The Wild West of Yester-Year

Conestoga Wagon
By Rachel Kovaciny

When I was a kid, I thought “Conestoga” was a fancy word for “really big.” I figured if a pioneer was traveling westward in a small wagon, it just got called a wagon, but if it was a spacious, tall wagon, you called it a “Conestoga.” After all, my family called our small sedan simply “the car,” but we called the giant 1979 Mercury Grand Marquis that my grandpa gave us “the Mercury.” I thought that for wagons, like for cars, if it’s bigger and fancier, it gets a special name, right? Wrong. Well, mostly.

Conestoga wagons differ greatly from the wagons pioneers used to migrate out into the prairies and reach the west coast. Pioneers went west in ordinary farm wagons, or larger and sturdier versions sometimes called “western wagons” or “prairie schooners.” Put some curved wood over your wagon bed and spread canvas over the top, and you had all you needed to head west. In fact, you did not want to use a Conestoga wagon when you were moving west to start a farm or go prospecting. Why? Because Conestoga wagons were massive. On average, they were eighteen feet long, eleven feet tall, and four feet wide. You needed at least four medium-sized draft horses to pull it, and sometimes six. You would need eight or more of your typical farm horses, mules, or oxen to drag a Conestoga all the way to your new home. By comparison, a prairie schooner was only nine to eleven feet long and seven to nine feet tall. And that was a fine size, because you didn’t want your wagon loaded with more than one ton of your household goods and supplies, so you could use only two to six farm animals to pull it.

So, if a Conestoga wagon was no good for setting off for your new life in the West, what were they actually good for? Hauling freight. The Conestoga wagons were the semi-trucks of their day—they could handle up to six times as much as a standard farm wagon. These wagons were originally created to transport goods from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Virginia, and Maryland in the early 1700s. They got their name from the Conestoga Valley in Pennsylvania where they originated, so the name was not really a brand name so much as the name for a specific style of wagon. A few people used them for short migrations in that area after the American Revolution, but only because they were easy to get, not because they were well-suited to moving families.

Because Conestoga wagons hauled between three to six tons, they were sturdily constructed from heavy wood such as oak. Conestogas had a special wagon bed that curved up at each end so freight would not shift while going up and down steep grades. This gives a Conestoga a very distinctive shape, looking almost as if someone crossed a small sailing ship with a wagon. They were caulked with tar to prevent goods from getting wet and ruined while crossing rivers. A thick canvas top kept the load dry during storms.

Most Conestoga drivers did not ride in the wagons, but walked beside them, so they had a special brake that could be operated from outside the wagon, not sitting up inside it. They could lower the front and back ends to load and unload freight. Yes, a Conestoga wagon was made with the state-of-the-art technology of its day, every modern convenience for carrying things over long, rough roads. Beginning in the 1820s, freighters used Conestoga wagons to carry trade goods along the Santa Fe Trail between what are now Missouri and New Mexico. So, they got used in the opening of the American West, just not by pioneers. For a few decades, Conestoga wagons ruled the Santa Fe Trail, until newer, lighter freight wagons gradually replaced them. By the mid-1860s, new Conestoga wagons were no longer being made. The ones that remained were used for as long as they would hold together. Because they were so sturdily constructed, some Conestogas remained in use for seventy or more years!

There are quite a few museums across the country that have a real Conestoga wagon on display. In fact, I know first-hand just how huge a Conestoga wagon is because I got to see one when I visited the Zane Grey and National Road Museum in Zanesville, Ohio. Standing in the presence of a piece of history over two hundred years old, I felt tiny and awestruck. How much history had passed under that wagon’s giant wheels! Wheels almost as tall as I am, if you can believe that. But you don’t have to—I’ve got a picture to prove it!