- 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
As an “ox man” we have Peter H. Burnett, of ’43, later to be the first governor of the state of California. In his train were both oxen and mules, and he found the oxen “greatly superior.” He narrated their virtues thus: “The ox is a most noble animal, patient, thrifty, durable, gentle, and easily driven, and does not run off. Those who come to this country will be in love with their oxen by the time they reach here.”
The expression “dumb ox” is not found in diaries of the migration. Oxen seem to have been at least as intelligent as mules and much more so than most horses. They were individually named, and had personality. J. Q. Thornton, of ’46, may be called to testify. He has left us the names and characters of the eight in his four yoke. There was Brady, who died at South Pass. Thornton called Star and Golden “unreliable,” though perhaps they were just intelligent and strong-willed: they used to hide in the thickets at yoking-up time, and then look innocent when found. Thornton mentioned four others as being good enough and “tolerably honest”—Sam, John, Tom, and Nig. But his love was Dick, who was all that an ox ought to be and was labeled in one word: “faultless.”
The long-continued case of Mule v. Ox, as J. S. Holliday points out in his doctoral dissertation, could never really be decided.
Numerically, however, the verdict was in favor of the ox. In 1850 a count at Fort Laramie showed 36,116 oxen passing through and only 7,548 mules—and the latter figure apparently included pack-train animals. Quite possibly the deciding factor was the expense. One price list of the period gives the cost of a mule as $75 and of an ox as $25. Though the prices varied from year to year, the ratio probably remained about the same. In the long run the use of oxen became so prevalent that “ox-team emigrant” became a generic term.
The number of oxen to the wagon varied considerably. Four—that is, two yoke—was the minimum. Three yoke was perhaps the average, but four was not uncommon; six yoke was probably the maximum that could be handled on the twisting mountain roads. The bigger teams could haul heavier loads, and the strain on the individual animal was less. On the other hand, the more animals, the more work to guard and care for them, and pasturage had to be found.
Generally some of the cattle—especially in trains that included children—were milch cows. These were usually just driven along, but sometimes were put under the yoke. Extra cattle were usually taken along as spares and for a supply of fresh meat, though some people thought that such a herd was more nuisance than it was worth. The total number of cattle was thus regularly about twice that of the men and women.
The fate of most of these faithful beasts was a sad one. Rare was the ox or cow that lived to a quiet and respected old age on the deep-grassed pastures of Oregon or California. Many of them were slaughtered on the trail for beef, and we can scarcely even imagine that the best-loved ones were spared the longest. There was little place for sentiment on the desert, and the ox that began to fail was undoubtedly the one to be butchered. Remembering, however, that the ancient Greeks sacrificed an ox only after ritual weeping for the death of “man’s companion,” we can believe that on Goose Creek or along the Humboldt there were sad thoughts in him who did the deed, and tears in women’s eyes, and the wailing of children—and perhaps the beef did not sit well, even on a very empty stomach. Yet this was another virtue of the ox, that he could thus yield food. Of course, the mule also could be, and was, eaten—but always with prejudice.
To every ox slaughtered, however, a dozen or a score died of disease, of drinking alkali water, of Digger arrows, of thirst, or of slow starvation and overwork. Notations on dead oxen are a monotonous feature of the diaries. J. Goldsborough Bruff of ’49, a great counter, kept busy during five days on the Rabbit Hole and Black Rock stretch in northwestern Nevada, where someone had left a posted notice on a bit of broken axle: "This is the place of destruction to team." Bruff’s total was 603 dead oxen.
Such mass catastrophe may not move us as much as the death of one known individual animal. We may quote James Mason’s elegy of August 2, 1850, on Cassia Creek: “Here we lost old Sock. He died rather sudden. He was much lamented by the boys as he was our main Sanby [stand-by] at the start.”
We should remember a little the faithful beasts that died. Sometimes they dropped under the yokes and were left lying. Often they were merely abandoned, standing, too weak to follow, left a prey to the wolves. Sometimes a kindly bullet finished the matter. Except for a little meat cut off for food, no one bothered with the carcasses; on some stretches they lay so thick that a blind man could have followed the trail by the stench. Then for a few years the skeletons lay dazzling white in the desert sun, pale white under the moon.
In reckoning the price of the land we might well be no less thoughtful of the animals than that kindhearted Lord, the God of heaven, when he spoke to Jonah of saving the men—and beasts—of Nineveh. Yes, in that reckoning of the price we might remember his final words: “…and also much cattle.”