Boston native Lydia Bacon decided to join Army Lt. Josiah Bacon — her brand-new husband — in the Pittsburgh wilderness in 1811. That meant uncomfortable and often frightening rides in stagecoaches and keelboats.
Fortunately for history, she wrote about her experiences in letters to her family. The Massachusetts Sabbath School Society in 1856 published her account of her travels.
Lydia Bacon Marries a Soldier
Lydia Stetson was born on May 10, 1786, the daughter of Levi and Mary Stetson, in Boston. She married Josiah Bacon in the early spring of 1807. They had known each other since childhood. Just after their marriage he joined the Army of the United States as a lieutenant and quartermaster of the 4th Regiment of the U.S. Infantry.
After the American Revolution, the government disbanded the Continental Army, distrusting a standing army. It left the country’s defense to state militias, with the exception of the 4th Regiment.
By 1811, five states had joined the original 13: Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Louisiana. The Army reorganized to fight the threat posed by Native American tribes resisting European settlers in the Northwest Territories — Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Led by Col. John Parker Boyd, the regiment had orders to stop the tribes’ hostile actions.
In November of 1911, the regiment would fight — and win — the Battle of Tippecanoe over forces led by Tecumseh.
Several years after they married, Josiah Bacon was ordered to Pittsburgh. Mrs. Lydia Bacon decided to join him, bringing her 15-year-old sister along as far as Philadelphia. There her sister would stay with relatives.
They left in May 1811, sailing through Delaware Bay to Philadelphia. From there, it took 10 days by stagecoach (the soldiers marched) to reach Pittsburgh. All told, the journey took 38 days.
As an enthusiastic admirer of nature, Lydia Bacon found the mountains they crossed, “grand, sublime, awful and sweet.” She described the journey itself tedious because of the extreme roughness of the roads. Sometimes they would get out and walk. “[D]uring the roughest of the way the seats were taken out from our vehicle, straw spread upon the bottom of it, and the passengers stowed in like luggage.”
But, she wrote, some of the passengers wanted to view the scenery despite the jolting of the coach. So the seats were restored.
“On one side my neighbor’s elbow was constantly pounding me, on the other the stage, which was neither lined or stuffed, was bruising me, while my head was often thrown against the top till I feared my brains would be dashed out,” she wrote. She endured it all for the sake of beholding the scenery.
On descending the mountains, she wrote, the wheels had to be locked. When they came to a narrow place in the road the driver blew his tin horn to warn any teams that might approach them from the other direction. Finally, after traveling 160 miles, they arrived.
Lydia Bacon found Pittsburgh a pleasant village. About 4,800 people lived there in 1811, triple the number from a decade earlier. Forty years later, 10 times as many people would live there, and the journey from Philadelphia would take only 38 hours by rail instead of 38 days.
This village is famed for its manufactories; the people appear very industrious and engrossed in the all important business of accumulating wealth. A great deal of coal is used here, which gives the village a very dirty appearance. The children’s faces (as you see them in the street) look as if they were strangers to water, though so many beautiful rivers are running by their doors.
She didn’t have long to enjoy it. In July, they were ordered to Kentucky.
She marveled at a large flour mill run by STEAM. “The flour being carried by this means through all its different grades until it is snugly packed in the barrel!”
She saw the first cut glass in the country. She also saw the village’s first river steamboat launched and wished for a ride on it.
The officers rented a brick house and they all lived there, attended by plenty of servants. But they stayed only a few weeks, having received orders to travel farther west. She regretted leaving, despite the oppressive summer heat.
The evenings hear are delightful after the excessive heat of the day. Soon as the sun retires, the families sit at their doors, or walk with uncovered heads, that they may enjoy the soft breezes of twilight. Sometimes our band, in a boat, will navigate each side of the village and send forth exquisite strains of music. These echoing among the mountains produce a charming effect, reminding me of something which I have read of but never expected to realize. All this is truly delightful, but we must leave it. The Indians are committing depredations upon the white inhabitants located upon our Western frontier, and the Governor of Indiana has requested some regular troops to assist in keeping them quiet. This is the cause of our removal at this time.
Images: Fort Pitt blockhouse By User:Kevin Myers, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1814437. This story was updated in 2021.