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Circle the Wagons! How covered wagons opened the West and changed history

April 15, 2019

"Circle the wagons!" 

 

When you think of Westerns — along with cowboys, Indians, pistols, and horses — covered wagons come to mind. Referred to as prairie schooners, they had white canvas covers that resembled the appearance of ship sails, and were smaller as well as lighter versions Conestogas, which were animal-drawn freight wagons that originated in America during the middle of the 18th century.

 

“Rugged but scientifically designed, the Conestoga wagon was the 18-wheeler of its day.” The behemoths were developed by German wagon makers in the Conestoga Valley of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. “Prominent examples of German-American folk art, they were painted blue with red trim, and decorative iron work on the tool box was black.” Built to handle difficult terrain, Conestogas had a curved floor to prevent the displacement of cargo.

 

 

They required a team (or teams) of horses, mules, or oxen to pull them, and could reportedly transport up to 5 tons of cargo. The roads, back then, were difficult to navigate. Archer B. Hulbert’s Historic Highways of America: Volume 11: Pioneer Roads and Experiences of Travelers (I) (2017), contains the observations of Francis Baily (1774 — 1844), an eminent British astronomer, who traveled from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 1796.

 

The face of the country is very uneven, being a constant succession of hills and dale. Little towns or villages are scattered over the country at the distance of seven or eight miles, which communicate with each other by roads which are almost inaccessible during the winter and spring months.”

 

Though similar to the Conestoga, the design of the prairie schooner made it a better wagon for long distance travel. But, it “had no suspension and the roads and trails at the time were rough, [so] most people on long treks preferred to walk alongside...or ride a horse (if they had one).” Going two miles per hour, travelers were able to cover approximately 15 miles per day.

 

 

“The cotton canvas cover was of a double thickness, and the bonnet was often cantilevered out from the front and rear of the wagon bed for better protection of the interior during storms.” Even though the prairie schooners were further waterproofed by painting or oiling, most pioneers slept under the stars, since the wagons were filled to the brim with their possessions.

 

Traveling across the country required a lot of planning. According to Seymour Dunbar’s 1915 A History of Travel in America (Volume 4), when a group of Iowa emigrants met in Bloomington in 1843, they agreed that every person had to bring “100 lbs. flour, 30 lbs. bacon, 1 peck salt, 3 lbs. powder in horns or canteens, 12 lbs. lead or shot, and one good tent cloth to cover six persons. Every man well armed and equipped with gun, tomahawk, knife, etc.” 

 

Undeniably, Conestogas and their offshoots allowed for America’s expansion west. It’s amazing to think about how the pioneers first made their decision to purchase covered wagons and transport themselves and their families to new and distant lands. And yet, from the mid-1840s to the late 1860s, nearly half-a-million people committed to making the journey.

 

Covered wagons had families and these families had stories; some even involved conflict with Native Americans. Naturally, these stories eventually gave rise to a wildly popular genre called the Western, which embodies different expressions of stories pertaining to the Old West during the latter part of the 19th century; a show like Wagon Train (1957 — 1965), a television series inspired by the 1950  John Ford (1895 — 1973) film Wagon Master, is one of its many, many examples.

 

“One of the common scenes in western films shows circled wagon trains under attack by Indians. However, conflict with native peoples was actually a rare occurrence for most emigrants during the heyday of Oregon Trail use... Rather, most Indians were helpful and generally friendly. Many provided supplies needed by the pioneers or operated ferries or helped manage livestock for them.”

 

Some of America’s classics fall under the genre as well. Willa Cather (1873 —1947), for example, set her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop along the Santa Fe Trail. In the book, “in October of 1852, a French clergyman saddles up a fine cream-colored mule and rides south out of Santa Fe. As the new Catholic bishop of the territory of New Mexico, he is embarking on his first visit to Indian pueblos.” Cather’s work was inspired by Jean-Baptiste Lamy (1814 — 1888), the real French Roman Catholic, who became the first bishop of Santa Fe in 1853.

 

Art depictions of the prairie schooner far outnumber those of the Conestoga, even though that heavier wagon is the more elegant one. But because “prairie schooners have been celebrated in novels, television, and a popular computer game...the identities of the two wagons often have been blurred.” While the rise of railroads ultimately made covered wagons obsolete, they permanently altered the course of American history and culture.

 

Note* Image sourced from the Library of Congress (1); Images sourced from Wiki Commons (2,3,4,5).

 

 

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