The Era of Conestoga Wagon

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

During the 1970’s there has been a proliferation of events commemorating our nation’s heritage of two hundred years. One area of historical signifi­cance which has been ignored or forgotten, however, is the saga of the Conestoga wagon. Although great, the legacy of this vehicle has largely escaped the attention of historians and teachers.

The Conestoga wagon compiled an impressive record between the years of 1750 and 1850. However, few Ameri­cans realize the importance and significance of the Cones­toga wagon – mainly, that it was responsible for the gradual improvement of existing but crude roads as well as for the construction of many new roads. It was the only practical means of taking all kinds of merchandise to the people of the outlying settlements in the Ohio River Valley and other frontier regions.

After a faster and more efficient means of transportation was developed, the Conestoga slipped into the shadows of history. Today, it is known of mostly through museums and local festivals.

 

Road Development

The story of the Conestoga wagon began on the animal paths and/or Indian trails created by the indigene of North America. Although the Indian first used animals’ paths, he later added his own trails to satisfy his increasing social and economic needs. As European immigrants grew more numerous along the Atlantic seaboard, they began to appropriate more land from the Indians, causing the latter, with whom the colonists traded, to move farther from the coast. Since furs were the colonists’ most important trade item with Europe, traders journeyed to frontier regions on Indian trails to secure pelts.

As fur trade increased, men found that horses formed in pack trains were a better method of transporting goods. However, even widened horse trails soon became outmoded as trading posts and the settlements which accompanied them began to dot the sprawling frontier wilderness. In order to accommodate wagon traffic, a novel idea for wilderness travel, the trails were gradually converted to crude roads. Thus, the aforementioned system of business enterprise signaled the beginning of an era of road-building.

Not all of the early roads were built for commercial purposes. If the economic interests of nations collided, as indeed they did between England and France in the Ohio River Valley during the 1750’s, roads were constructed more out of military necessity. The much celebrated Brad­dock and Forbes’ roads were two such arteries carved through the imposing wilds of Pennsylvania and Maryland. In actuality, etching roads across mountainous terrain be­came the “worst enemy” a military force faced.

Soldiers braved unbearable obstacles in moving supplies and artillery over a hostile frontier environment. Much of the way laurel slick and brambles closed around the men. Brush had to be cleared, trees felled, gullies filled, and wet spots corduroyed (a technique in which logs were placed parallel to each other to allow vehicles to travel over wet, muddy areas). Rafts needed to be built to ferry supplies over river crossings. Constant use of primitive roads through swampy areas soon transformed these places into quagmires of impassable depths. During dry weather, hordes of passing men and supplies over a new roadbed raised clouds of choking dust.

Geographical difficulties were aggravated by the physical hardships novice road builders experienced. Men had to help push heavy wagons up steep ascents and brake them on the descents. If they lost their grips on wagons, it often meant imminent oblivion for the wagons and horses hitched to them. Food privations coupled with the daily vicis­situdes of weather and environment rained havoc on those responsible for road construction. Almost every man, including officers, acquired the “bloody flux,” a type of dysentery resulting from an excessive salt pork diet. Be­cause of a lack of fresh fruits, scurvy was an inescapable affliction. Swift thunderstorms and improper bedding exacerbated the situation. Gnats and other insects plagued the builders, continually stinging exposed parts of their bodies. The bites became inflamed or ulcerated from persistent scratching. A constant vigil needed to be main­tained for poisonous snakes.

As the young nation rapidly expanded westward, the need for better roads became imperative. However, the introduction of the “iron horse” around 1850 triggered a period of hibernation for road construction – to be aroused some sixty years later from its slumber with the introduc­tion of gasoline-driven vehicles.

 

Conestoga Wagon

Historians agree that the Conestoga wagon made a rather ambiguous and unexciting debut around 1750, with its emergence being lost to sketchy records. This wagon acquired its name from the Conestoga River Valley near Lancaster where it was first built by Pennsylvania Dutch farmers and used to haul farm produce to Phila­delphia. Although originally constructed for farm work, this sturdy vehicle, with modifications, lumbered its way onto primitive roads and became the major conveyance of trade items for one hundred years.

Although southeastern Pennsylvania became the ac­knowledged manufacturing center of Conestoga wagons, wheelwrights, or wagonmakers as they were commonly called, diffused to the neighboring states of New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and the Carolinas (even to Ontario, Canada). carrying with them the architectural plans for constructing these majestic specimens.

Wheelwrights engineered all structural features of the wagon except for the “ironing” decor, which required the expertise of a blacksmith. Because crude road conditions placed such severe strains upon the Conestoga, the wagon­maker had to select the most durable of woods. This all­-star selection of trees resistant to splitting, listed by one authority, consisted of “white oak for the framing, gum (sour or black) for the hubs, hickory for the axle trees … and poplar for the boards.”

This beautifully designed wagon was a practical, sturdy vehicle with many differentiating characteristics. One of the more outstanding features of the Conestoga was its striking contour. It sported a bowed wagon bed. which functionally served to protect trade items from dust and rain and to stabilize a load of goods when it shifted. With red running gears (undercarriage) and wheels, a blue body, and white homespun linen (or canvas) stretched over six to thirteen wooden hoops, the wagon was patriotically dec­orated–probably more from aesthetic preference than economic necessity. Iron rims were forged around wooden wheels to make them much stronger. This operation was quite a production and required great skill. Smaller front wheels made it easier to navigate the vehicle.

All tasks associated with the wagon’s operation were conducted from the left side. To stop or slow his wagon, a driver used a long iron lever attached to the wagon’s side. As this braking device was pulled towards the ground, large wooden blocks moved to meet iron-rimmed wheels at the rear of the wagon. Sometimes, wet grass, mud, and moisture made the wheels slick and greasy. To help slow the wagon’s momentum on a steep downward slope, rear wheels were chained to the wagon bed, tree poles were jammed into the wheels, and/or drag shoes were attached to the tire, and the wagon was skidded downhill.

Another romantic feature of the Conestoga that ex­tended from the left side was a moveable piece of poplar affectionately labeled the lazyboard. It was considered uncouth, unprofessional, and uneconomical for a driver to ride inside his wagon. If he was not walking, a wagoner could be found roosting on the lazyboard or perched in a saddle on the left rear horse, from which he controlled the team of six.

Still another sinistral object located above the lazy. board was the toolbox – a simple wooden structure which contained many essential tools and spare parts such as hammers, pinchers, nails, bolts, horseshoes, etc. These items were used to keep the wagon in good traveling condition.

A wagoner always took excellent care of his team of horses. When it was time to feed the animals, a feedbox, which hung from the rear of the wagon, was removed and fastened to the tongue-a straight piece of oak about twelve feet long attached to the front axle. A wooden bucket was carried so that horses could be watered from nearby sources. Feed either was hauled in the wagon by regular drivers or purchased at various stopping places along the route by “sharpshooters.” (The term sharpshooter applied to part­-time drivers who took to the road with their rigs during times of inactivity on their farms or economic lull.)

A wooden tar pot, loaded with a sticky mixture of pine tar and lard, was hung from the rear running gear and was used to grease the wagon’s axle. To accomplish this feat, a wheel had to be removed. In order to lift several thousand pounds, the mechanical advantage of a wagon jack was needed. This device was stored inside the wagon among the goods.

 

The Conestoga Wagoner

Wagoneering, having achieved a full-time career status by the early 1800’s, was engaged in by professional drivers and itinerant farmers. Although Conestoga freighting bustled for one hundred years, its zenith occurred be­tween 1820 and 1840. Even wagoners had to contend with their traffic jams. So few major wagon routes were equipped to accommodate river crossings that, as one account states, “wagoners sometimes had to wait in line for three days before their time came to be ferried across the Susquehanna River.”

According to historians, wagoners were a hardy bunch of men who usually lived to a ripe old age. These men wore wide-brimmed black hats, homespun suits, high black boots called “stogies,” and a beard. They puffed on foot-long cigars made especially for their delectation. They carried few weapons except brass knuckles and black jacks for the occasional fight which loomed on the horizon.

A bullwhip became the trademark of many drivers. Although the stock was made of wood, the whip’s main part (five feet) was constructed from one piece of leather. A small piece of material, called the cracker, was attached to an eighteen-inch-long lash at the whip’s end. As the team of horses was considered to be a valuable investment, no wagoner ever struck his animals with the whip. A sound of a cracking whip was merely a signal for the horses to exert more energy in moving the vehicle. In character, wagoners were undoubtedly predecessors to the American cowboy.

With journeys of fifteen miles a day over dusty, rough roads, it is understandable how wagoners and taverns be­came inexorably linked. As an occupational safety valve, wagoners seemed to be blessed with a love for mirth and merriment. Never considered to be alcoholics, they did, however, have a great fondness for unrestrained drinking and an insatiable appetite for storytelling.

Teams of horses rarely were stabled; rather, they rested overnight in the wagon yards of the tavern no matter how inclement the weather. During extreme cold, wagons were driven onto planks to prevent the wheels from freezing in the mud. Wagoners were fiercely proud of their teams and maintained an environmental affinity with their horses. If the night was not too cold, they frequently would leave the warmth of a tavern’s fireplace to sleep near their horses.

Because of the many dangers and hardships, wagoneering represented a risky economic venture. Although few men amassed great fortunes from their eight-to-ten-dollars-a-month salaries, it remained an economically solvent occupa­tion for one hundred years.

 

The Conestoga Horse

Because much information became entangled in contra-dictable historical accounts, there is a lack of “hard evidence” establishing the emergence of the Conestoga horse as a distinct American breed. To be sure, the saga of the Conestoga horse is not based upon flimsy conjecture. This animal was described as being a well-mannered, muscular bay with long legs and a small head. It weighed on the average of seventeen hundred pounds and stood on the average of 16.5 hands (one hand equals four inches) in height. It was a well-built animal with incredible stamina and strength.

The Conestoga horse was a very useful creature to Pennsylvania farmers. It was expected to do light and heavy farmwork and to serve as a saddle horse for riding and hunting. It was well fed, never overworked or treated unkindly.

Harnessed in pairs, six horses commonly were used to pull a loaded wagon. The driver controlled the team through a single jerk line which was connected to the left lead horse. If wealth warranted, a Conestoga team had its own warning system. Attached to the harness gear of each horse was a set of brass bells. Melodious sounds emitted by the bells could be heard many yards ahead on the road.

The Conestoga wagon and horse compiled an impressive record in a one-hundred-year span. But the emergence of the iron horse and canal systems ushered into the annals of transportation a technologically more efficient means of carrying goods to and from western settlements; this, in turn, expedited the wagon’s departure from the American scene. As for the durable animal that had done so much to move these famous vehicles many arduous miles, its remarkable development came to an even more abrupt halt.

 

Customs and Sayings

The Conestoga wagon era contributed a rich folklore of interesting customs and sayings to our American heritage. Four of the most notable, which are indelibly imprinted upon our current life style, are:

  1. To avoid confusion, wagoners standardized the practice of passing oncoming vehicles to the right side. Our present-day road demarcation system gradually evolved from this practice.
  2. All important wagon functions were conducted from the vehicle’s left side. Noting this practice, Henry Ford perpetuated this custom by placing the auto steering wheel on the left side.
  3. It became a custom of the time for a wagoner to surrender his bells with considerable embarrassment if he needed help from a passing teamster to extricate his wagon from the mud. In the words of the historian, Norman Wilkinson, “For a team to arrive without its bells carried the stigma of inferiority.” From this custom came the re­assuring expressing, “I’ll be there with bells on.”
  4. Not being well schooled in the “pay-as-you-are-served” tradition. innkeepers devised a simple accounting system to help wagoners keep track of the amount of beverage they consumed and/or ushered toward friends. For every pint and quart of whiskey (or beer) ingested, an innkeeper would mark a P or Q on a slate beside the wagoner’s name. After so many letters were accrued, the tavern owner would gently remind a wagoner to pay up by saying “mind your Ps and Qs!”

 

Conclusion

The page of history turned grudgingly but inevitably for the Conestoga wagon as it stubbornly yielded to a more efficient technology. With the emergence of the “steam horse” around 1850, wagoneering dramatically shifted from its zenith point to its wane. By 1869, the Conestoga was being relegated to a dismal demise. While some die-hard wagoners scowled and winced at the thoughts of declining business, others placed pride aside and diffused westward to places beyond the reaches of the railroads where their driving skills still were needed.

From a utilitarian viewpoint, the Conestoga wagon is, of course, extinct. In terms of its physical existence, with only 150 survivors, this vehicle is an “endangered species.” However, a heritage which surrounds the Conestoga wagon has transcended the undefined boundaries of history to remain symbolically intact. Because of its unique achieve­ments, the Conestoga wagon is now an American legacy. It will remain as one very important link in the historical chain of economic and technological progress in the United States.

 

Dr. Randall Pelow is Associate Professor of Elementary Education, specializing in social studies, at Shippensburg State College, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.