Thursday, April 28, 2022

The History of Covered Wagons and their Design – with Giveaway By Donna Schlachter

When we hear the words Covered Wagon, we likely envision a long train of wagons with white canvas covers pulled by four prancing horses, while the parents sat side by side facing forward, and the children skipped alongside or rested in the wagon bed.

However, the reality of traveling west included long, hot days; cold, stormy nights; raging rivers overflowing their banks; miles of desert with no sign of water; discarded belongings along the trail; and five months of walking more than 2,000 miles, hoping to find something better than they left behind.

The majority of wagons were made from ordinary farm wagons, with bent metal or wooden hoops from which to hang the canvas covering. Often this cover was patched together from various sources, or perhaps wasn’t even canvas—flour sacks, saddle blankets, and bedding might be used in a pinch.

These wagons needed to be strong enough to carry the people, their goods, and supplies for the trip, without wearing out the team hauling it. Many overloaded their wagons, and found themselves forced to discard family heirlooms which impeded their progress when the wagon sank to its hubs in mud.

The use of metal was kept to a minimum, since iron and other heavy metals were all that was available. Tires were rimmed so they wouldn’t wear out, and moving joints, such as axles and hounds—which connected axles to axle assemblies and the tongue.


An icon of the Westward Expansion folklore is the Conestoga Wagon. With its raised floor bed, bow-shaped front, and 12,000 pound capacity, however, the Conestoga was too heavy for most of the trails heading west. Instead, this gargantuan vessel—which garnered the name of Prairie Schooner that was soon applied to all covered wagons—was better suited for the undeveloped roads of the colonial East, falling out of favor due to the arrive of the railroad, by the 1870s. However, some headed west later on, mostly used as cargo wagons that traveled the better developed trails between cities, hauling cargo and supplies. Conestoga wagons originated in Germany, and were thought to have been introduced to German settlers to haul cargo to Philadelphia around 1718. While there was a pull-out board called the lazy board where a teamster could rest if needed, usually he walked alongside.

Most often oxen were used as the draft animals hauling the wagons. They were cheaper, more reliable, and almost as fast as horses or mules. Horses had less stamina and more physical problems, particularly where fresh grass and water were in short supply, and mules—well, the saying stubborn as a mule isn’t an exaggeration.

While a covered wagon averaged about 40 square feet, additional storage was established by framing in empty spaces, such as under the driver’s seat for tools, brackets or hooks to hold water barrels, a feed box hung on the tailgate, and a bucket containing tallow or grease hanging from a nail on the rear axle to keep the joints lubricated.

You can watch a video I took of crossing a river in a covered wagon here:

Question: What would be something you couldn’t possibly leave behind on your journey westward? Please disguise your email address so I can contact you should you win. Name AT carrier DOT extension. For example, donna AT Livebytheword DOT com

I will draw from all responses for a print (US only) or ebook copy of Calli, my latest Prairie Roses Collection release. You can learn more about Calli and the rest of the series at:

About Donna:
A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both. Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!

Resources: photos from WikiPedia


  1. Thanks for the post this morning. In my mind, I have romanticized the journeys the settlers took, but as this is one of my favorite types of stories I know how hard and strenuous these trips were. As for your question, we have a couple of pieces of furniture from our families that would be hard to give up. And thanks for the giveaway! bcrug AT twc DOT com

  2. An informative post, Donna. I have friends with a covered wagon and have taken a short ride in it. It would be a very strenuous and difficult to travels hundreds and even thousands of miles in one. No luxury for sure. Something that would be hard to leave behind would be different family Bibles I have and an heirloom wash stand. Thank you for the giveaway. Blessings
    marilynridgway (at) gmail (dot) com

  3. This time period is my favorite! I wouldn't be able to live behind my paper and pencil. I'd want to take notes of all the places we traveled.
    susanlulu AT yahoo DOT com

  4. I have always been fascinated by stories of the pioneers who traveled by wagon train to settle the western regions of our country. We have trail rides here in Texas during our rodeo season and they usually have several covered wagons. Those early trails really faced hardships and I can't imagine traveling for months in such a small space or walking beside it. Took some strong people for that.
    Books and writing supplies are some things I'd absolutely pack. I have travel journals of my major trips and I'd certainly want a journal of a trip like this. A few pieces of furniture I'd like to take, too, but most of it would be too heavy. Thanks for the wonderful information about these wagons and the give away. I always enjoy your stories.. marthalrogers at sbcglobal dot net.

  5. this is very interesting about the crossing. I would need to bring my Bible, some reading for pleasure books, some cookbooks, canning book, lids, jars, sewing implements, pots, pans, utensils for eating and baking/cooking, towels, quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

  6. Riding in a covered wagon is on my bucket list. So cool. I watch the TV series 1883 and was surprised when the wagon master insisted they use horses and not oxen. But I think it fit the script needs for later episodes. Thanks for sharing. cindyhuff11 at gmail dot come

  7. Thank you for sharing this amazing post I would make sure to bring my cast iron pot to cook in plus my books for reading! Sarahbaby601973 at gmail dot com

  8. Thanks so much for all the kind comments. MarthaR is my random winner.