Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Traveling in a Covered Wagon

Traveling in a Covered Wagon.

Before the train, before the highways, I have often wondered what traveling in a covered wagon must have been like. It was an experience shared by thousands of settlers who spread out across America.

The Conestoga wagon, the most well-known of the covered wagons, is first mentioned in print in 1717 in a letter to William Penn. Its name comes from the Conestoga River of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the destination for many traders from Philadelphia and the destination for the Van Hooser clan after leaving New York. A settler's journey west across the prairie was usually made in a  Prairie Schooner, a half-sized version of the Conestoga, less broad, flatter than the Conestoga, and thus easier to make the long tortuous route. History, Conestoga wagon.

For a moment we can imagine that on several occasions, the Van Huss clan packed up their children and goods and made the slow journey by covered wagon from one home to a new one on the frontier. Perhaps, the journey was made through the Allegheny Mountains from New York to Pennsylvania.  In 1787, American patriot and physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, described its importance as a tool on the family farm: "A large strong waggon covered with linen cloth is an essential part of the furniture of a German farm. It is pulled by four or five large horses of a particular breed, and will carry 2000 to 3000 pounds." Certainly then, the Van Huss/VanHooser clan made their journey in a Conestoga wagon from Pennsylvania to Virginia and North Carolina, and then again across the Appalachian Mountains to Eastern Tennessee. And then in either a Conestoga or in a Prairie Schooner, from there they traveled across the wide Mississippi River and across Missouri, until finally, my wife family reached the broad plains of Kansas.

Colonial Sense has an excellent article on the Conestoga wagon.

The only reference to travel in a covered wagon that I have found to date is the mention that in the 1870's Josie Brewer, my wife's great grandmother, left Allentown, Missouri to homestead in Butler County, Kansas. Her trip and her remembrances was probably not unlike the following story.

What follows is a remembrance by Judge Harvey Harrison in 1889 of his travels in 1829 from Alabama to Warrensburg, Johnson County, Missouri. Harvey Harrison was born in 1806 in Blount County, East Tennessee.

Conestoga Wagon. painting by Newbold Trotter, Pennsylvania Historical Museum

When I was six months old, my father moved to Alabama. I was married on the 12th day of March 1829. This year, father and our family, myself and my wife started for Missouri. My father had an old-fashioned Virginia wagon hauled by six horses and had it full of his goods. He also had a one-horse buggy and besides this a two wheel gig, stout and strong. ... We reached the Mississippi River at St. Louis and crossed it there. I would say that it was a town then about as large as Warrensburg is today.
 In 1831, [...we} settled two and a half or three miles west of what is now Fayetteville, Missouri [south and east of Warrensburg].  We unloaded on the 22nd of March 1831. In two days we had a shelter or camp rigged up and in two weeks each family had a cabin of poles or logs with ground floor and clap-board roof, very comfortable. When we arrived there was but one cabin south of Blackwater creek and that was a cabin ...
 The country was most delightful. It was one vast expanse of undulating prairie and in mid-summer covered in tall waving grass interspersed here and there with strips or belts of timber along course of little streams. the choicest variety of game abounded. Absolutely beautiful.
Every autumn when the prairie grasses had withered, usually in November , the prairies were burned. Probably these fires were started by the Indians for the purpose of driving game ... The prairies would then become a vast sea of flame and woe to the settler who had not taken precautions to guard against them. While these fires raged we had about four or six weeks what was known as Indian Summer and for weeks the fire was so dense we could not see the sun. In the spring the ground would be free of grass and the wild flowers would spring up in an endless variety and profusion. ... The prairies would be one vast flower garden ... .
 History of Johnson County, Missouri pages 89 and 90.

The covered wagon  had a life-span of little more than a hundred years, covering the later part of the 18th century and ending before the beginning of the 19th century. Before the highways and trains, it was the means by which settlers moved their families and goods west. There are few surviving examples of the covered wagon in existence today. Certainly, they had features in common, but since the early wagons were built by individuals, they varied by geography and by builder.

Mark Gardner has written a good description of Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail, 1822 - 1880, which is a good starting place in understanding what the covered wagon was.

The Conestoga or Pennsylvania wagons are covered with three or four cotton sheets drawn close at each end so as to exclude moisture, and these are supported by high hoops, and. as those at the ends of the wagon are very much higher than the middle, it has a very singular appearance. The height to the tops of these hoops are from eighteen to twenty feet. They are drawn by ten mules or six yoke of oxen, and contain about forty hundred weight of goods.
See, Frank S. Edwards, Missouri Volunteer in the Army of the West, 1846, of Wagons on the Santa Fe Trail, pages 6 and 7.