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The Old West Wagon Trains


There were many reasons pioneers of the Old West decided to uproot their families and head West for California. However, to make the journey they first had to have a wagon. Many of the wagons used on wagon trains of the mid 1800's were simply farm wagons, not the popularized sway-backed Conestoga, sometimes called “prairie schooner,” used in Pennsylvania at the time.

The Conestoga was Light but sturdy. Basically there were three parts…the bed, running gear, and top. The bed was about nine or ten feet long and four feet wide, with sides and ends about two or three feet high. The axles and tongues were usually constructed of seasoned hickory, ash, oak or other hardwood. It was a good idea to carry extras, for it wasn’t uncommon for these parts to snap or break at stream crossings and steep declines. Iron was used to reinforce the wagon at critical points however, it was used sparingly since it was heavy and would put undue stress on the team.


The wheels had to be extremely tough and rims were made of iron. The tops or covers were made of canvas or other thick cloth and waterproofed with linseed or other oil. Inside was an enclosed space about five feet high. It provided storage space and shelter. These simple wagons had no brakes or springs. Therefore the teamsters learned how to tie chains around the rear wheels to lock them or provide a drag when starting down steep slopes.

Before setting out on their trip these determined pioneers had to consider such things as bad weather, food for their livestock and where to find water. On average a train would travel ten to fifteen miles a day at a speed of about 2 mph. And on rainy and muddy days, the travelers might only cover one mile. The overland journey from the Mid-West to Oregon and California took about six months to cross over 2,000 miles of difficult terrain.

Life on a wagon train could be extremely harsh. These hardy souls arose very early each morning before dawn to prepare for the day. A normal routine would be to start the fire, prepare breakfast, gather the livestock, reload the wagon and hitch up the team. Around 7:00 a.m. they headed out.

The children played an important role as well, milking cows, fetching water, helping cook, washing dishes, collecting buffalo chips or firewood, hanging beef jerky to dry or simply shaking out dusty blankets and quilts.

It was a very bumpy ride aboard the wagon with little room for passengers. Except for small children or the infirmed, those not handling the reins would walk or ride on horseback. At lunchtime they would stop and rest for an hour or two, then continue on until about four or five p.m.


At night they would circle the wagons for protection from Indian raids. The wagon circle also doubled as a corral for livestock. The women would fix dinner and men would busy themselves with caring for the animals. After supper they would gather around the campfires to sing, dance and tell stories or just visit. Some would sleep inside the wagon, some under it, while others slept in a tent or under the stars.

The open trail was often fraught with danger so why would anyone risk the long journey to California and Oregon? The reasons were many. The least of which were extreme exaggerations about the locations. Tall tales and yarns about the fantastic crops being grown there were circulating like wildfire. Folks were told wheat "grew as tall as a man, with each stalk sprouting seven kernels", clover was so dense a "farmer could barely get into the field to harvest it" and turnips were "five feet tall".

But there were far more serious reasons. Many were trying to escape the fever-infested swamps of Missouri and Mississippi. Others simply wanted a better climate. Whatever the reason, all agreed on one thing...building a better life.

One commentator of the times claimed: "The motives which thus brought the multitude together were, in fact, almost as various as their features. They agreed in one general object - that of bettering their condition." They were also inspired by comments of author Richard Henry Dana in his book, Two Years Before the Mast, he claimed people living in California were lazy. He wrote: "In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"

The wagons were stocked with food supplies, cooking equipment, water kegs, and other necessities. These wagons’ max load capacity was about 2,500 lbs could carry loads of up to 2,500 pounds, but most agreed to limit their load to no more 1,600 pounds. Studies have shown a typical family of four carried approximately 800 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of lard, 700 pounds of bacon, 200 pounds of beans, 100 pounds of fruit, 75 pounds of coffee and 25 pounds of salt. Some of the more sentimental or foolhardy took furniture, but this was often abandoned along the trail as they became a little wiser

The emigrants used horses, oxen and mules to make up their teams. The most popular animal with emigrants was apparently the ox. It was cheaper, stronger and easier to work. They were also less likely to be stolen by Indians and would also be more useful as a farm animal when reaching their destination. Oxen could survive with little vegetation and were less likely to stray. However, they had one serious drawback. They could become reckless when hot and thirsty and were known to cause stampedes in a rush to reach water.

In 1840, a man called John Bidwell founded the 'Western Emigration Society’ and announced he intended to lead a large wagon train from the Missouri River to California. The idea set well with the locals and in no time he had a list of about 500 names. However, the idea didn’t appeal to Missouri shopkeepers. A rapid migration of that many all at once would spell disaster for them. Fearing for their livelihood they mounted an aggressive campaign against the idea. Local newspapers published stories about the dangers of travelling overland to California.

The excitement cooled down somewhat when Bidwell later pointed out no one in the party had ever been to California: "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge." They postponed the trip and decided to wait for an incoming group of missionaries, led by the experienced Tom Fitzpatrick.

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When they arrived Fitzpatrick agreed to take on Bidwell's party. Bidwell later said about waiting on Fitzpatrick, "it was well we did for otherwise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience.” Even with experienced leadership the wagon train still suffered considerably. Of the original 69 in Bidwell's party only 32 reached California.

People desiring to head West usually assembled at various staging areas in Missouri such as Independence and St. Joseph. Individual parties would elect a captain to maintain law and order on the journey. Most wagon trains also employed experienced guides.

Many writers of the time warned of the dangers of such an undertaking. In 1843, Horace Greely, editor of the New York Tribune wrote: "It is palpable homicide to tempt or send women and children over this thousand miles of precipice and volcanic sterility to Oregon."

The main cause of death on these journeys, were accidental shootings and drowning. Over 300 people drowned between 1840 and 1860 crossing rivers. Nineteen emigrants drowned crossing the River Platte near Fort Laramie in 1849. The following year forty-nine emigrants drowned at North Fork.

Between 1840 and 1848 an estimated 11,512 migrated overland to Oregon and 2,735 to California. One survey revealed only about 50 emigrants turned back before reaching their destination during these years. The reasons were usually poor health and fear of Indians.

In 1846 the famous Donner Party began their fateful trip which became the worst disaster in wagon train history. And in March, 1857, Alexander Fancher led another party to their doom from Fort Smith, Arkansas. You can read about this epic and tragic tale at:

Today some tourist companies provide authentic wagon train vacation trips. For more information on a few of these visit:


Scott Gese on February 23, 2018:

Great article on wagon trains. You did your homework.

Seems it didn't really matter how great the danger was, the lure of the west trumped the majority of it.

Kk on April 23, 2013:


Aubrey on April 23, 2013:

Good informashin

John Young (author) from Florence, South Carolina on March 23, 2011:

Thank you 4,for the vote up.I know what you mean. But I tell ya, it was sooooooooo hard to write this. I had to get up outta my cushioned desk chair to rest my eyes a couple of times. And then my carpal tunnel made it even harder. Finally I got finished but my back was hurting from sitting sooo long...

4youreyes on March 22, 2011:


I found your hub very interesting.The things those pioneers endured are hard for use to even imagine.They were so strong and hardy and look at us today we whine over the littlest inconvenience.Thanks for sharing

Have A Good Evening !

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