Saturday, September 24, 2016

Westward Ho, The Wagons

I just completed a book and that means it's time to celebrate. Though it wasn’t necessary to research covered wagons for my story, I’m a firm believer that writers should never pass up the opportunity to procrastinate in the name of research. Plus, I was curious to know how accurately wagon trains were depicted in those old westerns I grew up with.

Having once ridden in a covered wagon, I know from experience that those teeth rattlers were not designed for comfort. If you didn’t bake beneath the canvas covers, you’d probably choke on dust. Most emigrants walked rather than rode, but it wasn’t only for lack of comfort.
Imagine moving your family across country in this.
The average size of a covered wagon was twelve feet long and four feet wide. That’s about the size of my PT cruiser. By the time I load up my car with a couple of kids and a week’s supply of groceries, it’s packed to the gills. I can’t imagine trying to haul a household across country in that thing. I can’t even go to church without carrying a piano-size purse. Not only would we have to walk, we’d have to drag pots and pans and the requisite hundred-pound bag of flour along with us.
This is about the size of my PT Cruiser

According to some old diaries, trails west were often littered with furniture. That’s because sentimental souls had insisted upon packing grandma’s rocker or other family heirlooms. Out of necessity, these were soon left on the side of the road. That would have been a problem for my family. My husband couldn’t pass so much as a hubcap without pulling over to retrieve it (which explains why our garage looks like the Goodwill store)

Families lucky enough to travel in a Conestoga wagons had an easier time. These wagons were twenty-four feet long and could carry 12,000 pounds of cargo. That much weight required teams of at least eight horses or twelve
mules. Most people couldn’t afford that luxury. A covered wagon could be pulled by as little as one team providing a family traveled light. The most popular animal was the ox, especially during the early years of migration when a mule cost $75 and an ox $25. Oxen couldn’t travel as fast as horses but they were stronger and less likely to stray or be stolen by Indians. They were also able to survive on sparse vegetation.

Oxen did, however, have one fatal flaw; they tended to go berserk when hot and thirsty, in which case they would stampede to the nearest watering hole. If the lake or stream was downhill, watch out! A wagon’s hand brake was good for parking but not much else. Though a downhill run might have given the kids a thrill, it was definitely a problem for the driver.

Wagons averaged about two miles an hour for a total of ten to fifteen miles a day. A two-thousand-mile journey from Missouri to the west coast would take about five months—longer in bad weather. Can you imagine spending 150 plus days listening to your kids asking, “Are we there, yet?” It makes you want to run screaming to the next watering hole just to think about it.
Most travelers didn’t even know where “there” was. John Bidwell, who led a party from Missouri to California, later admitted: "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge."

As could be expected, cooking was a chore. Not only did pioneer women have to get over their aversion to using buffalo chips for fuel, they had to fight wind, insects and sandstorms. In case you were wondering, a family of four required 1000 pounds of food.

Although remarkably impersonal, women’s diaries offer a fascinating look into daily life on a wagon train. Keeping up with the wash was pure drudgery but not for Mrs. Hampton who wrote in her diary in 1888 that when her wagon train reached Cheyenne, Wyoming, she sent their company’s dirty clothes to the laundry. Now that’s my kind of woman.

It’s a relief to know that most of what I learned about overland journeys from those old westerns was true. Though, as far as I can tell, no wagon train ever rolled out of camp to the tune of Westward Ho, The Wagons.

What's your traveling style? Here's mine

Left at the Altar

Welcome to Two-Time Texas:
Where tempers burn hot
Love runs deep
And a single marriage can unite a feuding town
…or tear it apart for good.



  1. A long, long trip indeed. Thanks for sharing this post, it was very usual. One would have to travel to have a traveling style. When I was younger, my family camped a lot. We traveled in a station wagon. I used to take yearly trips with my sisters, but I don't travel these days, too much going on with the hubby's health.

    1. Hi Debbie, thinking of you and your husband. Take care.

  2. I used to love long trips in the car, but now I prefer flying if I have to go very far. I know we glamorize wagon train travel, but it must have been brutally hard. The people who made it all the way were probably much tougher folk than most of us these days.

    1. Hi Vickie, after my last nightmare of a flight, I'm beginning to think that wagon train travel wasn't all that bad. At least you could get out and walk.

  3. Maragaret, I once read a book that was a collection of diaries from women on the westward journey and couldn't believe the hardships they endured! No, I could never have done that. Thanks for the modern comparison to the covered wagons. It's mind-boggling that people packed their households in those things, slept in them, rode in them, etc. I remember the angst of parting with heirlooms, but the realization of its necessity. Thank you for this enlightening, yet humorous post. Yes, your idea of "roughing it" or camping looks like mine.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      Yes, I read that collection of diaries, too. It's amazing what people endured back then. Today, people can't travel without WiFi.

  4. Oops, sorry Margaret. Spellcheck should have fixed your name on my reply.

  5. I think I would prefer your traveling style, Margaret. :)

  6. I've ridden in a covered wagon and prefer traveling by car. It would been hard needless to say to travel across the prairie in a covered wagon. Thank you for sharing this post. I do enjoy historical fiction that is woven around the time of covered wagon trains. I've always loved Little House on the Prairie and then along came Jeanette Oke Loves Comes Softly series in 1980's. God bless.