- Historic Sites
The Prairie Schooner Got Them There
Fortress, ambulance, amphibious home on wheels—the humble covered wagon stands as the symbol of the winning of the West
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
Although we are not well informed as to the exact dimensions of most parts of the wagon, for one wheel at least there is a meticulous measurement, made by William Clayton, a Mormon of the 1847 migration. Having decided to make an odometer, he carefully measured a hind wheel, and found it to be fourteen feet, eight inches in circumference, or four feet, eight inches in height. This was undoubtedly a large wheel; the average one probably stood almost a foot lower.
Front wheels were always smaller than hind wheels, to make the vehicle more maneuverable. On many wagons they were not more than six inches lower, preventing turns exceeding about thirty degrees. An occasional one had wheels so low that they would pass under the bed, and thus permit turns of ninety degrees or more, but small wheels made for harder pulling.
The ordinary wagon had neither springs nor brakes, but an essential part of the equipment was the “tar bucket.” Traditionally it hung from the rear axle but was carried elsewhere when fording streams or traversing rocky passages. The term “tar” must be taken as highly flexible. Often the bucket contained tar or resin mixed half-and-half with tallow. Since these contents were used steadily to grease the wheels and kingbolt, the supply decreased, and before the end of the journey the emigrants might be using anything that came handy and would serve. A Mormon in ’47 shot a wolf, apparently for mere rifle practice. He found the animal to be exceptionally fat, so he tried the fat out and added wolf grease to the mixture in the bucket. Later these same Mormons found an oil seep, and filled their buckets at it-thus being among the first Americans to use a petroleum lubricant.∗
Such was the wagon in which the average pioneer rode to Oregon or California. And since his comfort—and sometimes his very life—depended on it, a man had an appreciation for a good one. The youthful Isaac Jones Wistar, later a Union general, started for California early in ’49. On the street in Cincinnati a wagon caught his eye, and he sized it up as he might a horse or a woman—“light, strong, short-coupled.” Then and there, though the wagon was in use, he made an offer. Later, he was able to write proudly:
I made no mistake, for that wagon proved to be one of the only two of our entire outfit which survived the searching trials of the rocks and mountains, of alkali plains and desiccating deserts, and actually reached the Pacific Coast.
Granted, then, that the four-wheeled wagon was to be the vehicle of empire, how was it to be hauled? There were three possibilities—horses, mules, oxen.
Many modern representations to the contrary, the horse was really ruled out from the beginning. Though that noble animal could move faster than the ox and could pull more than the mule, he could not match the ability of either to endure the long haul, the constant work, and the insufficient food. To do his best work, a horse needed grain, and grain could not be transported. Every train, indeed, had its riding horses, and these often got through. They were not, however, worked as hard as the team animals, and being more valuable, were given special care.
Only in the later years of the trail, from 1850 onward, did horse teams begin to be fairly common. By this time the road was better established, and swifter-moving transport had its advantages: grain was sometimes carried along so that the animals could have proper feed, at least during the first few weeks. To give them their due, the horses seem to have stood up well enough then, when the journey was not so arduous.
As between the mule and the ox, however, there doubtless were endless arguments around the campfires, punctuated by tobacco juice spat into the embers.
“Mules move faster.”
“Yes, but oxen can pull more.”
“Oxen don’t stampede so easy.”
“Yes, but when they do, they run worse.”
It could go on forever. Mules bogged down in mud, but could live on cottonwood bark. The Plains Indians would steal mules, but not oxen. Oxen, however, were more likely to get sore feet.
As a “mule man” we may cite William Johnston, who crossed in ’49 under the pilotage of James Stewart, an old Santa Fe trader who loved mules and handled them expertly. As Johnston wrote, “Stewart’s concern is always for the mules—he wastes no thought on the men.” Thus coddled, the animals responded vigorously: “It was a noble sight to see those small, tough, earnest, honest Spanish mules, every nerve strained to the utmost, examples of obedience, and of duty performed under trying circumstances.” As the result of Stewart’s efficiency, the men could claim that theirs was the first wagon train to get to California that year—and the mules were still in good condition.