|Pioneers crossing the Plains of Nebraska (wikipedia)|
Whenever somebody says “wagon train”, various images are conjured in our minds. The iconic television program of the 1950s. The multitude of westerns produced over the years. Bonnets, long skirts, horses, whips, campfires, rugged terrain, mountains, butter churns, running out of water, blazing hot sun, freezing winter storm, stampedes—but most always, the western migration to the Pacific coast is the goal.
So it might surprise you to learn that wagon trains are neither a product of the 1840s and onward, or an American invention. In fact, one of the most famous wagon designs, the Conestoga, is first officially mentioned in 1717. James Hendricks purchased the wagon named after the Conestoga River in Lancaster County, PA. The design was perhaps introduced by German settlers.
|Line drawing of a Conestoga wagon with oxen (wikipedia)|
Covered wagons were a variation of the Conestoga wagon, a pared-down version because the heavy Conestoga was too weighty for the thousands of miles of travel required. Often a farmer used an ordinary farm wagon with a series of bent saplings and a canvas cover strung over the top. Oxen were most common, although mules and horses were also used.
Perhaps the favorite of the covered wagons was the chuckwagon, a type of field wagon used to store and prepare food. The invention of the chuckwagon as we currently know it is attributed to Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher, in 1866. Following the Civil War, the beef market in Texas expanded, and thousands of cattle drives meant tens of thousands of men on the trail for months at a time. He added a “chuck box” to the back of a wagon with drawers and shelves for storage, along with a hinged lid for a flat cooking surface. With a water barrel and a canvas firewood sling, the rig was complete.
Wagon trains had a hierarchy of sorts. There was a leader or a captain who rode in the first wagon. The rest of the wagons fell into an unspoken position usually based on the fastest team or lightest wagon. If one of the families fell sick, they were moved back in the train since they’d probably have to stop more often, and perhaps because nobody wanted the germs “blowing back” on them. Later arrivals joined the end of the train until they proved themselves worthy of moving forward. The chuck wagon usually came before the sick.
To save wear and tear on their animals, migrants walked a good part of the day. Only the very young, very old, or infirmed would ride in the wagon. With oxen, many times the driver would also walk alongside.
Scout riders rode ahead to check for safe passage, while several rode up and down the wagon train, checking that everybody was keeping up. If a wagon broke down, those behind would halt and help with the repair. Sometimes this was also a good time to light a fire and have something hot to eat.
Any cattle included in the wagon train were watched over by a couple of riders, then when the train stopped for the night, were driven into the inside of the circle of wagons for safekeeping and so they didn’t wander off in the night.
In my book, Christmas Under the Stars, I used oxen to pull the covered wagons because that was a tidbit of history that I thought readers would enjoy. Driving oxen is a skill unto itself, and so I did research into the words used, such as “gee” and “haw” (right or left).
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About Christmas Under the Stars:
November 1858, Utah Territory
Edie Meredith strives to keep her temper and her tongue under control as she heads west with her brother to California. Raised in an itinerant preacher family, she promises she will never marry a man of the cloth.
Tom Aiken, drover of the wagon train, longs to answer his true calling: to preach, and while he realizes not every woman would choose a preacher for a husband, he hopes to soon find his help-meet.
Suspicious ‘accidents’ plague their journey. Is someone trying to keep them from reaching their destination? Or will misunderstanding and circumstances keep them apart?
Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas and full-length novels. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.
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