Moving with a Conestoga or prairie wagon

covered wagon

The end of the War of 1812 signaled the start of a large migration of Anglo-Saxon pioneers. Confined to the east coast by territorial claims, Indians and geographical features, they suddenly breached the Allegheny Mountains.

Westward bound

These pioneers were eager to move west, the garden of the world, the Eden of their dreams. These many anonymous pioneers used the Conestoga wagon to reach the Mississippi River, and to skirt across the western plains, they employed the prairie schooner.

Westward-bound settlers were of all ages and both sexes, but the largest single element consisted of young men who had just attained their independence from family and were traveling to find a start on life. Such a man might be fortunate to have a few dollars to buy a farm immediately, but most likely he would work to save funds to purchase some land or start a business.

When an entire family moved, the process was somewhat more complicated. The family sold their eastern possessions before departure — partly because space was limited in the wagon and partly because funds would be required to start housekeeping over again.

Vehicle of empire

The “vehicle of empire” had its origin among the Pennsylvania Dutch (Germans) craftsman in Lancaster. They were also the inventors of the “Kentucky rifle” that was the prize possession of the frontiersman who depended on this gun for much of his food and on occasion for his life.

In size and appearance, the Conestoga wagon was a huge structure, heavily built, with broad six-inch, iron-rimmed wheels to travel the poorly drained and sink-holed roads. The wagon was higher at both ends, so as to prevent its contents from spilling out when going up and down hills and to keep the load centered.

The wagons, when “factory built,” were patriotic in looks with the under parts of the wagon painted blue, the upper parts painted red, and the white canvas, called the bonnet, covering the top to protect the wagon contents from the weather.

A team of four horses pulled most Conestogas, with the driver usually riding the wheelhorse. Some westward bound wagons were pulled by hardy oxen who could handle heavier loads. The brakes on the squeaky Conestogas were poor, and on steep downhill grades, large logs were fastened to the back of the wagon to control the speed and assist the horses or oxen. The average daily progress was 15 miles with resting periods for the walkers and animals.

Bare necessities

Only the bare necessities of life could be given space in the wagons. Of first importance were implements for building a house, barn and clearing fields. High on the list was an axe, auger, adze, hammer, guns and ammunition.

Food included flour, bacon, sugar, salt, yeast and vinegar. Seeds for fruit trees, grain and vegetables were important to many farmers. A spinning wheel was vital, as was clothing, needles, pots, pans, dishes and cutlery items. Possibly some precious space was absorbed by a clock, beds, chairs, bureau and what prized family heirlooms they could not part with.

Mother and the younger children might ride in the wagon, while father plodded beside the team or rode the wheelhorse. The older children walked behind a cow or two or an extra horse that was needed for farming.

Following their dreams

At night, the family camped by the side of the “road” and fried some bacon, cooked biscuits and enjoyed an open fire. Rain slowed the progress and made life miserable for the migrants. These pioneers didn’t care, they were moving straight west to new territory that would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky or Tennessee. It was the land of their dreams to build villages, towns, cities, townships, counties and states.

Some 1,770,963 crossed the Appalachian Mountains by 1820 and 2,650,755 by 1830. No army could stop them, but the Mississippi River and the plush environment of the Midwest slowed them down. The pioneer who tamed the forests and the lands east of the Mississippi Valley were all unwittingly fashioning a staging area for the venturesome frontiersmen whose destiny lay in America’s far west.

By 1844, the pioneers had blustered their way into California and Oregon. The land in between was beckoning inhabitants to settle. It started slowly in the early 1840s, and by 1845 there were 2,500 people traveling west on the wagon trails. First, it was the Mormon Hegira that began in 1847, then the California gold craze of 1849, and that resulted in 50,000 individuals in a single summer traveling west. The peak migration years were 1850-1854.

Prairie schooners

St. Joe, Weston and Independence, all in western Missouri, were staging towns for westbound wagon trains waiting for the prairie grass to ripen to provide fuel for the mules, oxen or horses that pulled the prairie schooners. The prairie schooner could have been any wagon manufactured by John Deere, Sears, Studebaker, Murphy, Roebuck, and Schuttler that sold around $100 dollars.

Schuttler was a super salesman, and each spring, his wagon was the premier wagon on the plains. By the 1890s, some 30,000 Schuttler wagons had been converted to prairie schooners and traveled the western trails.

The prairie schooner was about 10 feet long and four feet wide with the sides of the box sloping outward. The wagon bed was waterproofed with tar to protect its contents when crossing swollen stream and rivers. Six to seven arching hickory bows supported a linseed oil canvas, which seen in the distance, resembled a ship at sea, thus the name schooner. It was a descendent of the Conestoga wagon and the ancestor of the modern 18-wheeler truck.

Wagon trains

The prairie schooner was formed into a wagon train of 20 to 30 wagons drawn by three to six oxen, four to six mules or four to eight horses. Horses were faster but exhausted easily and ate more. Mules were more sturdy and very sensitive to danger and strange sounds, but slower. Oxen were even slower, but hardy and were the choice of most freighters.

The wagon train, which traveled about 12 to 15 miles per day, was necessary for natural dangers and human security that would be encountered in the 2,500-3,000 mile experience. In the schooner were the items that were necessary to survive the journey and begin a new household.

These wagons could haul 3,000 pounds and might include furniture, farm implements, kitchen items, personal articles, saleable goods, food and family heirlooms. One outfitter in an advertisement suggested that a family of six also needed rope, chains, tents, axe, saw, 200 pounds of flour, 75 pounds of salted bacon, 20 pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of rice, a cask of vinegar, salt, dried beans and coffee.

The prairie schooner was sometimes over-supplied and resulted in having to be relieved of its cargo to continue across a river, over a bluff or down a mountain side. The western trails were littered with discarded clothing, books, broke-down wagons, log chains, chairs, dishes, cooking stoves, shoes, boots, trunks, bedding and livestock — some dead others alive.

Each wagon train was a logistical support system for the next wagon train that was not too far behind. The average day of plains travel was anything but exciting — walking in a cloud of dust broken only by lunch and by short rest periods in the middle of the morning and afternoon.

A camp site depended on grass and water for the livestock. If the caravan stopped early enough, to complete the necessary chores before dark, a modest meal was prepared and a deserving rest was taken. The wagons were arranged in a circle and a guard established, but the animals were open-ranged except in times of Indian danger. Sunday was often used for rest and repairs.

The Conestoga wagon and prairie schooner played a major role in the development and settlement of American’s west. They were the major source of transportation before the railroad united the country and the vehicles for many families to find their moon river or dreams in the distant west.

That’s your history!


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

Previous articleAll your farm tax questions answered
Next articleGrazing cattle through the winter
Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.