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.
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.
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.
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.
Okay, pardners, what about you?
What’s your traveling style?
Romance Writers of America