Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Conestoga Wagons



They looked graceful, they were called ships of inland commerce and they transported thousands of immigrants during the 1800's. The Conestoga Wagons played a very significant part in our nation's expansion. The Conestoga and then a hybrid of it was used by immigrants traversing the Overland Trail.

The Famous Conestoga

conestoga
Conestoga Wagon reenactment, 1961
The wagon's name denotes the region of Pennsylvania where they were first used in the early 1700's. The Conestoga Wagon was first used in the east carrying freight over the Allegheny Mountains. Later they and an offshoot of the Conestoga were used over the plains and the Rocky Mountains carrying settlers to California and Oregon. Traders on the old Santa Fe Trail liked the Conestoga wagon for both it's size and durability. The Santa Fe Trail was a heavy traveled freight route reaching from Missouri westward to Santa Fe. Often times the Conestoga wagons on the Santa Fe Trail pulled another wagon from behind.

The Construction of the Conestoga Wagon

The Conestoga wagon is often referred to as the "covered wagon". The covering which is the most distinctive trait on the Conestoga wagon was first made from hempen homespun and later of canvas.The wooden bottom of the wagon box was curved and rose at both ends. This design helped with the cargo while ascending and descending hills. The cargo would shift less easily and the tailgate would receive less strain. The wagon's wheels were usually rimed with iron to add to durability.

The wagon's average dimensions were 18 feet long, 11 feet high, and 4 feet wide. The wagon was pulled by horses or mules and was said to be able to carry about eight tons. The wagon might typically be pulled by up to eight horses or perhaps a dozen oxen or mules. Conestoga wagons were also known not to have drivers seats. The driver would generally walk alongside the wagon leading the front animal. The lead horse was usually the first on the left. There was often a braking system used which was generally a chain leading to the rear wheels. The chain could stop the wheel rotation causing a slide that would slow down the wagon.

prairie schooner photo
Prairie Schooner exhibit, Sutters Fort, Sacramento CA
The Conestoga Horse

The Conestoga Wagon actually had it's own breed of horse developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. These were the Conestoga Horses, bred to pull the typical heavy loads of the Conestoga's. The horses were first bred in Lancaster County Pennsylvania by Mennonite German settlers. This may certainly the only time in history that a special breed of horse was developed for one single commercial purpose. A Conestoga horse could be as large as seventeen hands. The breed is now extinct. The famous wagons lasted in the public's imagination much longer than the horses bred to pull them. The Conestoga horse today can only be seen in artwork from the era.

The Prairie Schooner

Essentially, the "prairie schooner" was a smaller Conestoga wagon. In modern day times it would be a small SUV as compared to a Chevy Suburban. The Conestoga's size alone made crossing the Rocky Mountains quite difficult. The size of the Conestoga killed oxen halfway through the trip west.

wagon train
1912 Pioneer reenactment
The immigrants were resourceful and came up with an alternative. The prairie schooner was basically a half size Conestoga. The prairie schooner was typically about four feet wide and ten to twelve feet long. This hybrid wagon weighed about 1300 pounds and could be easily disassembled. Everything the pioneer needed to cross rivers and certain mountain passes. The wagon bed usually was two to three feet deep. The front wheels were typically 44 inches in diameter and the rear wheels about 50 inches. The smaller front wheels allowed for sharper turns. Compared to the Conestoga wagon the prairie schooner had a relatively flat bottom.

The prairie schooner covering was often called the "bonnet". The covering was held securely to the wagon frame by hardwood bows. As far as springs were concerned, the prairie schooner usually had one set, under the drivers seat. The story is that the springs helped make the seat a bit more usable but by no means comfortable.

Probably one of the biggest misconceptions regarding the prairie schooner was that it was pulled by horses. In reality it was pulled by teams of oxen. Oxen were considered stronger than horses for heavy loads, endured longer, and their water needs were less. Something particularly important over the western desert region.

old west wind wagon
Old West Wind Wagon
It's also noted that some travelers on the Oregon and California Trails utilized wagons somewhat smaller than the prairie schooners. Some of these were simple ranch wagons with a covering. Although they served the purpose they were not nearly as sturdy as the prairie schooner and provided less shelter.

Three additional photo articles on Western Trips you'll find interesting are Oregon City Oregon, the official end of the Oregon Trail... Independence Missouri, the start of the Overland and Oregon Trail and Peppard's Wind Wagon, a way to travel westward by wind power alone. The photo left shows one variety of the Wind Wagon.

See the Conestoga Wagons and the Prairie Schooners

Among the select museums and historic sites where you can view the prairie schooners and the Conestoga wagons are the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke Virginia...Sutters Fort in Sacramento California...Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico about halfway between Las Vegas and Raton...The Conestoga Area Historical Society in Conestoga Pennsylvania...the Frontiers Trail Museum in Independence Missouri...The National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. and the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer North Carolina.


               


OLD WEST COVERED WAGONS VIDEO





Wagon Train Reenactments

For those wishing to attend a real wagon train reenactment, check out the Highway 50 Association which conducts an annual wagon train, usually in June, between Nevada and California. The wagon train typically begins in the lake Tahoe area and travels westward into California. Their website is www.hwy50wagontrain.com

Two excellent reference books on frontier covered wagons are  Daily Life in a Covered Wagon by author Paul Erickson and Conestoga Wagons by Richard Ammon and Bill Farnsworth.

(Sutters Fort covered wagon photo from author's collection. Remaining photos from the public domain)

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