Four days into her 600-mile wagon journey to Ohio, Margaret Van Horn Dwight survived the night in a small dirty tavern filled with drunks.
At 19, she was on her way to stay with cousins in Warren, Ohio, after a lifetime of shuttling among relatives.
Her difficult journey over the Allegheny Mountains ended happily. A year after she arrived safely, she married a prosperous merchant, and had 13 children with him.
Margaret Van Horn Dwight
Margaret Van Horn Dwight was born Dec. 29, 1790 into a famous family. She was the great-granddaughter of theologian Jonathan Edwards, and the niece of Timothy Dwight, president of Yale. She would have a famous descendant, the best-selling novelist Winston Churchill.
Her father, a doctor, died in 1796. When her mother remarried, she sent Margaret to live with her grandmother in Northampton, Mass. Margaret’s grandmother died after she turned 16, and she went to live with an aunt in New Haven, Conn.
On Oct. 22, 1810, Margaret Van Horn Dwight set out to join cousins in Connecticut’s Western Reserve – later known as Ohio, but known to Margaret as New Connecticut.
In Warren, Ohio, she met and married William Bell, an Irish-born wholesale merchant. They lived most of their lives in Pittsburgh, where they made their home a center of hospitality.
Throughout her life, Margaret Van Horn Dwight impressed people with her vivacity, her sweetness and her devotion to religion.
Margaret died on Oct. 9, 1834, shortly after the birth of her 13th child. One of those children had a grandson named Winston Churchill, who became a best-selling American novelist.
She traveled to Ohio in a wagon with a frugal deacon named Wolcott, his wife, daughter Susan and son Erastus. The six-week, 600-mile journey was slow and difficult. They could barely pass over the roads or climb the steep mountains. She found the taverns dirty and disgusting.
During the journey, she learned how to eat raw pork and drink whiskey.
Margaret Van Horn Dwight kept a travel diary, which she sent to a cousin. Her family handed it down, and in 1912 it was published as A Journey to Ohio in 1810.
They set out from Milford, Conn., on Oct. 19, 1810, a cold and unsociable ride, she wrote. Each of the travelers was ‘thinking of the friends we had left behind & of the distance, which was every moment increasing, between them & us.’
Three days later (today a three-hour drive) they reached West Chester, Pa., where they stayed at Cook’s Inn.
That night, Margaret wrote,
It is very grating to my pride to go into a tavern & furnish & cook my own provision — to ride in a wagon &c &c — but that I can possibly get along with–but to be obliged to pass the night in such a place as we are now in, just because it is a little cheaper, is more than I am willing to do.
Fat, Dirty, Ugly
The small, dirty house served as a tavern, a store and, she imagined, a hog’s pen and stable. At night the house filled with noisy drunken men. The landlady was fat, dirty, ugly and suspicious.
On Tuesday morning, Oct. 23, Margaret wrote:
I went to bed last night with fear & trembling, & feel truly glad to wake up & find myself alive & well–if our property is all safe, we shall have double cause to be thankful.
Along the way, they encountered many other wagons heading westward. “Waggons without number, every day go on,” she wrote. “One went on containing forty people We almost every day, see them with 18 or 20.”
Many young women, like Margaret Van Horn Dwight, expected to meet and marry a husband once they arrived. While staying at one tavern, she wrote, she met ‘a curiosity in the house’ — a young lady returning from New Connecticut after living in Warren a year. She called it, ‘a thing I never before heard of, & had begun to think impossible.’
Mountain High, River Deep
She found the roads ‘bad past description.’ Nevertheless, she described large stones and deep mud holes every step of the way. On one stretch the horses could scarcely move the wagon in the deep mud. “It has grown so cold that I fear we shall all perish tomorrow.”
She climbed seven mountains on foot because the horses couldn’t pull them.
It rained constantly in Pennsylvania, causing the streams and rivers to flood. Margaret Van Horn Dwight described how a waggoner with four horses drowned crossing a creek.
Near the state prison they waited three or four hours for the ferry to cross a river.
“We with great difficulty cross’d the ferry & I, standing brac’d against one side of the boat involuntarily endeavouring to balance it with my weight & groaning at every fresh breeze as I watch’d the side which almost dipt in the water,” she wrote. The ferrymen swore at every breath, but finally they reached shore almost frozen.
On Dec. 1, 1810, Margaret Van Horn Dwight reached her destination: Warren, Ohio.
“Cousin Louisa was as happy to see me as I could wish, & I think I shall be very happy & contented.”
A year later she married, and began to have children. A daughter, Margaret DeWitt Bell, married John Logan Blaine, whose son Edward fathered the novelist Winston Churchill.
Margaret Van Horn Dwight Bell died at the age of 43 on Oct. 9, 1834 after giving birth to her last child.
This story was updated in 2022.
A fascinating peek at the migration many made from New England to the Midwest, and beyond, at the beginning of the 19th century. My only complaint is that whoever wrote this piece needs to brush up on their grammar, spelling and editing skills — there were several mistakes.
Diaries are one of our best sources of history. Christa McCauliff was chosen to take the Challanger flight based upon her plan to keep a diary. I have a grammar school classmate who kept a diary. She shares excerpts from it with our class, allowing us all a true glimpse into our activities in the late 40’s through the 50’s.
Margaret Van Horn Dwight, great-granddaughter of Jonathan Edwards, mother of 13 children, was also the great-grandmother of Winston Churchill. In other words, if Margaret had not made her long, difficult trek over the Alleghenies to Ohio in 1810, there would have been no Winston Churchill to save England and the west in 1940.
[…] to Edward Spalding Churchill and Emma Bell Blaine. He was descended from an American pioneer, Margaret Van Horne Dwight Bell, who rode west in a wagon from New Haven in […]
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