Westward Ho The Wagons

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Margaret Brownley

IN MY BOOK A Lady Like Sarah, my heroine comes across the remains of a wagon train following an Indian attack.  Though it wasn’t necessary to research covered wagons for my story, I’m a firm believer that writers should never miss an 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.

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  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 probably even a requisite hundred pound bag of flour or two along with us.

Some sentimental souls insisted upon packing grandma’s rocker or family heirlooms but these were soon left on the side of the road. That would have been a problem for my family.  My husband can’t pass so much as a hubcap without pulling over (which explains why our garage looks like Goodwill).

CONESTOGA WAGONS were twenty four feet long and could carry 12,000 pounds of cargo but that much weight required teams of at least eight horses or twelve mules.  Most families 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.

They 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 2000 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 ask, “Are we there, yet?”   It makes you want to run screaming to the next watering hole just to think about it.

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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.

THE PRAIRIE TRAVELER  by Captain Randolph Barnes Marcy provided detailed lists of needed provisions.  No one knew about antioxidants and carbohydrates back then, but much attention was given to something called antiscorbutics for the prevention of scurvy. Whatever it is, it can be found in green grapes and wild onions.  Travelers were also told that they could restock in Salt Lake City but only if they were lucky enough to find Mormons in an amiable mood.

The Captain went into great detail about men’s clothing but failed to offer advice on female apparel.  Women complained about the difficulty of climbing in and out of wagons in hoop skirts.  If necessity didn’t change the way women dressed for the journey, the urgings of exasperated husbands soon did.

Wagons were circled at night to keep the animals corralled and give children a safe play area.  The circle also offered protection from Indians.

MANY WOMEN wrote in their diaries that relationships with Indians were mostly peaceful and mutually helpful.  Does that mean Indian troubles were exaggerated as some historians now claim? 

Not according to authors Gregory F. Michno and Susan J. Michnor who wrote in Circle the Wagons!: Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood Films that the bloody Indian attacks depicted in movies prior to 1950s were more historically accurate than the politically correct movies that followed.

INDIAN ATTACKS were by no means the only danger that awaited emigrants.  Accidental shootings and drownings took a toll as did disease.  It’s estimated that there’s one emigrant grave for every eighty feet of the Oregon Trail. 

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.   



This is more my traveling style.


Okay, pardners, what about you? 

What’s your traveling style?






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32 thoughts on “Westward Ho The Wagons”

  1. Great post. Hubby and I are looking at RVs right now. I have to laugh though because my sister is living in a 250sq foot apartment and some of those babies are bigger than that!

    Authors and film directors often gloss over the nature of those modes of transportation, not talking about the teeth rattling nature of wagons, the tip over factor, the MUD! But they did have air conditioning 😉

  2. Julie, what fun. I do hope you find the perfect one. We love ours. One of the joys of living in California is that you can RV year round. We also belong to a RV club which keeps us on the go.
    Good luck in finding your 2nd home.

  3. I’ll travel with you anytime, Margaret. My ancestors came west in wagon trains and walking behind handcarts. But I didn’t inherit those pioneer genes. Unless the scenery on the ground is really nice, I’ll take an airplane, thanks.
    Your book sounds wonderful. Hoping you take home the Rita from RWA!

  4. I would have trouble with just a covered wagon. It wouldn’t even hold my books. We had a full sized van which we got when the kids were little. When it was just the two of us traveling, we (I) managed to fill it. We have a Saturn sedan now and I manage to cram it full. We took our grandson on our last rip and I am sure he wanted to walk after a while. He kind of got buried in the back seat. I always start with a tub of books – a wide variety to read since I never know what mood I’ll be in, audio books for the drive, and travel books. I usually buy another 10 to 20 books on the road. One trip I bought 60 books the third day of a 2 week trip. (45 of those were set of Zane Grey hardcover books still in the parchment wrapping for $.75 each. Couldn’t pass that up.) Can’t pass a thrift store, half-price book store, a yard sale, Barnes & Nobles, Book-a-Million….. My DH is a very understanding man.
    We have looked at RV’s but not seriously. We got rid of the van because I didn’t like driving anything that big. We rented one for a trip through the Southwest once and it was convenient. If we could find one small enough to comfortably drive and not feel crowded, I might consider it.
    We are headed out for a 2 week trip next week. I am trying to pack light for this trip. It will be a first if I manage it. I have a list of books i’ll be looking for on the way : )

  5. Hi Elizabeth,
    Planes are a lot faster but I’m not sure they’re all that much more comfortable. And don’t forget, boarding covered wagons didn’t require taking off shoes or exposing private parts to an x-ray camera.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Hi Patricia,

    Laughing about your book problems. If anyone needs a Kindle it’s you. Of course I’m a great one to talk. My idea of trip planning is deciding what to read. The first thing I pack is my books. Of course, now that we have to pay for check-in luggage, my DH isn’t so understanding about having to also pay overweight charges. As much as I love the feel of books, I fear a Kindle is in my future–if for no other reason but to save my marriage.

  7. Hi Margaret, My family made a cross-country drive in an Dodge Ramcharger. It’s a huge SUV. I’d do that again in a heartbeat. We had a wonderful time! I love traveling by car, though I’ve flown maybe 100,000 miles between the east and west coasts.

    Good luck in Orlando! I’m rooting for you!

  8. Hi, Margaret. Loved a Lady Like Sarah, and I’m looking forward to your next release.

    Have you ever seen the old 50’s movie, Westward the Women? It was a great wagon train flick with a mail-order bride storyline and twist.

    It amazes me what women can do when there aren’t men around to it for them. I, myself, have been known to save my children from hairy 8-legged beasts when the hubby is out, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I prefer to let him play the hero when he’s available.

  9. Conestoga wagons were big but like you said, they weren’t the usual wagon. I saw a regular covered wagon once…where????? Can’t remember. Some museum.

    I was shocked at how little it was. Good gravy.

    I always say, when my daughter comes to visit, with her baby, that the pioneers set out across the west with less stuff then they haul up for the day.

  10. And here is my travel strategy. I find travel insanely stressful. I hope i get used to it some day.

    As a way to reduce freaking out, I’ve developed this … oh …. mantra, for traveling.

    What problems might pop up that CAN’T be solved with a Mastercard?

    Only worry about that.

    It pretty much boils down to cell phone and ID.

  11. Wonderful post, it reminded me of an old movie I like with Robert Taylor, “Westward, The Women” He was leading a wagon train full of mail order brides, it was pretty gritty for the time. Oops, I see Karen mentioned it too, LOL! It was GOOD.

    As for myself? The Lincoln Town car and a motel reservation is my travel adventure nowadays.

  12. Hi Karen,
    I’m not sure if I saw Westward Women. I’ll check it out. It sounds like my kind of movie. I like the way you handle the furry creatures. It’s a woman’s duty to let her husband play hero.

  13. Mary, love your traveling strategy. Cell phone and Mastercard. Got to remember that.

    Those cross-country pioneers had it tough but they aren’t the only ones. Some of us managed to raise children BEFORE cell phones or even the Internet. My husband and I even drove the kids across country without benefit of TV, Ipods or DSs. If that doesn’t qualify us as pioneers (or maybe even saints), nothing will.

  14. Sounds like a great set of books! Good luck in the RITAs!!

    Someone already mentioned this but as soon as I saw the title, I thought of “Westward the Women”. It is one of my favorite westerns of all time!

  15. I couldn’t imagine traveling by wagon anywhere. I am lucky to get enough stuff in my car if we travel and it doesn’t take that long to get where you are going! We get to where we are going in a day or two but it took them months! This would get on my last nerve I think.

  16. Loved your post on covered wagons. Every time I get into my car to go somewhere I say a prayer of thanks. What a blessing to be able to go when and where I wish.

    At the Western Heritage and Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City there is an old wagon. I spent so much time looking it over that my family walked off and left me. Just fascinated by what people had to deal with and yet helped develop such a country for me to enjoy.

  17. Margaret, Love the book covers. When I did a research trip out West this past fall, I saw a conestoga wagon at Ft. Bridger. It certainly made me thankful and appreciative for modern travel. Can you imagine riding on that hard seat everyday? Ouch! Great post.

  18. Fabulous post, Margaret. You’ve got me laughing as I write this LOL. Me, I’m a Marriot sort of girl myself, but we’re taking a city-slicker wagon-train trip in August around the Tetons…well, the wheels are rubber tires and the inside is padded, but it’s as good as I can do in 2010.

    I got up close and personal with a real covered wagon at the Texas Ranger Museum in San Antonio recently, and it was indeed small. Looked about the size of at twin bed LOL.

    Do you think any of the womenfolk ever wore trousers on such a voyage, or was that too scandalous?

    Great post! oxoxoxox

  19. A J, thanks for stopping by. What a neat idea to say a prayer of thanks for going when and where you wish. I say a prayer every time I get in the car, too. I pray there will be gas in the tank.

  20. Tanya, thanks. The wagon train trip sounds fabulous. I love the Tetons. About the trousers: I bet some poor husband insisted his wife dump the hoop skirt and don a pair of his trousers.

    Chocolate kisses back,

  21. margaret, you make me laugh! i thought this was a mary connealy post at first
    the part about your husband having to stop to pick things up was too funny!
    i would have had a hard time rolling slowly by nice free stuff myself!

    i cannot imagine the misery of the trip…and the food they were eating…i bet not a lot of fresh fruits and veggies
    and how do you go potty in private in an open line of wagon trains…not to mention the problems of your monthly and having babies along the way

    i wonder who trained them?
    are there still ox’s around??
    where are they?

    how do we travel?
    we have three little girls…we try not to leave the house

  22. Loved the post. I enjoyed readig about the cover wagons. I didn’t realize they were that small though. My husband and I don’t travel much. If we do, we normally drive one of the cars and take 4 dogs with us unless I can find someone to take care of them for us while we are gone.

  23. I love posts where I learn new things! Thanks for this one, Margaret. And I see I’m not the only one who likes ‘Westward the Women’. (I haven’t seen it in years, now I must find a copy!)

    With a daughter who went to many out of state figure skating competitions over the years, I am used to road trips. As far as my style goes…well, you know those awful Eastern-bred girls they like to show in Westerns? The ones who complain about the dirt, the bugs, etc.? I fear that would be me. Never mind walking on the moon — car air-conditioning is one of mankind’s greatest achievements!

  24. Loved the post, Margaret. Informative and funny! I used to think the pioneer life was romantic, now it seems so hard.
    I used to travel around the country with my husband in his truck some when we were younger. Always loved seeing new country, but a week was as long as I could stay out without risking permanent incarceration. 🙂

  25. Hi Tabitha,

    I’m a bit behind. I’m now in my RV and it took me a while to fire up the wi-fi. I loved you comment about having 3 girls and trying not to leave the house. About the potty: I guess those hoop skirts came in handy for something.

    Thanks for stopping by.

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