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Great skier? Maybe the Circuit Rider!

Great skier? Maybe the Circuit Rider!

December 6, 2023

When I was an avid cross-country skier, one ‘snowshoe itinerant’ was brought to my attention. His name was John Lewis Dyer (1812-1901). He used snowshoe skis through the snow and mountains in Colorado, reaching miners in their high-located camps, delivering mail, and caring for early mountain communities. The Snowshoe Itinerant: an autobiography of the Rev. John Dyer, in 1890, documents parts of his life (through ILL). Find more here https://www.coloradovirtuallibrary.org/ .

Traveling preachers were known as circuit riders.  A circuit rider was assigned a route, or circuit, that encompassed long distances, sometimes even 500 miles each month. They would preach every day, rest a few days, and then start their cycle over again. Tasks included visiting the sick, officiating marriages, and burying the dead.

Essential items they traveled with included a rifle, bible, and usually two saddlebags to store items. They were often exposed to harsh conditions such as unpredictable weather, wild animals, rough terrain, and encounters with unknown people on the frontier. All of these factors contributed to their deteriorated health, with many dying young or being forced to stop riding the circuit.  

It is because of their early written records that documentation of baptisms, marriage, and burials even existed. Other records included pastoral records, communion records, and identification of settlers whose names might not appear anywhere else.

Books such as Diary of Johann Gottfried Arends, 1740-1807, by Jo White Linn; and Rev. James McNally, Partial Parish Register in Prescott and Russell, Baptism, Marriages 1836-1865 (Canada), by Alex W. Fraser, are two examples of records kept by a circuit rider.

If this has sparked your interest, may we suggest these titles at the Midwest Genealogy Center: Circuit Rider, Autobiography of A.C. Ramsey, by A.C. Ramsey; Francis Asbury, Circuit Rider, by Janet Benge; and Pistol Packin’ Preachers, Circuit Riders of Texas, by Barbara Barton to name a few. You may also like a fiction story about circuit riders. The MCPL Catalog offers the book Taylor Callahan, Circuit Rider, by William W. Johnstone. Although fiction, it gives a detailed idea of what the life of a circuit rider might be like which included many dangers and unsafe environments.  

Another category of circuit riders was traveling judges on horseback. Their travel experiences were similar, as the legal and religious circuit riders often shared the same trail. The legal circuit riders would ride their large circle, hearing cases before courthouses were established. It’s from this old practice that the term ‘circuit court’ began. May I also suggest Life and correspondence of James Iredell, one of the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, by McRee, Griffith John, 1758-1801. Although many early records are lost, it is still worth checking church and courthouse records, newspapers, and cemeteries for the circuit riders’ footprints. You can also always visit MGC and immerse yourselves in the lives of the circuit riders’ by reading their autobiographies and correspondence!

Iveta B.
Midwest Genealogy Center

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