Sunday, January 28, 2018

COVERED WAGONS: THE FIRST TINY HOMES? By Vonn McKee



One of Thomas Jefferson's boldest acts as president was the negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He bought more than 800,000 square miles of land from France–sight unseen–for three cents an acre, doubling the size of the United States. The new lands stretched from the Mississippi River Valley to the Rocky Mountains. This initiated the great Westward Expansion of the 1800s. Between 1841 and 1869 alone, as many as half a million emmigrants braved the open prairies and rugged mountain ranges in search of a new start.
     The progress of a nation depends heavily on technology available at the time. As there were no roads, no steel rails, and little knowledge of navigable rivers, the hardy pioneers moved their possessions and loved ones west in freight and farm wagons, outfitted especially for the rigors of months-long travel. The covered wagon became a Westward Expansion icon, serving as a rolling storage room for food, water, tools, and furniture–as well as living quarters, birthing chambers, storm shelters, and sometimes the only available fortification in case of Indian attacks.
    
There were many kinds of covered wagons in use. It is a common misconception that all pioneers traveled in Conestoga wagons. That particular vehicle originated in Pennsylvania and was used more for moving heavy freight (up to 12,000 pounds of cargo). In fact, the sheer weight of the Conestoga made it unsuitable for travel across prairies, restricting its use mainly to the eastern states. That's not to say that no wagon train included Conestogas–only that they were not the preferred mode of transport. Its design was specialized, with a swooped, overhanging canvas top and a bed that was slanted up fore and aft to keep loads centered. 

oregontrailcenter.org

A lighter version of the covered wagon came to be known as the Prairie Schooner, since it resembled a ship with canvas sails crossing the prairie. These vehicles became the minivans of the West, if you will, or perhaps the first tiny homes. They were pulled by mules or oxen, the latter being favored for their strength, endurance, and lesser feed requirements. Most family members walked alongside. The wagon bed was crowded with supplies and usually reserved for small children, pregnant women, and the elder members of the party.
     Several covered wagon manufacturers sprang up in St. Louis, Missouri, the "Gateway to the West." The most popular was the Joseph Murphy wagon. There were many other makers including Luedinghaus, Linstroth, Gesting, Espenschied, and Studebaker (yes, the automobile manufacturer).

Interior of a covered wagon. Many dear possessions would be left along the trail.
     At an average speed of two miles per hour, and covering maybe fifteen miles on a typical day, the journey west often stretched from one season to the next. Even with inherent difficulties (river crossings, broken wheels, etc.), the covered wagon provided reliable transportation and a humble temporary home to the thousands of pioneer families who settled the American West.

All the best,

Vonn McKee

“Writing the Range”
2015 Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Finalist (Short Fiction)
2015 WWA Spur Award Finalist (Short Fiction)






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10 comments:

  1. Thanks much Vonn. Interesting stuff. A few things I picked up in my own research. The bottom and side plank seams were caulked to make it waterproof when crossing rivers. The wheels and axles could be taken off and the tailgate sealed and you could float it across a river. The load had to be lightened and 2 or 3 trips made. The reason the ends of the covers slanted out so noticeably was to help keep out dripping and blowing rain and offer shade. The front wheels were smaller to allow a smaller turning radius. The number of horses/mules of course depended on the load's weight. Two horses or four mules was minimal. For heavier loads four horses or six mules. I can't recall what it was for oxen, I think the same as for horses. Oxen were more common than we think as they are never shown in moves as barely anyone keeps them now.

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    1. Obviously, my post should have been more expansive! Thanks for sharing even more covered wagon trivia. I did fail to mention that they were used for impromptu boats when the need arose. Talk about a multi-purpose vehicle!

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  2. Vonn, as always, a very interesting and informative post that I know I will refer back to. My great grandparents on my dad's side came "up from Texas" in a covered wagon. They already had 2 little ones and gr grandma was ready to deliver #3...the stopped under a shade tree by a creek in Indian Territory so she could have the baby and then moved on two days later. I can't even imagine that--the idea of living in such close, cramped quarters and trying to manage a family with small children while trying to travel so far. This really gives me perspective on the size--and why so many people had to leave their belongings along the side of the trail.

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    1. The more I learn about the realities of settling the West, the more admiration I have for those hardy souls who braved it. My great-grandparents lived in a sod house for a while. I can't even imagine having dirt walls, ceilings, and floors. Nice hearing from you, Cheryl!

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  3. Love the story and the comments.

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    1. Thank you, Vicky. I'll bet your family has some covered wagon stories as well!

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  4. That's darned good info, Mikki. I enjoyed it. I like that you put the grease Bucket under the rear axle where it belongs.

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  5. I have the National California/Oregon Trail Center to thank for that nice diagram. More info at their website: oregontrailcenter.org
    Thanks for dropping by, Jerry!

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  6. Great information, especially about the Conestoga wagons and the Prairie Schooners; I thought they were one and the same. I think those oxen are the forgotten heroes of the Westward movement. I wonder how many still exists in the US. GREAT JOB

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    1. Thanks, Julie. The things we think we know and don't!

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