The Ohnsat mysteries on the National Road

Catheritne Ohnsat-Bulthaup told me a family story that my great-grandfather John Robert Ohnsat took his family by Conestoga wagon from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Tipton, Kansas in 1877. Her story was not detailed. It did not tell why the family made the 1100-mile move, why Tipton was the chosen destination, nor how difficult was the trip.

The Ohnsat Family in the United States

John Robert Ohnsat (known in our family as Robert) was born 18 September, 1835 in what was then called Grüben, East Prussia, in the province of Silesia (Ostpreußen, Schlesien, Kreis Falkenberg; today named Graben, Niemodlin county, Opole province, Poland/Polskie). He was baptized in the Catholic church there two days later. At age 36, he emigrated with his brother Joseph, who was about 30. They both immigrated to the United States and lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from about 1872. It is possible other members of the family also emigrated, as the family name appears for a few years in the Detroit area.

Robert was identified as a butcher in the City Directories of Pittsburgh PA (in publications dated 1872-73, 1876-77, and 1877-78); he lived at 135 Nineteenth, East Birmingham in 1872.

Robert married Leopoldine Salinger (b. 29 May 1839, Deutschland, Baden-Württemberg, Kreis Breisach-Hochschwarzwald, Breisach am Rhein) on 26 November 1872 at St. Michael Catholic Church by Father Fredericus with witnesses Joseph Ohnsat and Jacob Müller. Leopoldine emigrated from Breisach am Rhein, Baden-Württemberg probably in the early 1870s, perhaps with her sister Anna Maria Josephine and brother Anton Hermann. A family anecdote says that she was a nurse in an insane asylum, and that the experience there was so harsh that she made her children promise neither to become nurses nor to allow their children to do so. Robert became a naturalized citizen on 7 February 1873 in the Court of Common Pleas, Pittsburgh, Allegheny county.

Two children were born in Pittsburgh: Frank Robert on 19 October 1873 and Louise Katherine on 2 December 1875. Around the time Louise Katherine was born, the family moved to 75 Seventeenth, S.S. —perhaps this is Shady Side—as reported in the 1876 city directory. Then, within the next year or so, they moved to Brownsville Road, Mt. Oliver, 27th ward, according to the 1877 city directory.

Sometime in 1877, when Robert was 42 and Leopoldina was 38, they resettled to Kansas. Their third child Bernard O. was born near Tipton Kansas in April 1878. Soon after their arrival, John Robert bought land in Bloom township, in the southeast corner of Osborne county, Kansas. The family is entered in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census of Osborne county, Kansas as the "Robert Ohnsol" family that included Leopoldina (wife, age 31), Frank (son, 6), Louiza (daughter 4), and Barney (son, 2).

The gently rolling, rocky land is more suited to cattle grazing than crop farming. Robert died on the ranch as a result of being kicked by a horse, four days short of his 62nd birthday, in 1897. His widow Leopoldine lived on the ranch for a short while and then lived with her daughter Louise, who had married a neighbor boy, John Michael Kohn. Her granddaughter Isabella Kohn (Sister Edna Louise) remembered Leopoldina's fretting that her children just wanted her land and her money. She died in 1919 from dropsy (probably a cerebral stroke) at age 80.

The brother who emigrated with Robert was Joseph Ohnsat (born 3 July 1842). He also lived in Pittsburgh and worked also as a butcher on Larimer Avenue near Broad Avenue. Joseph died in 1880, as a result of being struck by a metal piece that flew from a tanning factory he was walking by, leaving a wife Elisabeth and children Charles (age 6), Dorothea (5), and Catherine (1). The widowed Elizabeth married Matthew Elliott within a few years, and the children were adopted by him. Others have researched this line. Another brother Carl Anton (born 13 October 1844) may have emigrated to live in or near Detroit, Michigan; however, more research is needed to verify that he is the same person as the husband Charles Ohnsat to Helena Kauf and father of Mary Ohnsat-Bargo (1875-unknown), Annie H. Ohnsat-Priemer (1884-1920), Martha Ohnsat (1891-unknown), and Charles J Ohnsat (1893-1960). 

The National Road

The National Road was envisioned to provide a paved roadway from Washington DC first to Wheeling, West Virginia and then, with Congressional direction in 1825, to St. Louis, Missouri. The National Road construction continued from 1806 until 1839, up to Vandalia, Illinois, some 65 miles short of its planned terminus.

The road construction reached Wheeling WV in 1816, and construction in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois occurred roughly simultaneously. In Ohio, the completed road reached Columbus in 1833 and Springfield in 1838. Surveying in Indiana was being completed in 1827, construction was begun to the east and west from Indianapolis IN, and construction was completed in Richmond IN in 1834. The State of Indiana funded the completion of its part of the road through 1850. The Illinois segments were left as hardened clay, in part because of a lack of stone and for a greater part because of the cessation of federal funding.

The National Road.was most active from the 1830s to the 1860s. The traffic was especially heavy in the 1840s. "Stage coaches and freight wagons contended for running room with families traveling in Conestoga wagons, people walking, snappy carriages, hand drawn carts, hand pushed carts, and improvised vehicles beyond description." [Harry G. Black, Pictorial America: The National Road, 1984, HMB Publications, Hammond IN.]  Various sources estimate the speed of travel between 7 and 15 miles per day, depending on the mode of travel. The stage coach lines traveled as fast as 110 miles in a day. [Black cites a published schedule, "The Mail Pilot Line leaves Columbus for Wheeling daily at 6 a.m., reaching Zanesville at 1 p.m. and Wheeling at 6 a.m. next day, through in 24 hours, allowing five hours repose at St. Clairsville."] During this period, way stations, inns, taverns, hotels, and stage liveries enjoyed a great influence on local and interstate trade. Locals could often see as many as 20 coaches in a row on the road.

Following this active period, use of the National Road diminished with the rise of the railway systems. Rails were set to Wheeling from the east by 1853. [Norris F. Schneider, The National Road: Main Street of America, 1978, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus OH.] The Illinois Central line arrived in central Illinois near East Dubuque in 1855, and the transcontinental railway was authorized in 1862.[3] These two milestones indicate the quick growth of the railways that supplanted the National Road. By the 1870s, several train routes were laid from the eastern states into the plains states. However, most routes followed short-run schedules that required several train changes for a long interstate trip.

Little of the original National Road route is evident today, because the individual states turned their attentions elsewhere and the road fell into ever greater disrepair. Where I live in Dayton OH, some road remnants are visible but not celebrated. A small bridge exists in the Englewood Reserve park, an inclined stretch of road leads up from Taylorsville Reserve to Vandalia, a crossing of canal locks has earthworks remaining, and the ruins of bridge abutments are visible near the Great Miami River and Stillwater River.

By 1870, parts of the road had become little more than a country road in stretches. Beginning in 1925, federal funds were allocated for the building of U.S. Highway 40, which generally follows the path of the National Road. The surveying of the National Road was a solid foundation for the purposes of U.S. 40  Many bridges were replaced, earthworks were removed or expanded, and the filigree of the National Road was stripped away. From Washington PA through St. Louis MO, the 1960s routing of Interstate 70 followed the National Road, and the construction further obliterated remaining vestiges of the National Road.

Few of the hotels, inns, taverns, and stage houses still exist. I have begun to search for guest registers that might include the Ohnsat family. However, their supposed travel by Conestoga wagon—or, more likely, by the wagon called a "Prairie Schooner"—could have made such overnight accommodations unnecessary or infrequent.

Many questions arise about the family's resettling to Kansas, and these are the Ohnsat mysteries on the National Road.
  • Why did Robert decide to leave Pittsburgh in 1877, at age 42, when he was apparently well established as a butcher?
  • When exactly was the trip begun? Logically, it could have started in the Spring, or perhaps as late as September 1877, when Leopoldina might have known she was pregnant.
  • How did the family choose Tipton as their goal? Were advertisements published or books for sale in Pittsburgh that encouraged settlement in Tipton or Kansas in general? 
  • Were any tracts of land available along the path of the National Road in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, or eastern Kansas?
  • Was land still available in Kansas from the federal Land Grant program?
  • Did Robert bring any cash that would allow him to set up his home and purchase land? 
  • Why did Robert decide to drive a wagon instead of using the railways? Rail travel was available through at least Abilene and west of Salina.
  • What was the cost in 1877 of a Conestoga wagon and team of horses or a Prairie Schooner and a team of oxen?
  • What would need to be packed for the trip by wagon? 
  • Would the wagon mean only occasional need to stop in an inn or hotel? Would there be need to stop for a mid-day meal, and to leave the evening meal at the time of stopping for the night, with breakfast before setting off the next morning?
  • What was the condition of the National Road in 1877-78? (Contemporary plat maps of Ohio and Indiana show that roads did exist from Wheeling WV through St. Louis. The contemporaneous plat maps for Indiana I have found so far are not detailed to parcel owners, but only to township divisions, and do not clearly indicate any road-worthiness of the route.)
  • What is revealed about the route by plat maps of detail for Indiana, and any type of maps for Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Kansas?
  • What was the time needed for the trip? I guess that easy routes could be traveled at 15 miles per day, or more on long days of summer. Unpaved roads likely were the rule in Missouri and Kansas, and average speed would be slower because of rains and ruts after the rains.
An interesting historical footnote is that the closest town to the Robert Ohnsat ranch is Tipton, Kansas. It lies about 10 miles to the northeast of the Ohnsat ranch, in the southwestern corner of Mitchell county and was originally named Pittsburgh. The name was chosen about 1871 because its founder was named Pitt, and the spelling of "burgh" was taken from the spelling of the Pennsylvania city. However, the name Pittsburg was already in use by another town in Kansas, some 120 miles to the southeast. In deference to clarity for the mail system, the town fathers decided to change the name to Tipton, although the town is still situated in Pittsburgh township.

© Thomas G. Kohn, 2013, revised 2014.05.08.


  1. Wanda, a contact through the rootsweb bulletin board, suggested that "your family [could have gone] down the Ohio by river boat, then up the Missouri to Kansas City, getting their conastoga wagon and supplies there."

  2. For further detail, see
    http://www.americanheritage.com/content/prairie-schooner-got-them-there contains a long article that compares the wagons involved in long-distance shipping and resettlement.
    http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/w/wayne/wayne.htm contains a detailed description of the Conestoga wagon built by Wayne Works in the 1870s.

    Of less detail: