The Prairie Schooner was the first choice for long-distance family travel across the American prairies in the 1800s.
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the 1862 Homestead Act sent many daring souls in the eastern United States on a 2000 mile adventure into the west. The primary choice of transportation for pioneer families and fortune hunters was a practical one: a cloth-covered wagon.
A Light-Weight Form of Transportation
The Prairie Schooner covered wagon earned its name from its visual resemblance to the schooner sailing vessel. Unlike the heavier and wider Conestoga wagons so often seen in the eastern United States, the Prairie Schooner had a flat body and lower sides. It was also much lighter, which allowed for fewer oxen or mules to pull it along, generally only two or four. The Prairie Schooner could be created from the family wagon sitting in the barn, which made it economical, as well.
Strength and Durability in Design
The Prairie Schooner was strong enough to transport the family’s most precious belongings and supplies because the wagon was generally made from hard woods such as maple and oak. Certain portions, such as tires and axels, were reinforced with metal fittings, but the primary goal was to keep the weight down so the draft animals would not wear out on the journey. Hickory ribs were positioned along the frame to hold a cloth canopy in place, and the canopy was tied in front and back for privacy and protection from dust and rain. There was a box at the front of the four foot wide by ten foot long body where tools were kept for repairs, and a bucket dangled from the back where grease was kept to lubricate the wheels.
How Pioneers Packed for the Trip
Most travelers packed light to ease the burden on the animals, and supplies for the journey took precedence over all else. A Dutch Oven, three-legged skillet and coffee pot were considered vital for food preparation, and of course there must be room in the wagon to transport food. Bedding and a minimal amount of clothing was packed, as well as firearms for personal protection. First aid kits including liniments, bandages and surgical supplies were included, as well as candle molds, lanterns, and sewing supplies. Clocks, furniture, jewelry and China were considered less important, but were often included if there was room.
Use and Care of a Prairie Schooner
The driver of the wagon guided the animals by walking alongside the conveyance. Many of the pioneers who traveled across the country did so on foot in order to lessen the load. The elderly, sick, small children and utterly exhausted walkers could take refuge inside as the cloth canopy provided a small amount of shelter from rain, dust, and the sweltering sun.
Difficult Decisions for Pioneers Regarding Property
The Prairie Schooner’s overall construction, including its heavy tires, held up well on the long journey. Eventually, however, many pioneers were faced with the decision of lightening the load as their animals grew weary. Precious heirlooms were often tossed out the back of the wagon. The trails heading west were littered with clocks, hand-carved dressers, and other items that were painfully discarded. Nevertheless, by making wise decisions about what to toss and what to keep, most pioneers managed to complete their trip safely and within a reasonable amount of time, thus avoiding dangerous weather.
- Nevin, David. The Old West: The Pioneers. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
- “Westward Ho!” The Real West. The History Channel. 9 Jun 2008