Friday, February 14, 2014

The Covered Wagon, Packing, & Hitting the Trail

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

Conestoga wagons were the well-known wagons of the east, used by traders of the west for their large size and ability to carry up to five tons of cargo.  The immigrant family soon learned, however, that the Conestoga wagon was too large and heavy for their needs.  Animals would die from exhaustion before they reached the end of the long trail.  Instead, pioneers turned to the Prairie Schooner, a wagon half the size of the Conestoga.  At 10-12 feet long, 4 feet wide and about 3 feet deep, it would hold 2,000 pounds of goods, half of that food.  It could also be pulled by fewer animals than the Conestoga required.  A bonnet treated with linseed oil for waterproofing topped the wagon base and made the wagon 10 feet tall. At about $100, it is one of the more expensive items needed for the trip.

 Hardwood was used for the wagon bed because it resisted shrinking in the dry desert air and painting it with tar would render it watertight for floating across rivers. The side boards of the wagon were bowed outward to keep the rain from dripping into the wagon from the bonnet.  The front wheels were smaller (44-inch diameter) than the back wheels (50-inch diameter) to help with handling the wagon and to allow the wagon to take sharper turns.

Although the wagon wheels were also made of hardwood and rimmed with iron (heated until they expanded and then slipped into place), it was not uncommon for them to break. When this happened, the family furniture often became a wagon wheel.

The space inside the wagon, about 40 square feet, didn’t give much room for family heirlooms or large pieces of furniture.  Families had to decide what to bring, and of course, food was at the top of the list. An 1845 emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California suggests that the pioneers take along: 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 30 pounds of hardtack, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt.  Additionally, families would pack rice, beans, tea, vinegar, chipped beef, smoked meat, dried fruit, and canned vegetables. Other common items taken by the pioneers, aside from clothing were: a medicine chest, seeds and seedlings, beds, tents and tent poles, tools, horseshoes, guns, plows, shovels, axes, animal feed and a water barrel.  Butter churns were strapped to the side or back of the wagon. Fresh milk would be put into the churns in the morning and the natural movement of the wagon as it crossed the uneven and rutted trail would churn the milk into butter by evening.

Also on the outside of the wagon was a “jockey box.”  This would hold the tools and parts needed to repair the wagon: iron bolts, lynch pins, skeins, nails, iron hoops and a jack. In addition, a feed box for the animals could be found fastened to the side of the schooner.

The family packed carefully, heavier items and those that would not be used on the trip were packed first. Bolts of cloth, linen and good clothing not used on the journey, along with family treasures were packed into the trunks and stowed away. The box with the pots, pans and cooking utensils would be placed near the back of the wagon for easy access.  The family bible was given a special place, most likely with easy access for daily and nightly reading. Daily clothing would be hung on hooks inside the wagon.

The choice of animals to pull the prairie schooner was oxen or mules.  The farmers who went usually preferred oxen, mainly because they had worked with them on the farms. Oxen were stronger, more tolerable of the prairie grass and easier to work with than mules.  Oxen were also cheaper to buy, $60 dollars or so per team compared to over $100 per mule.  And one needed fewer oxen to pull the wagons, than mules. However, mules were faster than oxen and those in a hurry to get west would buy mules. Horses could also be used, but they did not fare as well on the long haul.

St. Louis is called “The Gateway to the West” because it was the last trace of civilization before entering the vast unknown of the west. St. Louis started as a trading post for fur trappers, traders and mountain men. It was the jumping off point for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Along with Independence, St. Louis was a major ‘met up point’ for the wagon trains of pioneers going west. They were the places to trade horses, buy fresh oxen, purchase last minute supplies and gather up-to-date information about the journey and route that lay ahead of them.

Mrs. Francis Sawyer gives an account of her journey, along with her husband, from Louisville, KY to St. Louis, Missouri in her journal. On April 25th, 1852, they left on the Pike No. 9 steamer bound for St. Louis.  They took with them their wagon, two mules and supplies bought in Louisville.  The riverboat stopped at Mr. Sawyer’s father’s farm in Hancock County so they could collect mules purchased from the father. In St. Louis, they changed to “a small Missouri-river steamboat” bound for St. Joseph.

Once there, they finished purchasing their supplies, as well as a horse for Frances’s use and an additional mule.  With themselves and their supplies ready, they travelled six miles outside of town to ‘officially’ start the journey.

By the late 1850’s, 55,000 people per year were making the journey west.

Now it's time to share your thoughts. If you were leaving home for a 2,000 mile journey, what one item in your home would be a ‘must take’ and why?  Think about it, these men and women were leaving everything and everyone behind   and wagons could only hold so much.  What would you take?

Works Cited

Bartley, Paula, and Loxton, Cathry. Plains Women: Women of the American West. New
York, NY: Cambridge  University Press, 1991.
Erickson, Paul. Daily Life in a Covered Wagon. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1994.
“Great Gateway to The American Western Expansion: Wagon Trains, Fur Traders,
Holmes, Kenneth L.  Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western
Trails, 1852. Lincoln, NE: The University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Kalman, Bobbie. Life of the Old West: Wagon Train . New York, NY: Crabtree
Publishing Company, 1999
Spartacus Education. 2011. July 9, 2011.
“Wagons.” Historical City Oregon Online. 2011.  July 7, 2011.
“The Wyker Prairie Schooner at Space Farms Museum: Went West and Back ‘Agin’.’
Space Farms Zoo and Museum Online. 2011, July 7, 2011.

Pictures are from royalty-sites (most likely and should not be used without purchasing them.


  1. This is great information, Anna Kathryn! I'm reeling from all the research you've done on the topic and been so kind to share. Thank you! :-)

  2. Great post, Anna Kathryn. Another book that details loading a wagon is THREADS WEST by Linda Hubalek. I found it helpful and interesting. One point it made was that the husband decided whether or not they were moving west, and in this case the wife wanted to stay where they were. I guess I'd have to have my family photos. I know they were not common then, but I'd take what I had.

  3. Wonderful info, Anna. I guess I'd have to settle for the family Bible, but if possible I'd like to have a family photograph inside. Second choice would be a sewing kit.

  4. Yes, Caroline, It was most often the husband who decided what the family would do. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Hi, Kathleen. You're welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Anna Kathryn--I love this kind of information and research. Much of it is familiar because I just spent a lot of time searching for such details. In the end, I ditched it all and relocated my characters so they wouldn't need so much--and some of it different, too.
    What would I take? The Bible, for sure. That was not only a source of comfort, but I can see it used before bedtime, a little like bedtime stories, but mostly something to calm and sooth and think about. The father would read to his wife and children, they'd talk a bit, then go to bed.
    I'd also take paper and pencils. However many I could manage. This was very good...thanks for all the research information.

  7. Sorry I'm late getting here, Anna Kathryn. Wow, what terrific info and sure to be referenced again. We took a cityslicker trip around the Tetons. Rustic compared to today's standards but a bit more comfy with modern padded seats and rubber tires LOL. Oh, the Percherons and Belgians pulling us were glorious.

    I'm researching the Donner party and one wealthy businessman had a two-story wagon...didn't last very long when things got tough.

    Great post today.


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