Finding lodging in the rural antebellum South

As part of my ongoing research, I've been reading the very interesting diaries of Elizabeth Steele Wright, which are held at the Library of Congress. In what I have read so far, Wright, her husband, and their dog Growler traveled via horse and coach around the southern United States in the late 1840s. Most of my research heretofore has been on steam travel, so I've enjoyed learning more about the mechanics of this different type of travel (although, unfortunately, the reason for their travels is not quite yet clear at this stage of my research).

One issue which comes up again and again is the question of overnight lodging: when the sun went down, where would the Wrights and Growler rest for the evening? They appear to have stayed with strangers when deep in the rural South, lodging with local families wherever they happened to have stopped for the evening. Wright scrupulously recorded in her journal the names of the families with which they lodged and the amount which the Wrights paid the morning they departed. Although she didn't hesitate to comment on the poor quality of food or beds, she never mentions any haggling over the amount paid. There appears to have been a common understanding between travelers and locals: travelers would be taken in, but would willingly pay the amount asked the next morning.

The amount paid could vary. The night of December 23, 1848, the Wrights stayed with a planter who owned thirty slaves in rural Georgia. The next day, they departed and "our bill was nothing." With another family in January 1849, they awoke their temporary host from his drunken stupor and paid him two dollars. Later that month in Atapulgus, Georgia, they paid one dollar and had "no fault to find with the bill." In rural Alabama that February, "we had a first-rate breakfast. the lady put up a fine luncheon for us our bill was only two dollars. where we get the best fare there they are moderate with their bills." But not all the meals were appetizing. When staying with a widow and her two daughters elsewhere in rural Alabama, Wright reported that supper "consisted of corn bread, fried ham, and eggs, coffee without any cream or sugar. I think if we had to drink coffee that way, that we would not drink much."

The Wrights never seem to have had trouble finding a place to stay, but they were clearly dependent on the kindness of the people they encountered along the way. During one stretch of their journey, the Wrights drove through 25 miles of "barren country, with only now and then a house." The Wrights stopped at a house, and the lady there noted that she "did not like to take us in as her husband and servants were away, but the next house was five miles ahead, so she said that she would not turn us away."

In larger towns the Wrights could find hotels, but most of their lodging was with private families along their route. These families appear to have put them up mostly without complaint, and the Wrights in turn paid what was requested upon departure. Elizabeth Wright's journal provides a marvelous window into this tacit understanding between traveler and host.