level terrain, and they could only carry so much water so choosing a route that took advantage of available water had a lot to do with how directly toward their objective they were traveling. Still, wagons moved at a pace where occupants often walked alongside and since we’ve established the speed of a man or horse walking at some 3-4 mph, that’d be the speed of the wagon too if no obstacles are involved.

A stagecoach would run on an established route similar to the Pony Express and would make much better time than a wagon train. Running 24 hours a day and with relays of fresh teams they usually covered the route in a little better than half the time of the feisty express riders. Of course they also stopped to rest and feed passengers. This generally had them covering some 100-150 miles in a 24 hour period depending on how good the roads were and the other factors mentioned above.

Railroads were subject to terrain factors as well. A steam engine capable of 60-80 mph on a flat grade with no load could be reduced to five or ten mph pulling a steep grade with a load. They might haul a 50 ton load at some 25-30 mph but would stop at towns to let passengers on or off and pick up or drop mail as well as to take on fuel and water. When the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869 it became possible to go from San Francisco to New York in only ten days. That’s close to 3000 miles giving an average of about 30 mph.

These are ball park figures that I use to help keep me within the bounds of reality when time and travel come into play in my writing. Perhaps they will be helpful to you as well.

You can visit Terry's website and blog at:



A very realistic guide to go by. Thanks so much for sharing this.


As usually happens with Terry Burns, he has kept it clear, concise, and practical. This will be helpful in my own writing.
Thanks for posting it.


Very helpful. Thank you for posting this. I will permalink and save it for sure.

Wow - having all this info in one place (and written so it's easy to understand) is like hitting the jackpot. Thanks for all the comparisons, Terry, and thanks for sharing it with us. It's a definite keeper!

I can't tell you how long it took me to find out some of these stats while researching for my first novel, "In The Shadow of the Sun King" set in 17th century France. Thanks for the oh-so-practical help!

This was a godsend. I'm writing a "romantic" science fiction novel set in medieval England, and I've pretty much had to go by guess and by gosh as to how long it took to get from one place to another on horseback. This guide is invaluable to me, and I very much appreciated it.
Anne G


Just to letcha know, I've linked this site to my blog.
Anne G

Thanks everyone for stopping by. I'm glad you found Terry's info helpful. He's full of lots of wisdom.

And Anne, thanks for the link.


This is great info! Thanks for sharing it.