Thursday, February 26, 2009


By, Roberta C.M. DeCaprio

Do you think you could eat with unwashed fingers, drink out of the same vessel you shared with a mule, sleep on the ground when it rains, share your blanket with vermin, or have patience with mosquitoes and other insects? What I just described was only a fraction of the enormity of the task faced by covered wagon travelers in the American west.

As they looked out ahead, they saw no sprawling towns, paved roads, restaurants, shopping centers or gas stations . . . just the vast, rolling, empty and untamed landscape. I wonder if our modern day minds can begin to imagine or understand the challenge, the isolation of spending weeks crossing wild land at a rate of two miles per hour with practically nonexistent amenities.

Let’s take a glance at that task:
Before starting out on their journey, many settlers banded together into parties or companies, for safety and assistance while they traveled. These parties were often made up of folks from the same town or extended family. These bands worked together to insure there would be plenty of supplies for any adversity that might arise. This could be anything from crossing a river or making wagon repairs, to Indian attacks.
Travel always began in the spring, when there was sufficient grass for the horses and oxen to graze upon, and ample time to cross the mountainous areas before the snow fell. Once on the road, settlers could expect to travel 12 to 20 miles on a good day. On a bad day, when the ground was muddy, rocky, a river needed to be crossed, or hills to climb, settlers averaged traveling only five miles.

A typical day began long before dawn with a simple breakfast of coffee, bacon and dry bread. After everyone had eaten, supplies were secured, teams hitched and the wagon train was on the road by 7 A.M. Since space was limited in the wagons and riding uncomfortable, many chose to walk.

Travel continued until noon, when the wagons came to a halt for a break, or “nooning” as it was called. Settlers ate a meal of cold meat, coffee, beans and the bacon which had been prepared that morning. During this time men and women talked, children played, and draft animals (like horses and oxen), rested or grazed. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon the wagons would be back on the move again.

Around 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening the wagons would come to another halt, fashioned in a circle or a U-shape for the night. This afforded protection from wild animals and Indians. After a simple supper, settlers might socialize a bit beside the camp fires. But more often they were so exhausted from the day’s travel, that they’d soon go to sleep.

Some slept in the wagons or tents, but most slept on the ground or on rubber mats, wrapped in blankets. These options provided little protection from the elements. If a storm arose, settlers, their clothes and bedding were wet through and through. Aside from the rain, travelers faced being struck by lightening, lethal hailstones, tornadoes, blinding heat, and intense cold. The fluctuation in temperature caused the wooden wagon wheels to shrink. If they weren’t soaked in a stream or river bed, their iron rims would roll off the wagon during the day.

In addition to weather conditions and monotony on the trail, settlers were open to various disasters and calamities. Because the wagons moved so slowly, many of those walking, particularly children, got lost when they straggled behind for any length of time to look for flowers or berries, or attempted to hunt while traveling. Those that never made it back to their party were thought to have fallen prey to wild animals or Indians and left behind.

Contrary to popular belief, Indian attacks were among the least of the settlers’ problems, and should one arise, it was far less a bloodbath than anyone would have thought. The main threats and disasters was sickness such as smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid and “mountain fever;” as well as scurvy, caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time. With little or no medical expertise, these illnesses often resulted in death. Those who died on the road were buried in hastily dug-out holes. Some graves were marked, but more frequently settlers went out of their way to disguise the resting place to discourage wild animals and Indians from digging up the body.

Rivers were dangerous obstacles to encounter. The only way to cross a river was to ford it, driving right through and hoping for the best. Settlers had to wait for the water to reach an acceptable level; securing their supplies and caulking their wagons before attempting to cross. The process consumed most of the day since each wagon and team had to be taken across one at a time. When crossing a deep or swifter river, settlers had to build a raft to carry the wagons, with varying results. After sickness and accidental gun shot wounds, drowning at a river was another common cause of death . . . as well as accidents with draft animals.

Though oxen moved slowly, they were very large, heavy animals. There was no way to stop them quickly, thus causing many injuries and death, especially to women and children. Many times the women’s long skirts got caught upon the wheels and they were dragged beneath the wagon, or the children sleeping in a wagon would awaken and attempt to climb out, only to end up crushed beneath the wheels.

Despite the dangers on the trail, further challenges lay before settlers when they reached their destination. Once on the frontier they set forth to tame the wilderness and create a new version of civilization that they left behind. From their daring forthrightness, new towns were built and from them our modern day cities evolved.


Paty Jager said...

And why did these people go through all this??? It took people with lots of fortitude and a desire to find a better life to withstand a trip by wagon train.

Interesting post, Roberta.

Celia Yeary said...

Roberta-Paty's comment was good, because isn't this our thinking when we read such as this? The old movies showed a great deal of it, but a camera can't capture the odors, the heat or cold, the pouring rain, the buzzing insects inside your wagon while you tried to sleep, or the choking dust. Those who dared either had a problem to escape--or they were our ancestors who had hopes and optimism.Optimism opened up the West. Very good, Celia

Anonymous said...

The hardships pioneers faced were incredible. Which each passing day on a wagon train a person didn't really know if it would be the last day of their life. What an interesting post Roberta!

Linda LaRoque said...

Hi Roberta,
I've always thought I'd like to experience life on a wagon train, the old tv series was one of my favorites years ago. Back then I might could have made it but today doubt I'd make it a day or two. It was a rough life, but people were a lot tougher than most of us are today. What would we have done if they hadn't had the courage to brave new fontiers?

Tanya Hanson said...

Thanks for the great blog, Roberta. As a little girl, I always wanted to be a pioneer. But now I realize I am too big a baby to have survived LOL. And I can't even imagine undertaking the journey in long skirts and while having my, ahem, monthly visitor.

Kudos to all those great people who paved the way for us!