Wagon Train Life



The most common means of transport on the trail was, by far, the covered wagon. There was the huge and bulky Conestoga wagons used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but by the mid century mark most settlers opted for the lighter and more easily managed "prairie schooner"; a converted farm wagon so named because it looked like a boat when it crossed the "sea of grasses" that made up the Great Plains.

The typical prairie schooner on the trail westward weighed about one ton, was about 14 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. It was usually built of seasoned wood such as maple, hickory, or oak. The schooners' only metal fittings were their iron tire rims and the reinforcements on their wooden axles. The wagon box itself was caulked or covered with hides to make it watertight, which was crucial for fording rivers and streams. Most schooners also had a double floor that concealed storage compartments.

The canvas top, or "bonnet," was a double-ply homespun cotton that was treated with linseed oil or tallow to make it waterproof. Settlers often sewed pockets into the bonnet to maximize their storage space. The bonnet was supported by hardwood bows that were soaked in water until they became pliable enough to bend into a U shape. Openings at the front and back of the bonnet provided ventilation.


Most all westward journeys began in the spring, when there was sufficient grass on the trail to support grazing, and ample time to cross the mountainous areas before the winter snows began. Homesteaders would hit the trail carrying about 2,500 pounds of freight in their ox-drawn prairie schooners. Because, once on the trail, the wagons were so full, they traveled at the rate of about two miles per hour. Wagon trains could only expect to travel 12 to 20 miles a day, under the best conditions. In the immense open spaces of the Great Plains, this frequently meant that settlers stopped for the night within sight of their previous day's campsite, and in poor conditions, such as when the ground was muddy or when there were rivers to cross, they might toil all day to progress less than a few miles.

Typical day

A typical day on the trail for the wagon train would begin long before dawn with a simple breakfast of coffee, bacon, and dry bread. After breakfast, they secured their supplies, hitched up the teams, and hit the trail by early light. Since space in the wagons was at such a premium, and because riding in them so uncomfortable, many settlers walked. Travel would continue until noon, when the wagons would stop for a cold meal which had been prepared that morning before starting on the trail. By two o'clock in the afternoon, the wagon train would be back on the move again. Around five or six o'clock in the evening the wagons would be moved into a circle to afford protection from animals and Indians. After a simple supper, settlers might socialize or talk for a while, but more frequently, they were so exhausted from their day's travel that they would quickly go to sleep. While some settlers on the trail slept in their wagons or in tents, most slept on the ground wrapped in blankets or on rubber mats. None of these options provided any protection from the elements.

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