Friday, June 30, 2017

Things I Didn't Know About Covered Wagons

Albert Bierstadt: Oregon Trail
from Wikimedia Commons

I was pleased to discover that my Rankins/Ellis family most likely made their move from Rome, Maine to Cherokee, Iowa in 1869 by traveling in covered wagons. As my sister commented on the last blog post (From Rome to Cherokee, Part 2), "No wonder we were always playing covered wagon with the rollaway bed - it's in our collective-memory-genes!" 

I've been reading women's diaries of covered wagon travel, and searching around for bits of information. Along the way, I've found some things I never knew. 

A covered wagon could be made from any farm wagon. Hoops were attached and canvas stretched over the top to keep the cargo protected. 

 Wagon beds were quite narrow and often packed to the canvas with household goods, tools, and supplies. Only the infirm and the very young actually rode in the wagons. With no springs, the ride ranged from uncomfortable to near-intolerable, so most walked alongside the wagon as it traveled.

There was little room for sleeping inside the wagon. Pioneers mostly slept outside.

Well-to-do families might bring along as many as five wagons. Two or three bachelors might share a single wagon.

Wagons could be pulled by teams of up to eight horses or mules, or as many as a dozen oxen. The oxen were slower but stronger. Because the pioneers traveled in long trains made up of many wagons (both for companionship and protection), drivers could temporarily hitch up double teams to pull wagons up steep trails or up the banks of a river.

Some wagons were boat-shaped, so they could be dismantled and poled across rivers. Wagon beds were well caulked against water leakage during such crossings.The travelers spent a lot of time fording rivers, either by driving through shallow ones, floating across deeper ones with the teams swimming ahead (with everyone praying a lot, I'm sure), being ferried across, or by crossing toll bridges built by enterprising farmers along the way.

Sometimes a family starting out from home might travel by rail or boat as far as they could. They would then buy a wagon and a team, load up their belongings and continue overland to their destination. St. Joseph, Missouri was one such famous "jumping off" spot for those people heading out on their first wagon-traveling days.

The journey west needed to be completed by the end of summer, lest the travelers get caught in snowy weather. They often traveled into the night to avoid the heat of the day.

I had always thought of wagon trains heading off into untamed wilderness and out of sight of all civilization. By the time my family was traveling in 1869, there were at least occasional small settlements along the way. They could send and receive letters from the friends and family they had left behind.With the advent of the telegraph, western folks could keep in touch with the events of the world. When President James A. Garfield was shot in July of 1881, much of the nation heard the news very quickly by way of Morse code and local newspapers.

I was so surprised to read of a wagon train (not ours) starting off its journey and having supper at a restaurant on one of the first days! (Holmes: Diary of Mary Bower, Kansas Caravan, 1881). Of course, they were soon out of sight of such amenities. But travelers often stopped in to see relatives who had moved west earlier, sometimes picking up stock from one farm to deliver to another relative further up the trail. (Holmes:Diary of Viola Springer: From Missouri to the Harney Valley, 1885).

By the time my family was traveling, there were few problems with Indian raids. The troubles they might have had were with cold summer rains and the ensuing dampness, taking a wrong road and having to retrace their steps, and finding enough grazing for their livestock and good water for people and animals. Firewood was often in short supply and had to be carried in the wagons in anticipation of shortages. 

People were still traveling by wagon as the railroads developed. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Covered wagons often traveled near the railroad tracks when they could, as that land had been cleared and there were towns along the railway where they could obtain goods and services. 

I read about one family in 1888 that didn't leave on their wagon journey until September--very late in the season, as traveling needed to be completed by fall. They struggled along into November until they ran into snow. Fearing the effects of cold weather on the small children in their party, they bought tickets on a passenger train, had the wagon dismantled and loaded with the contents and the team into a boxcar, and completed the rest of the trip in style, and in only two days! (Holmes: Mrs. Hampton's Diary: Kansas to Oregon by Road and Rail).

Nowadays, living here in New Mexico, I think about how I baby myself at the age of 72. I do what I please and never (hardly ever) overexert myself. Contrast that behavior with that of my great great great grandmother, Joanna Perkins Rankins, who made the trip by covered wagon across all those hundreds of miles at the age of 70. After that incredible journey, she then lived on to enjoy life in the promised land of Iowa--the hard, backbreaking life of a prairie pioneer--for another ten years.



Holmes, Kenneth L., editor. Covered Wagon Women; Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails. Volume XI, 1879-1903. Spokane, Washington: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1993. 

O'Brien, Mary Barmeyer. Heart of the Trail; The Stories of Eight Wagon Train Women. Helena, Montana: Falcon Publishing Co., 1997. 

Wikipedia: Covered Wagon, accessed 30 Jun 2017.

Of Interest

Newcastle Man and Brother Travel Oregon Trail in Wagon. In 2011, two brothers, age 54 and 60, travel with their Jack Russell terrier, Olive Oyl, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Baker City, Oregon in a covered wagon pulled by three mules.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative! And those crazy Buck Brothers - with names like Nick Buck and Rinker Buck, they were destined to do something unconventional!!!


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