The Western Wagon Train: Part-Two, Life on the Trail
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Hear from those who traveled the trail as to what life really was like in a wagon train. How did they 'circle the wagons' or what was the daily routine like? How did they make repairs to keep the wagons rolling?
Forget the Myth; This Trip Required True Grit!
In the previous article, I spoke of western emigrant routes, wagons and the way they were packed with life's essentials. But, what was life really like in a pioneer wagon train? Today's docents and screen writers spin yarns of dirty people, ignorant of their own hygiene who were also illiterate, clueless, cowardly, sheep-like followers who played the opposite to the brave mountain man who scornfully resented their greenhorn ways.
In truth there were many emigrant travelers who started off clueless to life on the trail and learned through folly if they survived; but this is not an accurate representation of what the typical prairie traveler was like. The average American frontier man or woman was in the prime of youth and vigor, mostly in their 20's and 30's. They had already lived for years in the elements and were tempered by hardship from the farms and homesteads they grew up on. Their hands were tough and their backs were conditioned for toil. They were also accustomed to spending hours on their feet, walking, running, pulling, kneeling or lifting.
Most 19th century rural Americans knew how to make the most of what they had and the majority possessed the constitution required to form the strong friendships and associations needed to build a frontier community.
Was it a Pleasure Trip? - Crossing the plains and mountains was one of the most, if not the most grueling task that the early pioneers ever took on. According to the National Wagon Road Guide of 1858 - "There are those who speak of making the passage of the plains a pleasure trip, from beginning to end. Don’t believe a word of it. For the first three or four weeks, and before the novelty has to any considerable degree worn off, all goes on finely, and almost any hour of the day or night even, can be heard from the lips of someone, “ O California, that’s the land for me.” But mind you, long before the Humboldt River is reached, you hear very little of song, or merriment of any kind. Circumstances have transpired, and events taken place, that more than likely have given to the stoutest hearts, and strongest minds, a serious turn.".
Most importantly, it took a special kind of steel-resolve to leave all that you know for a life of uncertainty in an unsettled land where hazards of all kinds abounded. In any case, if you were the frontier traveler, the closest answer for a handyman, veterinarian, EMT, or armed protector against any threat, would have been you. Even with all these responsibilities, you still had a family to raise, homestead to settle, and community to build. It wasn't an easy life but it was worthwhile.
Life in a Wagon Train - Starting Out
Preparation for the trail, and the Mindset - A person needed to be in shape for this and it is why the majority of western travelers were comparatively young and unsettled. It was a hard trip through torrential rains, unworldly wind storms, heat, snow, mud and dust. The average traveler would walk about 20 miles a day while likely carrying a burden which could have been from 10 to 40 pounds weight depending if they were carrying a knapsack or just a rifle, horn, and bullet pouch. Feet needed to be hard and muscles firm to endure the burden of a long road. There would be times of back-breaking manual labor from clearing paths, to making rafts, or hoisting wagons and supplies over grades too steep for the animals to handle. The pioneer needed to go with little sleep, bear illness, suffering, and even, tragedy through the many weeks of travel.
Forming the Train - In 1843 a large train of 120 wagons with over 5,000 animals and 1,000 souls would form the largest caravan to date upon the Oregon Trail. A larger train of 3,000 souls would venture out in 1845 but the wagon trains that followed would soon drop to a small fraction of that size. There is a good reason for this. Too many people and animals at the same time can deplete water and forage sources. Simply put, some stops may not have enough water and feed to go around if the group is too large. It also takes longer organizational time for large groups to get started, change courses, or surmount obstacles. Smaller parties travel with far greater expediency and give time for the natural resources at wagon stops to replenish for the next groups to arrive. This is why a small caravan of around 12-24 wagons made better sense.
Divisions & Elections - Although wagon trains varied in size, they broke down into 'platoons' or 'divisions' of four wagons each. A 'mess' would be the complement of a single wagon which was typically 3-4 men or a small family group. In regards to electing the various positions in the wagon trains, it is better to go off of merit rather than pre-journey popularity. Ware gave the following advice in his guidebook:
"When everything is ready for a start from the frontier, appoint a place as a point of rendezvous, for the persons to compose your party. Get out in the Indian country before you organize your company, which, proceed to do by selecting the best man in the company. Let him be cool, prudent and energetic. After travelling a few days, you have become acquainted with the qualities of the different men in your company. Elect the best one—let there be no electioneering for favorites —calculate to submit to the directions of the Captain elect. If subordinate officers are needed, elect them"
Andrew Child wrote the following in his 1852 guidebook.
"Six, or at the most, eight wagons are as many as should travel together. Large companies should be avoided, as they occasion much unnecessary delay. The frontier should be left as soon as the grass has sufficiently advanced, and the emigrant should steadily pursue his journey, laying by only in rainy weather."
According to the National Wagon Guide (1858)
"It is generally considered that a company should consist of twenty-five or thirty able men, and this number certainly is enough, either for convenience or safety; besides, it is useless to form a larger company. So that a party, or “ mess,” of four men to a wagon is enough, and as few of these to constitute a company as can well travel with safety through the Indian country."
According to the Prairie Traveler (1859)
"The company should be of sufficient magnitude to herd and guard animals, and for protection against Indians. From 50 to 70 men, properly armed and equipped (approx. 12-24 wagons), will be enough for these purposes, and any greater number only makes the movements of the party more cumbersome and tardy."
Starting Location and Date - In the previous article, towns like Westport, St. Joseph, and Independence were ideal starting points. According to many sources, the best starting time was around April 10-20th. It would be the most optimal in regards to there being available forage and water along with favorable weather. However, those leaving the mouth of the Kansas river by the first of May will likely enjoy the best road conditions as the previous trains would have packed down the earthen ruts and made it 'well settled'.
"We will leave you to choose your own starting point, simply stating that Westport, Independence and St. Joseph have facilities peculiar in themselves, for the outfitting of the Emigrant—every requisite for comfort or luxury on the road, can be obtained at either of those places, on nearly as low terms as at St. Louis. You would do well if you are crossing from the Mississippi, through southern Iowa, or Northern Missouri, to get such articles as flour, bacon, &c.,—they will undoubtedly be cheaper on the road through to the Missouri, than when you reach the frontier,—as appearances at present would warrant us in asserting that more persons will congregate at these points during the coming, and succeeding springs, than the wisest foresight can make suitable provisions for."
- The Emigrant's Guide to California, Ware (1849)
Don't Count on Fort Laramie for Livestock! - Ware strongly advised that travelers not rely on a bad rumor that there will be sufficient Indian horses and mules for travelers to swap for since packing was a popular way to navigate the trails. Here is what was said:
"Do not start with the intention of changing your wagons, for mules and Indian horses at Fort Laramie, as recommended by one through the press—it cannot be done—they are not to be had in any number. Cattle are best, except for packing over steeps. Oxen upon the whole, are the best; they need no shoeing, as the hot sand of the plain renders their hoofs so hard as to supersede the use of shoes. Some recommend cows, do not take them as a team."
A Typical Day
Applebee's great wagon train of 1843 was fairly unusual in its size (120 wagons), but it did what only a few smaller wagon trains had done in the two-years before; take a large caravan along the overland passage through the lands of the various Sioux tribes across the great plains, through the Rockies and onward to Oregon. Jesse Applegate was with that caravan and his testimony gives great insight as to what life in a wagon train was like.
According to Ware's guidebook: "One thing we would enjoin, particularly, get up early when on the route; start your cattle up to feed as early as 3 o’clock—start on your journey at 4—travel till the sun gets high—camp till the heat is over. Then start again and travel till dark—do most of your heavy cooking at the noon camp."
According to Applegate, at 4am, the sentinels on duty have discharged their rifles, signaling for everyone to wake up and prepare for the day. According to his testimony, "...every wagon and tent is pouring forth its night tenants, and slow-kindling smokes begin largely to rise and float away in the morning air." From there, the animals are brought out from pasture by the herders to reform the column. "Sixty men start from the corral, spreading as they make through the vast herd of cattle and horses that make a semicircle around the encampment, the most distant perhaps two miles away."
By 5am, the herd is being driven into camp still clipping away at thistle and grass. By 6am, the animals are in and the teamsters are putting their teams together.
06:00-07:00am until Noon
Between 6am and 7am, breakfast is eaten, tents struck, wagons loaded and teams yoked and hitched. By 7am, the signal to march is sounded. Those who are not ready fall into the dusty rear of the column for the day. The head guide or 'pilot' would use a bugle to give commands. Bugles were the forerunner to army battlefield radios and they worked just as well through the chaos of a busy wagon train. A bugle's tone can be heard above a thousand shouting voices and any other accompanying noise. The Pilot is a 'borderer' or 'mountaineer' with vast experience in the lands beyond civilization. His knowledge of the native ways in addition to his friendly tribal relations were of great service to the wagon train. The trains moved at walking speed typically traveling not more than 20 miles a day unless necessity absolutely required it. Most walked alongside the wagons. Those who were too young, injured or infirm would either ride an animal or lay atop the load inside the wagon.
More about 'Platoons' or 'Divisions' - The wagon train is broken up into 'divisions' or 'platoons' being of 4-wagons each. The platoons will take turns daily in the front-to-rear starting positions of the procession. The guards take their position as the drovers move the cattle traveling with the column. A hunting party may take off in pursuit of game if they can spare the horse flesh for such a venture. After 7am. the column is on its way. The drivers may ride on the wagon seats, on the wheel animals or walk alongside the team ready to lay down the black snake on any beast that balks at the task.
The pilot gauges the time, carefully observing the progress of the wagons or his horse's gait. The pilot along with some pioneers would arrive at the nooning place in advance of the column to prepare for their arrival. Here, they prepare the spot by digging small wells along the river's edge to water the livestock. The teams are not unyoked. Instead, they are turned loose from the wagons. The wagon column arrives with each platoon's wagons are drawn up 4-abreast with the lead wagon on the left instead of forming the corral. This time allows neighbors to socialize, meals to be eaten and supper to be prepared in advance. This is also the time when disputes would be settled. After about an hour's rest or when it has been deemed that the mid-day heat has abated enough, the column will resume its progress.
1:00pm - Sundown
From here, the wagon train will maintain its course to about sundown when it shall make camp. Of course, before reaching camp, it may be necessary to clear certain obstacles before reaching the ideal camp spot.
Fording Rivers- A common myth is that wagons were amphibious. Although they could be caulked to keep out water during shallow fords, they would need to be placed on rafts should the need to cross over deep water become necessary.
In such a case, either the wheels could be removed to prevent the wagon from rolling off the log raft or they could remain on the wagon with the brakes and chains set to prevent their rolling. Oxen could be driven as a herd across the ford as cattle were on cattle drives. With mules, as shown in the illustration, they could be tethered to the raft in order to cross the river.
Of course, more likely than not, fords will be over shallow points in the water where the wagon is never in danger of sinking, but getting wet is still part of the journey. With all that said, it is still paramount to prevent water from soaking the traveler's provisions. This is literally a matter of life and death. *TIP: One important thing to remember when fording a river or stream, is to do so before going into camp. Heavy rainfall miles upstream can cause water levels to rise and become impassible. If this happens, the emigrant caravan has no choice but to sit and wait for the water levels to drop again.
Steep Declivities - Sometimes, the terrain was far too steep and treacherous for livestock to remain hitched to a wagon. In these cases, there were a few remedies. If the ground was moderately steep, the rear wheels of the wagon could be locked using a chain. This would allow the wagon to be dragged down the trail like a sled. If there is a steeper declivity, all four-wheels may be locked. In extreme cases, it may be more practical to unhitch the live stock and lead them down a footpath to a rendezvous point with the wagon after it has been manually lowered into place using ropes and pulleys.
Sundown to 8:00pm
During this time, camp is established and guards are posted. Any doctors or individuals with medical knowledge would be busy tending to patients suffering from a variety of injuries or illness encountered along the trail. Here is also when the evening meal is eaten. Neighbors could gather and socialize. Some tended to repairing clothing and gear. Others smoked, played cards, or caught up on their reading. Many engaged in a multitude of camp craft projects and personal hobbies. A fiddle and other instruments would start a sing along or dance. Now, it is a chance to relax and unwind. A fire of buffalo chips, greasewood, or other deadfall would be quickly kindled. Young men and women grow acquainted while dancing. This led to countless stolen kisses and sweet words whispered into anticipating ears. Eventually the camp settles down; music fades away and sleep precedes tomorrow when the daily routine can begin again.
Going Into Camp
Selecting a camp spot- According to Captain Marcy, the ideal camp site is easily defensible, with a good water source, forage for the animals, wood fuel and be in a healthy environment. Unhealthy environments include swamps, river marshes, and thick wooded areas with decomposing foliage. At the time, they believed that bad air poisoned campers, causing disease. Whereas the true cause were insect-borne diseases such a malaria through mosquitoes. Although they identified mosquitoes as a 'venomous insect' and took countermeasures against them, the association between mosquitoes and serious disease as common knowledge would come later.
"In camping away from streams, it is advisable to select a position in which one or more sides of the encampment shall rest upon the crest of an abrupt hill or bluff. The prairie Indians make their camps upon the summits of the hills, whence they can see in all directions, and thus avoid a surprise. The line of tents should be pitched on that side of the camp most exposed to attack, and sentinels so posted that they may give alarm in time for the main body to rally and prepare for defense."
-The Prairie Traveler (1859)
Tents were a popular form of shelter. Designs like the 'miner's' or pyramid tent as shown here, were ideal for their ability to be quickly set up and taken down. Often times, the wagon was properly packed in a way that would be level enough to sleep upon but space was limited for this. Taking excerpts from a previous article, here are first hand accounts of the sleeping arrangements in a wagon camp.
Sleeping in the Wagon
Your provisions should be all packed in sacks, and filled to an equal height, that when arranged in the wagon, will present a tolerably even surface, on which to spread blankets for sleeping.
The National Wagon Road Guide, Whitton, Towne & Co. (1858)
Sleeping Under the Wagon
So, there were about thirty of us, divided into four messes, well provided with grub for the trip, also with tents, but we seldom bothered to use them. Having bought blankets for the trip only, as I supposed, but found that the average man was expected to furnish his own bed most anywhere on the Pacific coast, and that a hay mow or straw stack is considered first-class lodging. I made my "bed" under my wagon, as it was raining, and turned in with my clothes and boots on, as though I had been used to camping all my life and liked it.
The struggles for life and home in the North-West, Geo. W. France (1890)
Forming the Caral (Corral) - Applegate's large wagon corral must have been impressive in its formation. He describes it as follows: "The corral is a circle one hundred yards deep, formed with wagons connected strongly with each other; the wagon in the rear being connected with the wagon in front by its tongue and ox chains. It is a strong barrier that the most vicious ox cannot break, and in case of an attack of the Sioux would be no contemptible intrenchment."
Here is Applegate's description as to the method of the corral's formation.
"Each wagon follows in its track, the rear closing on the front until its tongue and ox-chains will perfectly reach from one to the other, and so accurate the measure and perfect the practice, that the hindmost wagon of the train always precisely closes the gateway, as each wagon is brought into position. It is dropped from its team ( the teams being inside the circle), the team unyoked and the yokes and chains are used to connect the wagon strongly with that in its front. Within ten minutes from the time the leading wagon halted, the barricade is formed, the teams unyoked and driven out to pasture."
Directions To Forming A Caral Camp
The wagons would go directly from the column into camp forming a 'caral' or corral. This enclosure, was formed by driving the wagons into an elliptical or circular form. As complex as it appeared, the emigrant picked it up quite easily. The following are Ware's instructions:
"By referring to the diagrams, Fig. 1, it will be seen that before you arrive at the spot selected for a camp, the wagon in the middle of the line strikes out to one side of the road, and is followed by all behind."
"By driving a little faster, the middle wagon soon gets abreast of the head of the line, thus forming two parallel lines; fifty yards from your camp ground, one of the wagons will be driven ahead, and reined up square across the road, while the wagons following, divide their lines on either side, and take their places as indicated in Fig. 2."
"You will see from the second diagram, that in case of an attack by Indians, you can form a fort or barricade in five minutes, that no force of theirs could assault successfully. "
Below (Fig. 3) is a description for making a corral with a much smaller caravan of 15 wagons or less.
Formation of a lunette - Small parties would also use natural obstacles such as riverbanks to form one side of their camp enclosure.
Using a Stream as a Natural Defense: "The security of animals, and, indeed, the general
safety of a party, in traveling through a country occupied by hostile Indians, depends greatly upon the judicious selection of camps. One of the most important considerations that should influence the choice of a locality is its capability for defense. If the camp be pitched beside a stream, a concave bend, where the Water is deep, with a soft alluvial
bed enclosed by high and abrupt banks, will be the most defensible, and all the more should the concavity form a peninsula."
-The Prairie Traveler, 1859
Livestock in the caral - According to Ware, specifically notes the reason for keeping a close watch on livestock as they could be easily stolen. "Frequently you may have to drive your teams and loose stock into the caral, to save them from the -Indians, who are ever on the lookout for plunder. From the moment you leave the frontier until you reach the Sacramento, you need untiring vigilance."
Ware continued in describing the way in which the cattle should be turned out to graze. "The cattle are usually turned out soon to feed, whenever you stop to camp, where they are guarded by a company of “herds,” detailed every day for the purpose. After feeding, if near night, they are driven into the enclosure, there to remain until turned out next morning by the herds, for the day. Designate your herds every night. It is necessary, frequently, to stake them inside of the caral. When it is unsafe to turn your stock out on the plains to feed, you will have to secure them with ropes, to stakes, driven firmly in the ground."
Activities Once the Caral is Formed
Cooking operations were generally performed outside of the caral's protective enclosure. Ware notes a fuel commonly known to those who lived for generations upon the plains but was an entirely new experience to frontier travelers.
"Every one is busy preparing fires of buffalo chips to cook the evening meal, pitching tents and otherwise preparing for the night."
Quickly after camp is made, cookfires are started. Many stops along the way offered greasewood or timber but upon the plains, buffalo chips (droppings) were gathered if they were already dry. They made an excellent fuel that served the plains people for centuries, long before the arrival of mountaineers and emigrants.
As previously stated, the majority of meal preparation was done in the morning and during the noon stop. For suppertime, it would be food made earlier in the day warmed over the fire. For convenience, it was likely some stew or other dish that could be packed along in a cooking kettle.
Breakfast could have been beans and cornbread or bacon, flapjacks and potatoes. (Eggs could have been on the menu as well. There were actually ways to preserve and transport eggs that I detailed in another article.)
Noon 'lunch' (the light intermediary meal between breakfast & dinner) or dinner (the primary meal of the day) cold be something like biscuits and roux gravy, beef, pork or game and perhaps some vegetables, beans, or peas. A dessert may be macaroni, some kind of pastry or even vinegar pie if fruits are in short supply.
Supper (the evening meal) was typically light. Many period health texts from the day advised against eating heavy after sundown and before bed. A typical supper would perhaps be leftovers from dinner or soup and bread.
Security Against 'Hostile Tribes' and 'White Savages'
Traveling emigrants faced a variety of threats ranging from wild beasts to the ill intent of their own 2-legged brethren. Constant guard had to be maintained on the trail lest a straggler fall into the hands of an enemy committed to rapine or murder. Such adversaries could stalk wagon trains for days. Once in camp, the vigilance really needed to be heightened. Night fall when everyone was asleep, would be the perfect time to strike.
Assigning Pickets, Security and Camp Duty
The National Wagon Guide warns about guarding the herd animals from theft "...by Indians - with red skin or white..." and there is so much more to be said about this, it deserves an article of its own but here is the abbreviated version.
'Hostiles' came in many colors - White marauders moved west with the frontier. They were pirates on the early waterways and highwaymen of the frontier roads where the law had not yet arrived. For generations they visited rapine and murder upon innocent travelers so there was a good reason to be on the watch for them. Such desperadoes had been on the frontier for a long time so they knew the land well and were dangerous adversaries who would strike without provocation.
Some Tribal Bands were 'Hostile' Too- Some tribes such as the Apache, Utes, or Blackfoot to name a few, had bands that treated these emigrant newcomers as tradition called for when a strange tribe came into their midst. In many cases, theft, plunder, and even killing were part of the deal. Emigrant trains also posed a threat to many of these tribes as well. Not only was their presence disruptive to game; but not every frontier traveler was peaceful. A wagon caravan was heavily armed and if its inhabitants showed any signs of hostility, they became a formidable threat to which, that the tribe may require a deliberate response.
Although actual attacks on wagon trains were comparatively rare, theft was a common threat. Some tribal bands proved to be dangerous adversaries when the situation called for it but more often than not, stealing livestock and supplies was less hazardous than warfare in addition to being more beneficial to the tribe.
In regards to theft, these tribes simply reasoned that if you were too inept to properly guard your livestock and possessions, then you are not worthy to keep them. After all, if a tribal warrior was asked, he might have answered in the following way. "Is trespassing without asking a lesser offense than taking without asking? Should not some form of compensation be given for the unwelcome presence of your wagon train?"
Emigrants saw this behavior as thievery, extortion, and beggary committed in an open land possessed by none. To these tribes, they merely saw it as making use of a beneficial opportunity when encountered. Because of this, Ware cautioned vigilance against letting such uninvited guests into camp. "They (Hostile Indians) use every conceivable artifice at times, to elude the vigilance of the sentinels, often dressing themselves as various animals, so as to steal upon your cattle unawares." The exception to this rule however could be extended to tribal members who were known to be 'friendly' or in other cases, close acquaintances with either the Wagon master, pilot, or the other guides.
Native People are Unfairly Stereotyped as 'Enemies' - There were many friendly Indian tribes along the way and there are many stories of them aiding and provisioning travelers. Southwestern tribes such as the Pima and Papago (today, known as the Tohono O'odham) are good examples of such tribes. They had already been in contact with Europeans for centuries and could easily relate to the Americans who were now traveling through their land. Being a commerce-minded, agrarian culture, they saw the newcomers more as a business opportunity than a threat. Not all friendly tribes were heavily influenced by European culture either. The Flathead People (Salish and Kootenai Tribes) Cheyenne, or Arapahoe are a good examples of friendly tribes that maintained the traditional ways long after European/American contact. Even tribes typified to be 'hostile' such as the various groups of Apache and Sioux had bands that could be considered 'friendly' at times. Many of these tribal members were hired as scouts, negotiators and added security if needed.
Posting Guards - This was done in a para-military fashion to protect the train during the long trek and pickets were needed through the night to guard against theft, attack or even large animals coming into camp.
There would be 3-guard details (or groups) to alternate nights so that one group watches the camp as the other 2-groups sleep. Each nightly guard detail would be split into into four shifts to be posted from around 8pm through the night until 4am when the camp roused and resumed the march. An example of the shifts are as follows.
1st shift stands watch from 8:00pm till 10:00pm
2nd shift stands watch from 10:00 till 12:00am
3rd shift stands watch from 12:00am till 2:00am
4th shift stands watch from 2:00am till 4:00am
These guards would take positions at intervals surrounding the camp while maintaining a fire-watch within the camp itself.
Keep the Sabbath as a Day of Rest
Many guides give advice on keeping the sabbath out of both religious observance and also out of necessity.
"Never travel on the Sabbath; we will guarantee that if you lay by on the Sabbath, and rest yourselves and teams, that you will get to California 20 days sooner than those who travel seven days in the week."
Regardless of one's beliefs or whether they should take Exodous 34:21 to heart, the act of resting on the seventh day of each 7-day interval has scientific merit. Many creatures such as humans and draft animals not only have a natural circadian rhythm, but also, a Circaseptan cycle. This is a natural 7-day life cycle in which the body's high & low functions resolve. This includes heart rate, blood pressure, bodily PH levels, hormone production, and moderation of various neurotransmitters. In plain English, it means that for optimum mental/physical performance, the body needs a recharge day each week. Evidently, the merit was noticeable enough to bear mention from trail experts in guidebooks on western travel over a century and a half ago.
Camp Health and Hygiene
Contrary to myth, 19th century people were just as conscious of cleanliness and the disgusting qualities of filth as we are today. It's just a lot easier to be less 'dusty' living in today's age of indoor plumbing, pavement, and asphalt roads. For centuries, people understood the connection between filth and disease long before the advent of microbiology. However, keeping clean on a dusty wagon trail with limited access to washing opportunities is another matter. Period health and hygiene books talked about the value and social obligation to cleanliness and bathing. All the period trail guidebooks speak of how important soap is. Perhaps Captain Marcy's description of what one person should carry for sanitation during the 75-90 day passage was the most comprehensive.
Hygiene kit for one person during passage across the plains (Capt. Marcy, 1859)
1 Comb & Brush
2 Tooth Brushes
1 Pound of Castile Soap for bodily cleanliness
3 Pounds of 'Bar' (Lye) Soap for cleaning clothing
Death on the Trail - Despite all the precautions taken, western travel was filthy.
Cholera was the primary killer. Although treatments of boiling & purifying water were known, there were times were the water seemed fine but was actually tainted. Perhaps food could be spoiled. There were cases where ill members of a previous group relieved themselves along the roadside and the flies it attracted are now landing on you and your dining plate. Either way, disease was a far greater killer than all the accidents bandits, and Indian attacks combined.
Accidents, Repairs and Wagon Maintenance
Accidents and mishaps were not a probable scenario but an inevitable one. Here are some of the basics in wagon maintenance and repairs on the trail.
Preparation - Extra axle-trees were carried as they came in very handy for repairs. Mechanics were also encouraged have their tools within his reach for emergencies along the road. Tools along with spare metal hardware would be carried in the jockey box at the head of the wagon. The contents of this box would be spare nails, bolts, nuts, hinges & hardware, hammers, mallets, gimlets and augurs, saws, files and draw knives. Captain Marcy gives the following advice in preparation for such accidents: "Every set of six wagons should have a tongue, coupling pole, king-bolt, and pair of hounds extra."
Keep your bolts riveted- Take a hammer and rivet the ends of the bolts on your running gear so that the nuts will not work themselves free and be lost. There are very few occasions where they will need to be removed, but if ever repairs are required, the ends of the bolts need to be filed away.
Keep the wheels in good working order - The dryness of the climate will cause the spokes and wheels to dry and break under the weight of the wagon. Wheels should be inspected throughout the day. If ever they become loose at the hubs, wedges of hoop iron or wood should be driven in at opposing sides of the spoke to tighten them again. Immersing the wheels in water overnight may also help but it is a temporary fix.
Repairing the tires - If the tires (outer metal rim on the wheel) run off, they may be secured with rawhide until they can be re-forged at a stop. It may be better to remove the rear wheel and brace a 3-4 inch thick pole running 6-8 feet behind the wagon dragging on the ground. This will keep the wagon running heavy until repairs be made.
While some methods of field-blacksmithing the tire to be heated and re-fitted, it is better to have wheels with the tire bolted on to prevent movement. If the wheel and tire are not bolted together and the wood shrinks too much. it can be wrapped in a wagon bow which is tacked into place. The tire is then heated using ground-fires over the metal and then fitted back onto the wheel and cooled.
The Grease Bucket (Tar Bucket)
The grease bucket is a highly essential component to any wagon on the trail. The one featured in the photo here is of typical make and measures 6 1/2 by 10 inches. According to the writings of Capt. Randolph Marcy - "Each ox wagon should be provided with a covered tar-bucket, filled with a mixture of tar or resin and grease, two bows extra, six S's (S-hooks), and six open links for repairing chains."
The Wrong Way - Count on Hollywood to misrepresent such a valuable item. In some western whose name escapes my recollection, it showed a man walking alongside a wagon, slapping grease on the hubs as it rolled on down the trail. If this is how it was actually done, your grease bucket would be empty by the end of the day and your wheels would be caked in a pudding of dust, sand, and muck.
The Right Way - Place your wagon-jack under the wagon's axle. This will be on the wood, not the turning points of the wheels. The lever is ratcheted and designed to elevate the wheel in seconds for maintenance, repairs, or replacement.
Using the nut-wrench, turn the nut against the turning direction of the wheel. (Facing the wheels on the left-hand side of the wagon, they turn counter-clockwise to roll forward. Nut thread will loosen with a clockwise turn. Facing the wheels on the right-hand side, they turn clockwise to move forward so the nut will loosen with a counter-clockwise turn.)
Metal-on-metal: The end of the axle is covered by a metal 'thimble-skein'. The inside "hole" of a wagon-wheel's hub is lined with a metal 'cone bushing' or 'boxing'. Start off by removing the wheel. Use a rag on a thick dowel to wipe out the wheel's boxing.
Use a rag to wipe off the old grease from the axle/skein. Sometimes there is a groove running the length of the skein called a 'key-groove'. This is designed to trap dirt and particulates to prevent their accumulation from scoring the metal until it can be cleaned away using a piece of wood with the cleaning rag. Finish the wipe-down and re-grease. It only takes about a tablespoon or so per skein to re-grease. Apply it with a dipper and spread it over the metal like butter.
Add the wheel back onto the skein; add the nut and tighten it back into place.
Re-greasing should occur every 30-40 miles or 1-2 days on the trail.
The era of western movement using the old wagon roads lasted for more than half of a century before developments in railways, highway systems and ocean freight rendered the slow and laborious method of wagon teams, unnecessary. What took months would soon be a matter of just days. Hundreds of thousands of people traveled these byways and untold thousands died along the way. There are estimates ranging from 20,000 to over 65,000 graves along the Oregon Trail alone. Today, wagon ruts may still be found cutting across broad landscapes and lonely graves still stand as remote milestones to the will of a people with an indomitable spirit. Today, our highways still follow many of these old routes so that the spirit of the trail blazing frontiersmen and women need not sleep forever in their graves. Rather, the spirit shall live on alongside today's teamsters, travelers, and fellow aficionados of the open road.
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.