The Old West Frontier
OLD WEST SUPPLY WAGONS
The “Mule Trains” and “Bull Trains” moved freight east and west long before there were paved highways and eighteen wheelers.
When you study the old west you hear about the people who set up the cattle ranches, saloons, barber shops, livery stables, hotels, and mines. You read stories about the lawmen, outlaws, doctors, school teachers, preachers and cowhands. You don't hear as much about the mercantile contingent - the freighters. These are the firms and colorful individuals that supplied the American frontier the necessities and an occasional luxury or two that they needed to survive west of the Mississippi river before the turn of the century. They delivered the clothing, building materials, utensils, dishes, tools, tack, canned goods, flour, sugar, coffee and thousands of other goods from the factories and docks of the east to the great plains of the west.
In the mid 1800’s places like Independence and Kansas City, Mo. were teeming with activity as the golden age of steam boating delivered cargo daily, to be off loaded to wagons headed westward. In 1857 alone some 300 “merchants” and “freighters” were engaged in commerce to the frontier with records showing a total of almost 10,000 wagons loaded at the docks headed for the territories.
Before railroads were built wagon trains, pulled by mules or oxen, were the best means of hauling freight . They usually consisted of 10 to 30 heavy, high-wheeled wagons, each pulled by a team of 6 to 20 animals. People called “bullwhackers” for teams of oxen, or “mule skinners” for mule trains, drove the wagons and guarded the freight. These were the original “teamsters”. Back then the term had real meaning - teamsters were men (and sometimes women) that drove teams of animals and hauled freight. They carried the food and supplies that made life possible in pioneer camps. If blizzards stopped them, the price of flour might soar to $100 a sack.
The life of a “teamster”, be they a “bull whacker” or “mule skinner”, was no snap, and they usually occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder. The breed of plains men drawn to this profession were never in the mainstream of frontier life; as a group they were probably the least literate of frontiersmen. Their sweat-soaked, vermin infested hair and clothing, and vile language helped earn them this low position. They were usually red-shirted, brigands, jailbirds and desperados that commonly carried a “bowie knife”, revolver and a “bull whip”. This is certainly not a picture of someone who is easily befriended or held in high esteem.
These individuals that toiled for $25 a month (mule skinners earn $10 more) were resolute and stubborn. It’s no wonder that they were such a tough lot. Teamsters walked most of the time. Freight wagons had no seats. When there was mud, the teamster waded, when there was rain the teamster got drenched. They slept on the ground under their wagons. Their clothes were usually stained with mud, dust, sweat, grease and tobacco juice.
If there was one thing in common between “bull whackers” and “mule skinners” it’s the bullwhip. It was his badge of recognition. The lash might be as short as ten or as long as twenty feet of heavy braided rawhide with a “popper” on the end to make it crack. There are many legends of drivers that could “flick” a fly off the ear of an animal without touching it. Merely cracked overhead, a bullwhip could inspire the dumbest ox or most obstinate mule to greater effort. For any frontiersman that dared to challenged a teamster, the bullwhip could be a more feared weapon than his revolver or knife.
Needless to say that the coming of a wagon train to a frontier settlement could certainly bring mixed emotions to the general populace. The delight of having new supplies and materials from back east would be dampened by the thought of a mixed lot of ruffians spending a day or two in their community. Mothers kept their children at home and sheriffs kept their firearms close. However, as soon as the train pulled out, the local mercantile store would quickly become the most popular spot in town.
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