The Wagon Train: Emigrant Travel in the American West

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Large groups of covered wagons often traveled together in the American West for protection and mutual support.

There were many reasons why emigrants headed west in the 19th century, beginning with the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803. In the 1830s, politicians started encouraging Americans to move to Oregon in an effort to discourage settlement by the British. In 1848, gold was discovered in California. And in 1862, the United States Congress passed the Homestead Act, granting permission to families to settle on parcels of 160 acres and earn ownership of the land by cultivating the fields. The Great Western Migration lasted until the late 1800s and emigrants took advantage of these opportunities for land and riches by traveling to their destinations in large groups of covered wagons, or wagon trains.

Organizing a Wagon Train

Wagon trains were organized wherever people decided to band together and head west, but Independence, Missouri quickly gained a reputation as the perfect starting point for emigration. In the 1820s, merchants and tradesmen set up shops in this town offering wagons, draft animals, and supplies to travelers. However, many families filled their wagons and started their journey from their former homes and Independence was simply the place where they joined the train. Once the families met in Independence and agreed to travel together, they often established temporary governments. Some were quite formal with written constitutions and courts of appeal.

Leaders and Guides

The wagon train was led by a Wagon Master, or Captain, who had the grand distinction of signaling the start of the trip. He was the alarm clock for the emigrants, checking in with the families to make sure everyone was up and moving in the mornings, which made him a little less popular. He also made the major travel decisions, such as when to take breaks and camp for the night. By the mid 19th century there were dozens of guidebooks published to aid travelers, but some of these guides offered bad advice and placed emigrants in perilous situations, so wagon trains also had scouts, or guides. Guides were mountain men, fur trappers, and traders who knew the trails.

Moving the Wagons along the Trail

Wagon Masters learned quickly that wagon trains were easily managed if they were limited in size to somewhere between twenty and forty wagons. However, in the early years of westward emigration, some trains were as large as 100 wagons. Wagons often left or joined trains on the journey, particularly if there was an argument among families. When moving, wagons generally traveled in a straight line and drivers sometimes allowed a bit of distance between each wagon, or even drove them side by side, to reduce the amount of dust. At night, the wagons formed a circle for protection from wind, bad weather, bandits and Native American Indian attacks, and the animals were kept inside the circle to prevent theft.

The Wagons

Although emigrants are portrayed in films traveling in large Conestoga Wagons with their tilted front and rear, these wagons were generally used by merchants, who also traveled in wagon trains on occasion. The preferred method of transportation for emigrant families was the lightweight Prairie Schooner. The Prairie Schooner required fewer draft animals, reducing the expense of travel, but it had a maximum weight of 1600 pounds. Therefore, the driver of the wagon walked alongside the oxen and other family members walked beside or behind the wagon so they could pack more supplies without taxing the animals.

Draft Animals

To pull their wagons, emigrants could choose between horses, mules and oxen. Horses were faster, but they required costly grains for feed and were easily stolen at night. Mules were hard-working creatures, but also more expensive. The most popular draft animal was oxen. Though sources vary in reporting the cost of draft animals, according to Time Life Books The Old West: The Pioneers, a mule cost $90 in the 1840s, but an Ox was only $50. Oxen were also slow movers and less likely to be stolen.

Resources:

  1. Nevin, David. The Old West: The Pioneers. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
  2. “Westward Ho!” The Real West. The History Channel. 9 Jun 2008