Twice in December, I came home from work to have my husband explain we would leave for Kansas the next morning (family emergencies). It’s about 2000 miles round trip. Our ‘luggage’ consisted of clothes. Period. Sure, we had the extra pair of shoes, boots or coat, our bathroom necessities, and one or two other things, such as cell phones, my laptop and my husband’s pillow. (He goes no where without it.) But we didn't need to worry about food. Anytime we were hungry we could pull into a restaurant and eat. Nor did we worry about ‘fuel’ for our car, because that too was simply and exit away. When we arrived at our destination, we checked into the hotel room we had reserved in advance…
Let’s turn back the clock to a woman whose husband came home one day and informed his family--come spring they would head west. If the husband was an ‘established business man’, the wife may have had a life of leisure up to this point. Meaning, she may have had help with the household chores, which might have provided her with time to tend to a rose garden or have tea with her lady friends. If the husband was a laborer or farmer, the wife most likely not only worked the fields with him, she managed her household single-handedly as well.
It would have been her job to pack the necessities for the long trip, while her husband secured their passage. Conestoga wagons were actually far and few when it came to wagon trains. The original Conestoga’s were freight hauling wagons. It took six to eight horses or up to a dozen oxen to pull one wagon. The floors of a Conestoga wagon were curved upward to keep the cargo from tipping or slipping, and these wagons could haul up to 12,000 pounds.
Some Conestoga wagons were used to for the California Gold Rush, but by the time the migration wagon trains were happening, most wagons were Prairie Schooners. The name came about because some thought the white canvas tops crossing the prairies looked like sail boats crossing the ocean. Schooners were average farm wagon with arched, wooden bows holding the canvas stretched from side to side. Conestoga wagons had suspension, Schooners did not. The ride was usually so rough, people chose to walk. Schooners were pulled by mules or oxen. (Horses weren’t sturdy enough to make the trip.) If oxen pulled the wagon, a drover or teamster walked on the left side of the oxen, shouting commands or cracking a whip. If mules were used, they were harnessed and driven by someone sitting on the wagon seat.
The woman would have had to decide what to take west. She may have created a list of things to sell or giveaway before the trip, and to begin with she may have insisted on frivolous things, such as furniture. As space began to dwindle, she’d realize the importance of the basics—food. Dried meat, beans, coffee, flour, salt, a cow to be milked, and the necessities needed to prepare the foods, feed the animals, and aid their travels. (Tools.)
The trails west were littered with furniture…the family rocking chair, or generations old desk, things that at one time had been treasured, became dead weight that needed to be discarded. Crosses decorated the trails as well. Friends, family members, children, wives , husbands and animals. At one time it was said there were so many dead and decaying oxen carcasses one simply had to follow the smell all the way west. For years, the bleached white bones did serve as trail markers.
The trail was long and full of hardships, (way to many to briefly mention), but men, women and families prevailed, and arrived at their destination intact.
Yet, their work was far from over. Many of the trains arrived west in late summer or fall, which meant winter arrived before many of the homes did. Dugouts and/or hand dug basement were often utilized that first winter. Come spring, there was also land to clear and gardens to plant. Farmers and miners were the most common occupations of wagon train travelers. If the husband was a farmer, it was most likely the wife was out clearing the fields along with him. If he was a miner, she probably would have cleared the ground for her garden herself.
My trips took a few days each time, the pioneer’s, several months, but that’s really the only comparison I can make. After all, mine were simple, modern day ‘trips’, theirs were lifelong journeys.