• Dave Rodgers

The Western Wagon Train: Part-One, The Routes West, Wagons, Prairie Schooners & How They Were Packed

Updated: Mar 8

What were the routes of the western emigrant? What kinds of wagons were used? How were they made and was there standard wagon-wheel spacing? How were they packed and what would all this cost?


*Note: Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3 on the Western Wagon Train. These will cover life on the trail, livestock & tack so for now, we'll focus on just the routes and wagons.

Picture yourself driving down a desert highway or crossing the Great American plains along the interstate. Turn off the radio and pull off onto some country road away from the roar of the traffic. Now get out of the car and listen to the silence. A bug buzzes by as a soft breeze lifts a rustling chorus from the scrub and grass around you. Take a breath and start walking; at least do so for a short while. If it was over a century and a half ago, this would be the speed of an emigrant caravan. Suddenly the world seems a lot larger when seen from the days of wagons, sweat and iron-will.


Camp Cady redoubt (ca. 1863) along the Mojave Road (Old Spanish Road) about 150 miles NE of Los Angeles (note man standing on top for scale). This site is still a desolate and lonely place.

I remember a similar situation riding a horse along the Mojave Road past the ruins of Camp Cady (1860). As I followed the +160 year-old wagon ruts I could hear nothing but a desert wind. I paused to look at the rusted locomotive boiler that once powered freight winches back when this outpost was alive with soldiers, animals, and western travelers. I stood on top of the berm overlooking the now subterranean river taking in endless miles of desert. In my mind, I imagined a dragoon with his carbine or a seasoned ‘borderer’ with his rifle surveying the landscape and how short the reach of a fired ball would be in such vastness! Truly, you cannot appreciate how small you really are until you are in places like this. When you are standing at a remote location that has witnessed such history, you can hear the groan of Osage-orangewood wheels, the rattle of ox harnesses and canvas wagon covers in the breeze. A mule snorts; the oxen grunt and dusty wheels creak down a well-traveled road.


19th c. Illustration of a Westward wagon train. Note the use of 'farm wagons' piled high with tarped cargoes and superfluous furniture items.

The Wagon Routes West

It was a long trip. For those coming from eastern cities such as Buffalo, New York, emigrants had already traveled hundreds of miles to reach outposts like Westport, Independence or St. Joseph which were the designated ‘start points’. To the south, travelers entered into places like Houston and San Antonio before lurching forward into the great unknown. From there, the journey would take from around 75 to 90 days. The optimal time to start the journey was through March right up to about April 20th at the latest. This would ensure that grass and water would be the most abundant with the least threat of winter storms or summer heat. There were 4 main routes that went through 3 different passes to clear the Rockies. The main routes are named below.

The two northern routes (Oregon Trail & California Trail) had the most water and greenery but were prone to winter snows. Both passed through the Rockies by means of the South Pass.



The two southern routes were the Old Spanish Trail & Gila River Trail. The Old Spanish trail (aka. The Santa Fe Trail) went from Independence through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains by way of the Santa Fe Pass and was less vulnerable to winter weather than the two northern routes. The Gila River Trail (aka. Southern Emigrant Trail) followed the El Paso Route west. It had much better weather year-round but also suffered extreme heat and ‘journadas’ (long expanses where there is no water). Here are basics on each route.



  • The Oregon Trail (1,940 miles) Westport to Astoria through the Rockies by way of the South Pass

  • The California Trail(2,020 to 2,034 miles) Independence/Westport to Fort Hall and on to Sutter’s Fort through the Rockies by way of the South Pass

  • The Old Spanish Trail- (1898 miles) Ft. Leavenworth to Santa Fe through the Santa Fe Pass, then up into Utah Territory down through Mountain Meadows, across the Mojave Desert, through the Cajon Pass into Los Angeles & San Pedro Harbor

  • The Gila River Trail (later known as the, The Southern Emigrant Trail) – (1,417 miles) Houston to San Diego following the El Paso Route.

  • A common alternate to the Gila River Trail is General Kearney’s Route (1,916 miles) from Fort Leavenworth through the Santa Fe Pass and Southern Arizona, to San Diego.

*Note: there are numerous alternate routes, trail names, origin-and-terminus points not mentioned here. The author selected the primary routes for the purpose of simplicity. There are many books detailing the various journey’s to the western states & territories. Two good recommendations to start with are The Prairie Traveler (1861-revised edition) and Disturnell’s Emigrant’s Guide to New Mexico, California and Oregon (1849).


Advertisement for Clipper Ships to California. These vessels would soon be replaced by the even faster steamships.

If Ocean Travel Was the Fastest, Why Did So Many Go by Land?

Going by land was cheaper. At the very beginning, clipper ships took over 100-days 'round the horn' but that quickly changed to steamships dropping off passengers in Central America crossing the isthmus to the Pacific side and another ship. This trip took a month or less. The fastest ocean routes crossed the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Mexico) or in Panama & Nicaragua. The problem is that the minimal cost for ocean travel was around $300 and the traveler arrived in San Francisco with only his/her carry-on luggage (8ft³ for cabin and 6ft³ for steerage). Anything extra went into the hold and was shipped as freight at an extra cost of around 70 cents per cubed foot. Freight on specie (gold & silver) was 1% of the specie’s value. Extra items such as food and equipment purchased in San Francisco or the Gold Country were sold at the inflated ‘California’ prices. The cost of going overland was around $200 or less per individual and the land-traveler would arrive fully equipped and provisioned for months.


Types of Wagons

The Prairie Schooner

The prairie schooner shared many traits with a standard workaday farm-wagon. In many cases, the two were one in the same. It weighed around 900 lbs. and had a bed length of about 10 feet though some specimens were as long as 12 feet. The width typically varied from about 38-44 inches. With a load capacity of between 2000-2500 lbs., they were preferred over larger, heavier freight wagons such as the Conestoga not only because of cost but because it was hard enough to get a prairie schooners over some of the early western trails. For freight wagons, it was virtually impossible at first. Upon arrival at it's western destination, the prairie schooner could commence (or resume) it's next role as a farm wagon or other commercial vehicle.


Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop contributed greatly to this article from the perspective of someone who makes wagons as an occupation. According to him, most people are surprised at how small the prairie schooner really is. Traditionally, prairie schooners and other light utility wagons did have a blue painted body and red painted wheels along with a red undercarriage or running gear. However, it is the white canvas or drill cover that got the prairie schooner its name.

A Schooner

It is said that the prairie schooner earned its name due to the way its white canvas cover resembled a small ship plying the great oceans of unending prairies, especially from a distance. In maritime terminology, there are differences between ocean schooners and the much faster 'clipper' ships that were used to bring the first Argonauts by sea. Perhaps there was greater meaning in using a different type of ship (schooners) to describe these wagons as the slower alternative by land. That said, one can easily draw the parallel between oceans of water and of grass. Both are long journeys In my opinion, the name 'prairie schooner' fits these hearty wagons of our American ancestors. When crossing prairie grasslands, it would have been a sight to behold a column of prairie schooners with white drill covers kicking up dust on a lonely trail. During the era of wind and sail, the oceans were plied by 'wooden ships and iron men'. The prairie schooners were manned by a similar breed of hearty individuals willing to face the unknown. Sweating beast replaced trade winds, but the same steel-nerve, fortitude, and the ability to endure great discomfort or loss were necessary traits of this tough generation of frontier people.



'Conestoga' and Other Freight Wagons


A common misnomer is that the average emigrant used Conestoga Wagons. They did not. Conestoga wagons were the 'freight trucks' of their day. Many of the early wagon roads were barely suitable for a prairie schooner, let alone a freight wagon that may be triple the weight of your average emigrant wagon. Larger wagons such as Conestogas could not make it through many mountain passes until significant improvements to the roads were made.

The Conestoga was a popular type of freight wagon dating from early 18th century Pennsylvania. Previous to westward expansion, it had been a workhorse along the frontier for generations. It’s characteristic long, curving frame enabled it to carry heavy loads over the country roads east of the Mississippi. These wagons were significantly longer than the prairie schooner at 12 to 15 feet in length over the prairie schooner’s customary 10-11 ½ foot average bed length.


Why is the bed of a Conestoga Wagon curved? According to Doug Hansen, the curved design of a Conestoga wagon bed is ideal for cradling a heavy cargo so that it does not shift on the rural roads of the Colonial Frontier. This allowed for a significantly heavy cargo to be carried in a single vehicle over uneven surfaces without compromising the wagon's structural integrity.



Due to its considerably heavy weight; heavy freight wagons were also not a favorite for the narrow and typically broken paths of loose sand and deep mud. Although desperately needed at various frontier outposts, road improvements were needed in order to get these large wagons to their destinations. As a national wagon road system was further established through the 1850s, road grading, widening and other improvements quickly made freight wagons a common fixture across the frontier.

Heavy freight wagons as seen here were about 36-44 inches wide & about 14-15 feet long with a high box (up to 7-feet) capable of carrying over 6-tons of freight. An original freight wagon at the Leonis Adobe in Calabassas, California measures 43" x 174" with a 6-ton freight capacity. The frontier forts and other outposts of civilization were initially supplied by pack horses and mules over primitive footpaths. With the coming of established wagon roads, the heavy freight wagons which were sometimes linked in twos and threes, would increase the logistical supplies needed to sustain these growing communities.



How were freight wagons driven?

The heavier freight wagons and ‘Conestogas’ were manned by 2-individuals, the driver and swamper. When using horses and mules, the driver was typically mounted on the left wheel horse (horse nearest the wagon’s front wheels). He operated jerk line that ran out to the lead horse so that he could control the team from behind. The swamper usually rode on top of the wagon or walked alongside it mainly to set the brakes and assist the driver. This system continued to be used even with the large borax wagons of the late 19th century where 20-mule teams hauled 2-3 wagons with a load of 10-tons or more. When working with oxen, the driver or 'bullwhacker' guides the team on foot. Nose leads or 'rings' attached to lead lines and a 'blacksnake' or bull-whip were then used to drive and steer the teams.


Other Wagon Variants

The type of wagon that classified as a prairie schooner would be capable of carrying about a ton of cargo (mostly supplies) over a great distance on primitive roads. In order to pass over those roads the design must be fairly light in weight when compared to other wagons. Many farm wagons and smaller freight wagons were pressed into service provided they were both lightweight and sturdy enough to ford streams and if necessary, be dismantled to ferry deep water or be moved through/around various obstacles along the way.


One such obstacle was Canon de San Fellipe (now called 'Box Canyon' in Anza Borrego Desert State Park) along the Gila River Trail near Vallecito. This narrow 'canon' had to be widened by the Mormon Battalion using picks and axes in order to get their wagons through during the winter of 1846-47. It would remain a narrow defile and local landmark through the days of the Butterfield stage route. It is still popular with hikers today.





Parts of the Western Wagon



This article will cover just the wagon right up to the falling tongue where the draft animals are hitched. The sequel articles cover animals, tack, driving, and camp life.


The image above is of a typical prairie schooner. It is a flat bed, small wagon with a box that may be planked or it may be paneled like a Conestoga and other freight wagons. 'Rave-framed' boxes (layman also call it 'Paneled') are a crisscross of horizontal plank sidings being ribbed by raves or 'rails' from the bed to the top for added durability. Rave framed construction was a weight-saving feature. Prairie schooners often had this type of box design. Another variant is for the siding composed to a few planks bolted and strapped together with perhaps a couple of raves for added weight. This second style was a little lighter and more economical but sacrifices some durability.


Was there a standardized track-width for old west wagons and how was it determined?

According to Doug Hansen, there is a purpose as to why the wagon bed is comparably narrow. Even in freight wagons, the bed is often 44 inches or less in width. This is because, the narrow box allowed clearance for the steering of the front wheels, also the track width of the wagon was equal to the width of the animals pulling it.


With 2-draft animals hitched together, common track widths were around 56” aka. 'Narrow Track', or a 60” 'Wide Track. Also, wider wagons would have required a wider trail, and in the mountains, that was a big deal. Also, the longer the axle is, the more prone to breakage it becomes when passing over ruts or any uneven surface. This narrow width is the optimal balance between maximum load accommodation and durability against breakage. For minor repairs and maintenance, the jockey box carries the tools and hardware needed to keep the wagons in good order and the animals shod.


Brakes were an important part of freight wagons and prairie schooners. They provide the needed drag when coming down a grade. Operation was simple. The brake arm lever made the connecting rod move the brake bar which was connected to the brake block. This put the needed pressure on the rear wheels to prevent them from rolling. Brakes can also be set when the wagon is parked so that it will not roll. This is especially useful when the animals are unhitched. Brakes may or may not be on lighter wagon designs. If not, stones or heavy beams may be used to chock the tires when parked. If a wagon is traveling down a grade, the rear wheels may be chained to achieve the necessary amount of drag. For extreme grades, all four wheels may be chained so that the team can drag the wagon downhill without rolling into the team and complicating the process.



Wagon Construction & Wheels



What the Original Sources Said About Wagon Construction:

"Wagons should be of the simplest possible construction—strong, light, and made of well-seasoned timber, especially the wheels, as the atmosphere, in the elevated and arid region over which they have to pass, is so exceedingly dry during the summer months that, unless the wood-work is thoroughly seasoned, they will require constant repairs to prevent them from falling to pieces."

-The Prairie Traveler (1859)


"Let your waggons be strong, but light, with good lock chains..."

-The Emigrant's Guide to California (1849)


"The provisions for not more than three persons should be hauled in any one wagon, and that should be such an one as is known in Wisconsin as a light two-horse wagon. There should be no superfluous iron work about it, and the timber, particularly of the wheels, should be perfectly seasoned."

-The Overland Route to California (1852)


"The wagon should be an ordinary sized, two horse lumber wagon of the States ; not too heavy, but well made ; with a brake, or good lock chains for both hind wheels. The brake is an admirable fixture on a wagon for the plains, exceptionable only on account of its weight."


"It is often thought expedient, as a matter of safety, to rivet a light bar of iron the whole length of the wagon tongue. There should be a strong cotton (“ factory ”) cover to the wagon, and if double all the better; and what we mean by a double cover is, that there be one cover attached to the under or inside of the wagon hoops, that support the wagon cover, and the other upon the outside, as it offers far better protection against the beating winds and rains of the first three weeks, and the broiling sun of the rest of the journey."

-The National Wagon Road Guide (1858)


Notations on the Wagon Cover

The National Wagon Road Guide advises that the best wagon cover materials are of strong ...factory or drilling, not duck or heavy goods". While some guides advise that the cover be painted or oiled, The National Wagon Road advises against it. I have to agree with Doug Hansen in his belief that an unpainted/un-oiled cover is the best way to go. The material in a regular unpainted wagon cover will tighten when wet and this will allow the wagon bonnet to shed water without a hard rain striking through. For added shelter from the rain, a double-cover (one below the wagon bows and one above) not only ensures a dry interior of the wagon, but it also creates a buffer airspace which is a better protection against an intense sun.

My previous experience in outdoor fabrics such as awnings and shades, is that a painted or oiled cover traps humidity rather than allowing it to escape. This means that an oiled or painted cover would not only make the wagon interior hotter and more humid than outside, but the indoor air quality would not be as good. Nineteenth-century Americans understood the positive effects of good air quality on health and that stagnant air aided illness in its progress. Although an oiled or painted cover would do a good job against rain, the interior will not be nearly as comfortable as it would be using a double layer of unpainted fabric.


Additional Notes on Wheel Construction:

"Wheels made of the bois-d'arc, or Osage orangewood, are the best for the plains, as they shrink but little, and seldom want repairing. As, however, this wood is not easily procured in the Northern States, white oak answers a very good purpose if well seasoned."

-The Prairie Traveler (1859)


"...and the tire well riveted through the fellowes—if not thus fastened, you will have to wet your wheels every day, to prevent them from coming off'."

-The Overland Route to California (1852)



Outfitting for the Trip West


I have seen colorful diagrams depicting prairie schooners carrying stoves, beds, other furniture and perhaps a few sacks of grain. Although this imagery is more appealing to the eye, it does a terrible disservice to reality. The primary cargo of a pioneer wagon was provisions enough for the trip and perhaps up to a year to feed the emigrants as they got settled in. The few inexperienced travelers who packed heavy bureau drawers, stoves and the like, quickly discarded them out of necessity. According to Andrew Childs in his 1852 book on the Overland Route to California:


"Emigrants should be careful to take nothing which is not absolutely necessary, as all such articles will be thrown away when the journey is fairly entered upon. The value of property left on the California route in the season of 1850, was double that of the amount carried through. If you travel with a wagon, take a few extra bolts and nuts, a wrench, hammer, hatchet, &c., but no heavy or cumbrous tools. Take no stove ; if you do, you will most likely leave it by the road side in a short time. Your camp utensils and water cans should be made well, but not of heavy material."


While horses are reliable to pull wagons under most circumstances, and they were used on the western trails, those with more experience in emigrant trains over the western routes preferred mules or oxen which were considered more suitable for the hard task at hand. According to Joseph Ware in his 1849 Emigrant's Guide to California:


"Your teams should be either oxen or mules. If oxen, they should not be over six years old and not too large; the greatest difficulty may arise here¬ after, unless you are careful at the start. Your time for starting from home should be arranged so as to be on the frontier by the 20th April."


Here are two recommended load-outs; one with mules and the other is for oxen.



Outfit Plan No. 1 - Mules


Why Mules? - They have smoother, stronger muscles that give them superior strength over horses. They also have greater bone density and are less prone to illness and injury than horses. In everyday use, their endurance is greater than any other American draft animal including oxen. Their eyes are set further out of their sockets than a horse allowing them to see all 4 of their feet at once for greater terrain agility. They are smarter than horses and show the same sense of affinity towards people that asses do. They sleep more lightly and are better at detecting intruders than dogs; in fact, they can be better and more savage 'guard dogs' than, dogs are. (Author's Note: Those who disbelieve the last statement have never seen a mule get hold of a stray dog, coyote or even a mountain lion. People are not necessarily exempt either.)


*For 4 persons, with Mule teams. Wagon. harness, and 6 good Mules.


Item Details Cost

Wagon, Prairie Schooner $85,00

3 sett of harness $8 each 24,00

Mules $75 each 450,00

Wagon cover painted with two coats, $8. Total for team, - $567,00


Flour for 4 persons,—824 lbs. at $2 per 100 lbs. $16,48

Bacon " " - 725 lbs. at $5 per 100 lbs. 36,25

Coffee " " - 75 lbs. at 7₵ per pound 5,25

Sugar " " - 160 lbs. at 5₵ per pound 8,00

Lard & Suet " " - 200 lbs. at 6₵ per pound 12,00

Beans " " 200 lbs. at 40₵ per bushel 1,60

Peaches and apples " " 135 lbs. at 80₵ per bushel 3,20

Salt, pepper, saleratus (aka. baking soda), &c. 25 lbs. 1,00

$650,78

Cooking utensils, including tin plates, spoons, coffee pot, camp kettle, knives, and extras $20,00

Total $670,78

Making the cost to each one of the party $167,69

From which deduct value of wagon, teams, &c., at journeys end, ... $450,00

Leaving cost of travel, ... $220,78

‘Cost to each individual, ... $55,19



Outfit Plan No.2 - Oxen


Four yoke of oxen hauling a heavy wagon as a swamper uses a blacksnake to move the team along. Note the grease bucket hanging from the rear axle.

Why Oxen? - They are physically, the most suitable draft animal for long journeys pulling heavy loads in excess of 1,500-2,000 miles over rough, sandy, or muddy roads. Eight animals (4-yoke) cost only $200. This means that an ox is literally half the price of a mule. Oxen are less likely to stampede and more easily recovered if they do. They are difficult to rustle since they travel slow and would not make much headway before their theft is discovered. Oxen can be saddled and ridden if needed. They are also tastier than mule meat if it comes down to that. (Author's note: I have some friends who disagree with me on that last culinary statement.)


*One year's provision for 3 persons, with Ox teams


Item Details Cost

Four yoke of oxen. at $50 per 'yoke' (2-oxen) $200,00

One wagon cover, &c. 100,00

Three rifles. at $20, each 60,00

Three pair pistols. at $15, each 45,00

Five barrels flour. 1080 lbs., 20,00

Bacon. 600 " 30,00

Coffee. 100 " 8,00

Tea. 5 " 2,75

Sugar 150" 7,00

Rice. 75 " 3,75

Fruit, dried. 50 " 3,00

Salt, pepper, &c., 50 " 3,00

Salaratus. 10" 1,00

Lead. 30" 1,20

Powder. 25 " 5,50

Tools, &c., 25" 7,50

Mining tools. 36" 12,00

Tent. 30" 5,00

Bedding. 45" 22,50

Cooking utensils. 30" 4,00

Lard. 50" 2,50

Private baggage, & Matches. 150" Case of matches $1

One mule. 50,00

Candles and soap. 50" 5,30

TOTAL 2,583 lbs. $600

*Cost per man is $200,00

Cost to one man, $200,00.


Portrait of a Packed Wagon

While the period wagon guide-books showed how to lay a flat pack that one could lay upon, there were times where necessary items took presence. These images of a modern day reenactment show just how full a wagon may be. If one wanted to sleep in this wagon, some unpacking would be required. This is a good demonstration of how small these wagons are. Perhaps two adults may sleep here side by side but that would be it.


This fully laden wagon from a modern reenactment demonstrates the priority of loading. Tools were hung off the sides of the box for ready use. Wash basins were always needed for a variety of purposes and ready to be easily accessed. Emigrants were well aware of hygiene but frontier travel was very dirty and knowing about cleanliness is completely different from being able to stay clean under such conditions. The most essential items such as bedding, camp chests and bags of useful items are packed on top to be accessed first. The food is packed beneath. This kept the food cooler and there was no need to access it until making camp. There is also a barrel on the lazy board. For long jounreys, this barrel would not be open-ended but rather, closed to prevent water loss during movement. The bung is where the barrel was replenished and a tap was used to dispense water to weary travelers.

Details of the Items to be Packed.



Food


For the 75-90 day passage, it is recommended that about 280 pounds of food be carried per traveler. Although wild game can provide additional sustenance, it is also an unreliable food source. Wild herd animals learned to keep their distance from wagon trains so carrying about 3 pounds of food per person, per day is a good formula to providing more nourishment than would be necessary.

  • Meat (cured pork or bacon) - 75-80 lbs. per person, removed from the barrels and brine to be packed in 100-lb. sacks or boxes surrounded in bran to insulate against hot climates. These should be placed in the bottom of the wagon to keep cool. An additional 5-lbs. of dried or 'jerked''-beef should also be available.

  • Flour & Meal - 75 lbs. " " packed in 30-100 lb. sacks kept on top of the meat with care that moisture insects does not get into it.

  • Crackers or Pilot Bread - 50 lbs. " " either boxed or kept in sacks like meal.

  • Sugar - 30 lbs. " " kept in India Rubber or gutta percha sacks.

  • Rice and Beans or Peas - 10 lbs. " " kept in the same manner as flour & meal.

  • Coffee - 20 lbs. " " packed like beans and peas raw to be roasted & ground as needed.

  • Additional foods - Cheese (5 lbs.) kept in sacks near the meat; 20 lbs. of dried fruits & vegetables; 5 lbs. of butter (canned); 5 lbs. of salt, spices, and citric acid; other foods like honey, molasses, pickles, eggs, preserves, etc. to be carried at the traveler's discretion.

Clothing


Cottons and linens may be suitable to the humidity of the eastern states but it provides little protection against the western sun or the freezing cold. Numerous accounts cite wool as the best material, even with underwear. There should be at least 2-each of drawers, undershirts, flannel overskirts, pantaloons, and coats. There should also be 2-pairs of shoes/boots, and 6-pairs of socks to accompany other items such as overcoats, talmas, headwear, camp shoes/moccasins, gloves, mittens, scarfs, blankets, ground cloths, buffalo robes, etc.


Camp Gear


This includes tents, cookware, bedding, candles, soap, and other camp gear along with personal baggage to the amount of 300-350 pounds. In some cases, light camp furniture such as folding tables, stools, cots and chests could be easily accommodated.



Armaments & Ammunition



Each individual would carry either a rifle, fowler, or double-barreled shot-gun, along with a pair of single-shot pistols or a Colt's revolver and knife. Each would have about 10 pounds of lead. 8 pounds of powder in flasks or cannisters, caps or flints, with the necessary tools to maintain them.


Tools

The total allowance of tools per wagon amounts to about 60 pounds of weight. These are for homesteading, wagon repair, and prospecting as in the case of the California Gold Rush.

  • Homestead tools - Hammers, Saws, Ironware, Gimlets, Augurs, Froes, Hoes, Drawknifes, Axes, Hatchets, Caulking tools, & etc.

  • Prospecting tools - Picks, Shovels, Spades, Pans, Assay kits, and other items as specified in the illustration.


Don't Forget Your Water!

Typically, you want to avoid cumbersome kegs and barrels in a pioneer wagon, but water is absolutely critical, especially when crossing 'journadas' or long waterless expanses between water sources. A good method is to carry a cask or two on the outside of the wagon. These often held about 20 gallons each. In the National Wagon Road Guide (1858), the following was recommended as well:

"You will find it of great service along the way, to have a large tin can, holding ten or fifteen gallons, in which to carry water over long stretches where there is none."


There are few things that justify the extra weight. Water is one of them.


Imagine the scene as emigrant trains assembled in places like Independence, Westport, or St. Joseph. There would be children playing while the adults handled final business transactions; perhaps a few final emotional good-byes while animals were bought and hitched. Wagons were loaded with anticipation of the trip turning the air electric with excitement of a great adventure. The inexperienced would have started out with songs and jubilation. The more experienced pilots, guides, and teamsters knew for certain that the songs would fade and at times, graves would be dug. The great journey across the plains, mountains and deserts would be a life-changing event. The hardships turned iron will into steel-resolve. Those who completed the journey or perished on the trail embodied a pioneering spirit that not only changed our land forever, but it changed the spirit of our nation as well.


-DR


The Wainwright

Special Thanks to Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop.


The best way to understand the level of craftsmanship required to be a good wagon-maker or wainwright, one should consult a master and industry leader. Doug Hansen is the Master Craftsmen & Historian who founded Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop in 1978. Mr. Hansen follows the methods from the original craftsmen from the era. He is considered an expert in the field and gives regular seminars on the practical working of historic horse drawn vehicles specializing in the study of western US carts and wagons.


About Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop

Motivated by a love of history and a desire to preserve our heritage, Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop has grown to be the premier builder of authentic, horse-drawn vehicles. For thirty-five years, its experienced staff of dedicated craftsmen have fashioned a line of superior quality wagons, wheels, and equipment to suit a wide range of individual budgets and interests. The company is dedicated to product quality and commitment to service and customer satisfaction.

The list of Hansen's customers include Henry Ford's Greenfield Village, Ketchum Wagon Museum, and Grant’s Farm-Anheuser Busch (That's right! working on the World Famous Clydesdale Wagon.) Accolades include Hollywood productions such as The Hateful Eight & Hell on Wheels. They are also the first manufacturer to create a genuine borax wagon since the 1880s.


The editorial staff at the Frontier American Illustrated News is grateful for Doug Hansen's insight and the company photography which made this article possible.






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