Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country. - Horace Greeley, 1865
Load up the kids in the RV, stop for supplies at Walmart, reserve a site at the campground destination and enjoy the ride on a concrete superhighway, its modern day traveling and camping as we know it. That’s America today, but a far different situation existed for pioneers in the past. After the Louisiana Purchase was consummated with France in 1803 and free farm land could be obtained the westward rush began and when gold was discovered in California, the pace picked up dramatically.
The earliest pioneers followed trails blazed by fur traders and over time created a road out of a path, and their experiences set the standard for those that followed. Early westbound pioneers often overloaded their wagons and the narrow trails were frequently littered with discarded furniture, dishes and clothing. Dumping excess baggage gave birth to a favorite slogan among those that followed, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Grave sites were common place along the trail, many held the remains of cholera victims infected by unclean water or contaminated food because at the time the cause of the disease had not yet been discovered. If conditions were favorable, most wagon trains traveled 10 to15 miles a day, but muddy trails could reduce progress to one or two. California-bound wagon train masters sought to begin the 2,000 mile journey in the early spring, mindful of the Donner Party that became snowbound in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain Range during the winter of 1846-47. But to leave too early also risk constant delays by heavy wagons continually bogging down in the spring rain mud.
Few pioneers had the means to buy the best equipment available but the Conestoga wagon was the favorite for those who could afford the fifty dollar purchase price. The wagon’s name was derived from the Conestoga River Valley where they were first built in the early 1700s. Sometimes referred to as “prairie schooners,” they were designed with both ends curved upward to prevent goods from falling out when pulled up or down hill over rugged terrain. The wagon was four feet wide and twelve feet long with a large piece of linen cover soaked in oil to make it waterproof. They had no brakes or springs. The wagon wheels were made of hickory or oak with rims of iron. Rear wheels would be chained going down steep hills. A few were equipped with odometers on a rear wheel that could measure the distance traveled.
The maximum weight the Conestoga could hold was 2000 to 2500 pounds, mostly food and water. As a result, family members usually walked beside the wagon. The long trip required about 200 pounds of flour for each member of the family, a top priority. Water was essential and stored in 50 gallon rubber bottles or sometimes in India rubber mattresses. The remainder of the weight was allocated to other food staples, tools, bolts of clothing or other necessities such as a spinning wheel and cooking utensils.
The best “horse power” for wagons, whether horses, mules or oxen was frequently debated. Horses and mules tolerated heat and could pull wagons faster than oxen, but they required grain and cost 60 to 70 dollars each, whereas a pair of oxen could be purchased for 40 to 50. Oxen had much better traction in mud and sand and did not need a harness only a wooden yoke. And whereas horses and mules tended to stray from camp, oxen didn’t while feeding on native vegetation As more and more wagon trains traversed the respective routes, trends favored the horses and mules, indicating that perhaps after the oxen blazed the first trails, pulling the wagons became a little easier.
The California Road and the Cherokee Trail were the dominant routes from Northeastern Oklahoma, both originating in 1849 at Fort Smith and Salina respectively. Surveyed by army Captain Randolph Marcy, the California Road, originating in Fort Smith, generally followed the Canadian River to the Texas Panhandle, then southwest to El Paso, Texas and west along the Mexican border to California. Marcy published a convenient guide, The Prairie Traveler, that described distances between camp sites listing watering holes and grasslands. The California Road accommodated 20,000 pioneers the first year it opened. The Cherokee Trail extended northwest from Salina to Coody’s Bluff near present day Nowata, then to Kansas, west to Colorado, followed the front range of the Rocky Mountains to Wyoming, then connected with the westbound Oregon Trail. It was used by thousands from 1849 through the early 1890s and was also popular with Cherokee territory cattlemen who drove herds to California to sell.
Pioneer travelers, our ancestors, kept their eye on the prize whether it was land, gold, religious freedom or a business opportunity. Today’s “RVers” can drive along, enjoy the scenery and reflect on the hardships faced by their ancestors…while preparing the evening meal in the microwave.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.