The Journey West by Wagon Train
Just a bit of History
In 1803 the United States expanded West with the Louisiana Purchase. Later with the assumption of lands gained with the Texan Annexation (1845) and the Mexican Cessation (1848) the opportunity for a new life for many was opened. With the claim of the Oregon Country (1847) hundreds of families ventured West by wagon train to the fertile lands of the Oregon Territory. Government pushes to settle American Pioneers on the newly claimed lands found hundreds of men, women and children leaving Independence Missouri for the chance at a new start. Reports of lands rich in soil and a farmer’s paradise resulted in the first wagon trains arrival to Oregon in 1843, before these lands were actually acquired.
The Push for Westward Expansion
The push to stretch America from the East to the West coast didn’t always warn of the hardships of such a journey. Preparing for the trip most often required selling land and leaving life’s luxuries behind. Selling one’s farm was a gamble but most of those willing to make the journey often banked on the produce of the land they planned to farm. Many sold their land and homes at a loss to set out on a journey that would was for many the biggest hardship of their lives. Many heading West with the first wave were promised 640 acres of prime farmland but the government Donation of Land Act cut the number of promised acres in half only a few years later. A man could claim 320 acres for himself and the same amount could be claimed by his wife in her own name. Women interested in the ownership of land were often enticed West for the same reason this number would later decrease to 160 acres for a man and the same for his wife, however around 1869 The Homestead Act in Oregon changed things for women. Even before they had the right to vote, women over twenty-one who were the head of the household were able to receive homestead patents for gaining their own land. Most often these women were widows, those with disabled husbands, and many of them single women.
Preparing for the Journey
The purchase of tickets by train to Independence Missouri in its own right could be expensive and the costs of a sturdy wagon, a team of oxen or horses and supplies didn’t come cheap. Those seeking to make their own fortunes off the families arriving to Independence sold some of the finest wagons and provision. The costs for even a small family’s provisions for the trip could easily run in excess of $1200.00, a great deal of money at the time. The journey of 2000 miles and more than 5 or 6 months didn’t come cheap though many families saved for years and then sold all they owned in hopes of making the payoff with hard work and successful crops once in the Oregon Territory.
Some wagon trains were composed of over 200 wagons though most were as small as 30. One of the most used types of wagons was called the Conestoga which was referred to as the camel of the West. These were less robust but stable in comparison to others. Less could be packed so bare essentials were planned for and the rest left behind. A cumbersome wagon loaded too heavily with unneeded provisions was the reason the trails west were often littered with furniture and items from homes that had been left behind. Preparations for such a journey meant a man often hired another to help on the trial, paying in full for the helps journey in exchange for “Man’s work”. Such a trip could be brutal though women often helped by working hard right alongside their husbands. Preparing for a trip of months across terrain from mountains to deserts in weather conditions that were at best unpredictable was at best dangerous for all involved but not fully limited to the list below:
Barrels of food staples
Rope and lot’s of it
Cast Iron pots, skillets, eating utensils and plates
Weapons for hunting and protections-shotguns, rifles, pistols, knives, bullets, molds and lead
Medications and bandages
The Family Bible
Bolts of cloth and linen and sewing kits
Plant cuttings for growing on the new land along with seeds and garden tools
100 pounds of Flour
70 pounds of bacon
30 pounds of hardtack, beans rice, coffee, sugar, dried fruits, baking soda, vinegar
Eggs and good China were packed in barrels of corn meal to keep them from breaking
Blankets, pillows, tents, poles and stakes
Canvas and Hickory Bows for the wagon itself
Lanterns and fuel
Pens papers books
Pipes and tobacco
Scopes, coins and money
Shaving items soaps and perfumes
Extra clothing, shoes, boots and socks
Saddles and leather for repairs
Livestock and feed
Dangers Along the way
A family headed out on a wagon train could at best plan for less than a hazard free journey. A lot of planning was needed to choose the right time of year for making the journey west. If a wagon train left too early there was the chance that grasses would not be available along the way for the livestock making the journey. Nothing to feed livestock on a 2000 mile journey could devastate a train and leave the travelers stranded. Leaving too late in the year meant the chance of trying to cross the mountains in inclement weather where at times the snow and ice were impassible and incredibly dangerous. Exposure ended many a travelers’ journey when not prepared or choosing a wrong course. Broken wagon wheels and sick oxen often ended many trips west. River crossings could often end up in the loss of lives if waters were higher than predicted and or wagons washed away with family members inside. There were ferries to charter wagons across but the costs could sometimes be high.
While rare, Indians attacks did occur, however, many tribes welcomed wagon trains as they were interested in trading. At times horses or other items were stolen by the Indians which often ended in bloodshed for both sides. Over the years the relationship between the wagon trains and Indians slowly deteriorated and by the 1890s with the Indian’s having lost their way of life, tensions continued. But it seemed the Indian tribes had more interest in fighting each other than in the immigrants traveling west by Wagon train when it came down to it. There were also the occasional wild animals to deal with which included, wolves, coyotes, bears, snakes and even buffalo that became dangerous during a stampede.
Numbers of men, women and children succumbed to disease and illness while on the journey West. Cholera being one taking numbers of lives due to unclean conditions and water. Lack of physicians and access to needed medical care was often left to others in the train that had no experience. There were doctors who made the journey, but lack of clean water and well prepared foods added to the demise of hundreds. Those at most risk were the elderly and the very young as well as pregnant women who only had the help of other women or perhaps a single midwives who had no resources along the trail. Alkaline water was also an easy way to find the oxen sick or dead by morning. It was imperative to find good water sources.
One of the little thought of dangers was crossing paths with a family who had decided to return home, those who had not found what they thought that would in the new part of the country. The tales of lost wagon parties such as the Donner Party (A wagon train that took a less popular route and found it closed off due to inclement weather and thus were stranded for months, those that survived resorting to cannibalism in an effort to survive) could be responsible for a family turning back for Independence.
The Daily Routine
The first part of the journey West on a trail was usually easy with flat terrain giving those new to the trail the chance to establish routines with required daily chores. It was often on the first part of the journey where those not use to the trail or caring for animals were forced to learn how to handle a team of oxen or horses. Hitching animals to a wagon wasn’t easy and the maintenance for the needed hardware was almost never ending. The animals needed access to food and water along any trail and often time trains rode along water’s edge to make sure the animals had what they needed to survive. The maintenance of the wagon itself could tax the men working the train and the first part of any leg of the journey was a time to establish the daily rules and responsibilities of being on a train. Children often held their own responsibilities such as milking or carrying water from streams and rivers. Children would gather berries and other food staples that were easy to find on the train. Some of the Wagon Trains held a few hours each evening for school for the children. Children might also use slates to practice sums while riding in the wagon along the way.
An average day on the wagon train would look something like this:
Wagon Master fires shots to wake the camp of circled wagons which served as a nightly barricade from Indians or other attack. Fires were started. Oxen were herded to the wagons and yoked for the days’ journey.
Breakfast. Yoking teams. Tents folded and stored. Wagons loaded
Wagons pulled out for the days’ journey. Women and children often walked along with the wagons. Men and boys on horseback rode the lines in protection and to make sure wagons kept up and herded animals along.
Lunch break Wagons stopped. Oxen were turned loose with yokes on to feed. Leaders often huddled to deal with any issues that had arisen since the day before.
The wagon train pulls out again and continued until a spot of the nightly parking was found most often before darkness set in.
Evenings after sundown
Children often played as women prepared the evening meal. Adults gathered to talk in groups. There might also be dancing and singing after the evening meal.
The men took varying shifts of standing guard each night and until the gunshots of morning woke the train. And then the wagon train would start all over again for the next 5 to 6 months it would take to arrive along the to Oregon territory
Dried Buffalo dung was often collected as it burned easily to start a camp fire for meals. This readily available resource burned quickly with little smoke. Gun powder was often used to get a flame started on a fire. Iron skillets were most often used for cooking all the needed meals, that and the open flame for roasting meats. Most carried flour and baking soda and dough could be created for breads, biscuits and pancakes or johnnycakes. Meal often consisted of dried meats, bacon and even dried beans, all of which were easy to store and carry for the journey. Frying meat often meant it was easy to add a little flour to create rues with the drippings and hearty gravy could be made to cover the dryer breads and beans. Water could often be polluted so coffee was the drink of choice even for children. Boiling the water kept sickness down and coffee could cover the smell of old water. The prairies were rich in game. Small birds and game were readily available. Rabbits, Prairie chickens, pheasants, antelope and big horn sheep as well as buffalo. Buffalo unless stampeding were an easy target given their size and lack of running when in danger. The buffalo would later suffer drastic losses in numbers simply for their hides, but in the early Wagon Train years one buffalo could feed the whole train and little was wasted.
On arrival to their destination, exhausted families relished in actually finding a bit of civilization again. With small towns waiting, needed provisions could be restored. Once this was done, families were often on their way to the land they had to claim and then it was time to plan and build a home before the winter came. Home in the area would be made of wood and or a combination of sod, bark and even animal skins until finer homes could be established. Often families had to help each other survive the first years until crops could be planted, harvested and sold at market. Families who survived the hard journey intact often found starting from nothing difficult, but many of those that endured thrived when given time.
It seems the short time of the 1800’s and early 1900’s summarizes the expansion West for those who made the journey on wagon trains, but the arrival of the transcontinental railroads would go on to end the vast numbers arriving by wagon. But those who made those long hard journeys by wagon are the ones responsible for developing a lot of the cities that still exist today.