Wagon Trains and Wagon Trails

Imagine living in a time and place where there were no automobiles, highways, computers, telephones, and electricity. Imagine living in a time and place where many made a long and harsh journey in search of opportunity, luck and profit. This time and place was the United States of America during the early nineteenth century, specifically the 1840s and 1850s, because by 1869 railroads made many of these trails obsolete. At this time many Americans are enticed at the offer of cheap land and valuable metals such as gold, silver, lead, and nickel in the western frontier of America, particularly in Oregon and California. To get there, these brave men, women, and children would have to face disease, starvation, harsh weather, drowning, and other perils on their journey that would last for months.

Before setting off on this massive undertaking, you would need to know a few things. First, almost every emigrant was a farmer. Secondly, those emigrants left because of swampy conditions in Missouri and Louisiana, being exiled if you were a Mormon, or because you are in search of opportunity and luck. You would have to purchase a lot of supplies in order to go to the west. For starters, you would need a wagon and six oxen, or twelve mules. At the time oxen were preferred for a few reasons. One, oxen were stronger than mules. Two, oxen were more mellow than mules. Three, a mule cost three times as much as an ox, so most of the emigrants used oxen. The preferred wagon was called a Prairie Schooner, and, including the animals required to pull a loaded wagon, was around 23 feet in length. The box, or where all your supplies and worldly goods would go, was four feet wide, nine to eleven feet long, and two to three feet deep. The most room you would have would be 132 cubic feet, but the average amount would be 80 cubic feet, a drastic reduction. If you had more money you would get a larger wagon. If you had a lot of money, you could buy a second wagon for more room when storing goods. The wheels on a Prairie Schooner were made of wood with iron bands fastened around them. Those bands usually fell off during the journey. The back wheels were fifty inches in diameter, while the front wheels were only 44 inches in diameter. These wagons also had a cloth or canvas roof that protruded out of the wagon for protection during storms. In order for the supplies and whatever else you would bring along with you, you would make boxes large enough to fit snugly in the box. You may even decide to put a false floor on a certain section of the wagon and line it using a piece of cloth with pockets on the inside for extra room. Whatever your cargo was, it had to be less than 2,000 pounds so your animals wouldn’t die from exhaustion. Instead of riding on the jolty wagon and commanding the animals by using reins, you would walk or ride a horse and use a whip. The Prairie Schooner was derived from a different kind of wagon used for freight in the East called the Conestoga Wagon. These wagons could carry 6 tons worth of goods, larger than an African Elephant. These wagons also had angled sides to prevent goods from falling out. Conestoga Wagons were occasionally used, but due to their huge size they were impractical for long distances.

So what would you need to put inside the wagon? Well, you would need a lot of food, to survive such a long journey. The basic requirements were, for a family of four, 600 pounds of flour, 400 pounds of bacon, 60 pounds of coffee, 4 pounds of tea, 100 pounds of sugar, and 200 pounds of lard. These were just the basics for a trek, and often times eggs, dried fruit, beans, and rice were brought along. In order to prevent bacon from spoiling, you would take a barrel of bran and put the bacon inside. The same goes for eggs except cornmeal is used. As eggs are eaten, cornmeal is eaten too. You may want a milk cow so you can make butter.To cook the food, Dutch ovens, reflector ovens, butcher knives, coffee grinders, tea kettles, skillets, tin plates, and ladles should be brought. You would have eaten with your fingers because silverware wouldn’t usually fit and was a luxury. Water kegs and matches were also essential. Also, poles, a sheet of canvas, stakes, and rope were needed to make tents to sleep in. Unless you had the room for a rubber waterbed (they were used by a few pioneers), you would sleep on the cold, hard ground wrapped in blankets on a sheet of cloth with a pillow if you’re lucky. Depending on what trail you are using, you may need to wear wool coats, rubber coats, trousers, sun hats and sunbonnets, felt hats, cotton socks, boots, brogans (leather shoes), green goggles, cotton dresses and shirts, buckskin pants, and flannel shirts. Weaponry included rifles, pistols and holsters, bullet molds, gunpowder, lead, knives, hatchets, and bullet pouches, but you might bring more fearing an Indian attack. Tools for when you arrive and during the trip include sets of augers, gimlets, axes, hammers, hoes, plows, shovels, spades, whetstones, oxbows, axles, kingbolts, ox shoes, spokes, wagon tongues, heavy ropes, and chains. If you had room left, it would be a good idea to bring sewing equipment, surgical instruments, a chamber pot, bandages, and spyglasses to name a few. Canned food, jewelry, toys, silverware, china, and musical instruments were luxuries and often couldn’t fit in the wagon. You would want to ship your furniture or leave it behind because there wouldn’t be room in the wagon.

After preparations, you would choose the trail you wanted to go on. You would have a few choices. Your first choice is the Oregon Trail, the most popular trail and the longest trail. The trail takes you in a northwest direction some 2,000 miles until you reach Oregon City in Oregon Country, which, depending on when you travel, is either disputed or on American soil. Travelling on the Oregon Trail is a four to six month journey through the Great Plains in what is now Kansas and Nebraska, through the Rocky Mountains, and into Oregon. If you are the kind of person who likes to deviate from the norm, try the California Trail. The trail goes the same way as the Oregon Trail until you reach a trading post known as Fort Hall. After reaching there, you would go southwest until reaching Sacramento, which is today the capital of California. If you are a Mormon at this time, you wouldn’t have a choice but to take the Mormon Trail to the Great Salt Lake. Today we know the Mormons formed a town called Great Salt Lake City Another popular choice is the Santa Fe Trail, which goes from Independence, Missouri southwest to Santa Fe, and depending on what year you travel in is in Mexico or the New Mexico Territory, once again, on American soil. The journey on the Santa Fe Trail is much shorter than the Oregon Trail, being a month and a half to three months in duration, and going through what is now Kansas, Oklahoma or Colorado depending on which route you take, and New Mexico. Another option is to use the Santa Fe Trail and then go to the Gila Trail, which would take you from Santa Fe to being parallel with the Gila River and ending in Los Angeles. The trip would take considerably longer than the Santa Fe Trail, taking an extra two months. Whatever route you decide, you would go during the spring in a wagon train, or twenty or so wagons lined up like a train, because it was much safer to travel in large groups than alone.

Along the trip you would encounter a lot of dangers, and if you think Indians are a major concern, you would be in for a surprise. The chances of seeing an Indian are low, and, if, you somehow encounter Indians, the chance they will attack you is even lower, especially on the Oregon Trail. The dominant Indian or Native American tribe along the trail is the Shoshone Tribe. Remember, Sacagawea, the famous Native American female who served as a guide for Lewis and Clark during their famous expedition, was a member of the Shoshone Tribe. The Indians preferred to trade rather than fight. If you were to die on the voyage to your destination, it would probably be from disease. Smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis were common, but the biggest killer was cholera. Cholera, as we know now, is a bacterial infection in the small intestine transmitted through water and food, and can spread rapidly. In many cases victims would die within a few hours on the trail. When someone died on the trail, they were buried in the middle of the trail. Then the cattle and mules would stomp on the area where the person was buried to prevent wolves and coyotes from coming nearby and attacking. Another cause of death was becoming roadkill, or being ran over by your own wagon. When climbing out of the wagon, people, especially children, may slip and fall under the wagon only to be crushed by its wheels. Other causes of death include lightning, wildfires, hailstorms, snakebite, drowning, starvation, and suicide. Previous groups of pioneers who went on trails left messages scrawled on rocks. These messages may give good campsite advice or say this, “For God’s sake, don’t drink this water.”

A day on the trail usually began at 4 A.M., when a bugle or rifle shot awakes the wagon train. Within the hour the cattle are rounded up after grazing, and by 5:30 breakfast is served. Breakfast was usually Bacon and/or “Johnnycakes” or a food similar to a pancake made of flour and/or cornmeal and water. At 7 A.M. the wagons begin moving and stop around noon so the animals can graze and the emigrants can rest and have lunch. This usually lasts around an hour. Then for the next four hours the wagons start moving. By 5 P.M. the wagons stop and form a circle where a suitable campsite containing ample vegetation and water is found, dinner is cooked, and a night watch begins at 8 P.M. At midnight the watches switch, and everyone is awake by four and the process repeats until the destination is reached. Often times mining is the work standard in California due to the gold rush started in 1848 when someone accidentally found loads of gold in their backyard.

The westward migration had profound effects. California and Oregon quickly became new states as a result of emigration, but the effects of this massive migration can be seen today. Out of the ten most populous cities in America (Ten American cities with the most residents) three are in California, tied with the most of any state along with Texas. Another impact is the shifting center of population in America. The U.S. measures its center of population as the mean center of population. The mean center of population can be explained as the point in which, on a rigid, weightless map where each person has the same mass, the center of population would be a point where the map would balance perfectly. The mean center of population in America has been moving westward as America grew. In 1790 when the first census was taken, the center of population was in Kent County, Maryland. As of 2010, the center of population has moved to Missouri and is expected to continue moving westward throughout this century. The emigration westward by wagon trains and wagon trails defines America today as the 48 contiguous states with Alaska and Hawai’i.