Fitting out the Wagon
Picture courtesy Patricia Kohnen, Clackamas County History Website

A Typical Farm Wagon drawn by Oxen
Picture courtesy Patricia Kohnen, Clackamas County History Website

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1840s Emigrants Crossing the Plains

Fitting out the Wagon

The covered farm wagon was the vehicle which so typifies our image of the “trains” which journeyed westward to Oregon, California or The Great Salt Lake. They were nicknamed prairie schooners because the canvas or waterproof sheeting supported by hickory frames looked like the sails of boats as they travelled through a “sea” of long grass, which stretched as far as the horizon. Emigrants mostly opted for oxen to draw these wagons, for they were more dependable and easier to control than mules, however they were more costly and could average only fifteen miles a day compared to mules’ twenty. The wagons were mostly wooden, so temporary repairs could be effected on the trail. Rear wheels of five or six feet in diameter were larger than the front, usually four feet across, since the latter needed to turn without fouling on the side of the wagon too early. The wooden rims were protected by a metal rim which was sweated into place to ensure a tight fit.

These covered farm wagons are not to be confused with the much heavier Conestoga Wagon which was predominantly used to haul goods, at first in the then “western” states east of the Mississippi and then from the 1820s onwards along the Santa Fe Trail. The Conestoga Wagon took its name from a valley in south east Pennsylvania where it is said to have originated in the early 1700s.

Lansford Hastings, who gave his name to the cut off taken by the ill fated Donner Party, wrote one of the early guide books for emigrants taking the Oregon Trail. In it he suggested that each emigrant needed 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. Kitchenware equipment included a cooking kettle, fry pan, coffee pot, tin plates, cups, knives, and forks.

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 the first emigrants
 the route
fitting out
 daily life

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© Chris Smallbone September2006