Conestoga wagons hauled possessions and dreams of early settlers

conestoga wagon
The Conestoga wagon was a sturdy, dependable vehicle that could handle the rugged and virtually non-existent trails to carry early settlers west. (Submitted photo)

With America’s semiquincentennial on the horizon, this might be a good time to take a look at the forces that shaped this part of the country’s early agricultural heritage. In the coming months, writer Paul Locher will explore the tools and traditions that came into play as settlers crossed the Allegheny Mountains bound for a new life in the vast Ohio Country and the frontiers that lay beyond.

In the beginning, there was the Conestoga wagon. It was the vehicle of choice for transporting the possessions and dreams of American settlers over the forbidding Allegheny Mountains and into the vast, unexplored and unsettled wilderness of the Ohio Country beyond. For those settlers, it would have been a journey little different from what a trip to the moon is like today.

The great wave of American migration began with the division of the Northwest Territory in 1800 and the admission of Ohio into the union in 1803. Further migration was spurred by the Louisiana Purchase from the French in 1803, which added 530 million acres of largely unexplored territory to the nation. The seemingly endless availability of cheap land brought a tsunami of settlement as people rushed from the East to seek their fortunes on the frontier.

To successfully accomplish that trip, they needed a sturdy, dependable vehicle that could handle the rugged and virtually non-existent trails winding across mostly uncharted and often forbidding terrain. They found that vehicle in the Conestoga wagon.

The Conestoga wagon was a creation of German immigrants working along the Conestoga Creek north of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The wagon they created was originally designed for the transport of agricultural goods to market but quickly became the favored method of transportation for settlers wanting to move west.

Conestoga wagons were the product of numerous cottage industries clustered together to facilitate their mass manufacture. The near assembly line method of producing the Conestoga wagons was what Henry Ford later attempted to replicate in his automobile plants.

The craftsmen and tradesmen involved in producing these wagons included carpenters and joiners to build the bodies and chassis, weavers to make the canvas covers that protected both the vehicle’s body and its contents, wheelwrights to build the heavy spoked wheels and hubs, coopers to make the water barrels that were strapped to the wagons’ sides, rope makers for the various lashings that were needed, leather workers to make the harnesses and reins and painters to give the wagon its distinctive paint job, always with a blue body and red wheels.

The most significant artisan to lend his talents to the creation of this conveyance, however, was the blacksmith. In every sense, the Conestoga wagon was a showcase for the blacksmith’s art. In addition to the utilitarian components of the vehicle’s running gear, the blacksmith fabricated such parts as hooks, chains, hinges, axe holders, hasps, locks, hound bands, brake levers, nuts and bolts in a manner that transcended their mundane and utilitarian purpose and elevated them into the realm of folk art.

What mostly distinguished the body of the Conestoga wagon from its European counterparts was its concave shape. The floor of the cargo area was curved in such a manner that the jostling motion of the vehicle along the trail would force the cargo to migrate to the center of the wagon, rather than falling out the ends or bending the sideboards.

The Conestoga wagon also had large rear wheels — typically about 6 feet in diameter — which provided a high ground clearance when it encountered streams, rivers, large rocks or trees across the trail. To prevent water from entering when the wagon crossed bodies of water, the seams in the boards that formed the body were caulked with tar or pitch. The front wheels were smaller in diameter, enabling the wagon to have a sharper turning radius. It also had a fold-down tailgate to make the loading and unloading of cargo easier, and it was fitted with hardware that allowed a feed trough for the animals to be suspended off the rear.

The wagon was not designed for passengers. The party traveling with it — usually men who went to inspect the land and begin clearing it for a house — typically walked. The wagon was designed for cargo only, although the body provided shelter in inclement weather and the travelers usually slept beneath it at night. Another feature unique to a true Conestoga wagon was the inclusion of a so-called “lazy board” which was built into the underside of the body and could be pulled out a couple of feet on either side. The lazy board was for the driver of the wagon to sit on when he or she became tired of walking. From that perch, the driver could continue to view the team and watch the road ahead.

Conestoga wagons were typically drawn by teams of oxen, mules or horses. Oxen and mules were preferred by many because they could continue to be of service when the party reached its destination and began building a house and wresting a farm from the wilderness. Those animals could be of use for drawing a plow, maneuvering tree trunks or lifting heavy material with the aid of ropes and pulleys.

If horses were used to draw the wagon, the equine of choice was the Conestoga draft horse. This type of horse was specially bred for this sort of work. And while not the most attractive horse, being short, stocky and highly muscled, with a short stride and large feet, it had a willing and docile disposition. Its forward movement has been described as steady and non-wobbling.

Today the Conestoga draft horse is extinct. As time passed and the canals and railroads were developed, the Conestoga wagons were needed less and less for distance hauling. So were the Conestoga horses. And as farming progressed, horses with large hooves became less desirable than ones with smaller feet. Many plants could be broken off by a clumsy animal. The mule, because of its smaller feet, endurance for hard work and the fact that it generally required less care than the Conestoga horse were all factors in the ultimate demise of the breed.

Teams of oxen were also used to draw the Conestoga wagons and proved valuable animals in the early cultivation of farms if they made it to their destinations. Oxen are genetically predisposed to dying suddenly, which often rendered them a liability rather than an asset along the trail.

For those wanting to know more about Conestoga wagons, the book Conestoga Wagon — Masterpiece of the Blacksmith by Arthur L. Reist is a great read.

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  1. A very informative article! I did not know that a breed of horse was used for the wagons, but is now extinct. I look forward to the future publications in the Farm & Dairy by Mr. Locher.


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