Conestoga Wagons, part 1 – how built & used, wagoneers, horses

In connection with the series of articles on the old Spread Eagle Inn, which appeared in this column in the Spring of 1950, the writer told of the picturesque scene along the old Lancaster Turnpike in the 1700’s and 1800’s, when the Conestoga wagon, with its broad wheels, rolled its leisurely way along. There was also “the Troy coach, swinging upon its leather springs and drawn by four prancing horses; the stage-wagon, or ‘Dearborn’, with the farmer going to and from the city market.”

And “interspersed with these vehicles of a bygone day were the large droves of cattle being driven from the green pastures of Chester county and of Lancaster county to the seaboard. This was the traffic that once made its way through the countryside that was later to become Radnor, Wayne, Strafford and their neighboring suburbs, both to the East and to the West.”

Of all this picturesque procession of vehicles travelling along the old Lancaster Turnpike, none was as purely of Pennsylvania origin as the Conestoga wagon, originating as it did among the Dutch farmers of the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster county, where lived the last of the Conestoga Indians.

Quite as remarkable as the wagons were the horses bred to draw them. According to L. E. V. Mitchell, author of “It’s a Pennsylvania Custom”, America has developed only three or four distinct breeds of horses, among them being the Conestoga. Now extinct, its ancestry, like that of the Morgan strain, is unknown. But it was “one of the first draft horses ever bred, solid, chunky, and possessing extraordinary endurance.”

Mitchell states that it is difficult to see how a better wagon than the Conestoga could have been devised for the general purpose it was intended to serve, and did serve from about 1750 to 1850. Its great, wide-tired wheels were made to stay up on soft ground, while the entire vehicle was designed to carry loads of from four to six tons over bad roads and through steeply banked streams.

Although these wagons were not all built exactly alike, there were certain features common to all Conestoga wagons that identified them as different from other covered wagons of the period. “The white top of the typical Conestoga wagon,” according to one historian, “dipped the center and flared out over the ends like an old fashioned lady’s bonnet, stretched over a dozen hickory bows fixed in sockets. The hempen cover measured 24 feet from end to end, and at the front and rear peaks it was eleven feet from the ground. Lashed down at the sides and drawn together at the ends, it protected the contents of the wagon, which was generally loaded to the hoops, from dust and rain.”

The wagon bottom was cleverly built to dip toward the middle “in boat fashion” to prevent the load from shifting against the ends when steep grades were negotiated. “Indeed”, writes Mr. Mitchell, “a Conestoga wagon without its top rather resembled a dory on wheels.” On the left-hand side of the wagon was the “slant-lidded tool box with ornamented iron hinges.” Above this was the “lazy board”, which pulled out like a shelf from the side. On this board the driver could ride either sitting or standing. The feed box which hung across the rear end could be detached and placed on the pole for the horses to eat from when they were unhitched. And every wagon carried a water bucket and a tar bucket.

Picturesque indeed must have been these wagons as they rolled along the old highway. For those of us who must pause at any intersection for a break in the present steady stream of motor traffic along Lancaster avenue, it is interesting to envision the scene of only a little more than a hundred years ago. These slow moving Conestoga wagons, often travelling in long trains, with their big red wheels and their white tops, were often overtaken by the more speedy four horse stages. Although drawn by six strong draft horses, the loads on the wagons were usually so heavy that they necessarily travelled at a slower clip.

The nautical names, such as “inland ship”, “frigate” and eventually “prairie schooner”, had their origin in the appearance of “vast fleets of these white-tops rolling across the land”. There was indeed “something oceanic” in the spectacle. it has been estimated that some three thousand of them travelled the highway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the late 1700’s and the early 1800’s. And “as many as a thousand were to be seen at one time with their boat-shaped bodies backed up along Market Street, discharging and loading cargo”.

As the Conestoga wagons passed westward through what are now our pleasant suburbs of Radnor, wayne and Strafford and our neighboring communities, they usually carried textiles, hardware and other manufactured goods for settlers as far west as Pittsburgh. For the return trip they were loaded with furs, skins and farm products for the east. The men who drove the wagons “through the valleys and over the mountains” of our state were, according to Howard Frey, writing in “Pennsylvania, Songs and Legends”, a “dashing, roistering group of young fellows who enjoyed a glamour not unlike that which in a later era surrounded cowboys in the west.”

There were two classes of these wagoners – the “regulars”, whose only occupation was hauling freight, and the “militia”, who were farmers devoting part of their time to this work. By far the majority were Pennsylvania Dutch, though there were some of English and irish descent, and even a few Negroes among them.

Proud of their teams, their wagons and their work “these hard-bitten men, travel stained and bronzed by exposure, were toughened to the point of despising comforts”, according to Mr. Frey. And although for the most part they drank hard and steadily, this seldom interfered with their duties.

Their manner of obtaining their liquor is amusingly told by Mr. Frey when he writes, “They carried gimlet bits and little brown jugs, and stole their supply of whiskey from the barrels that made up part of the cargoes. Yet, paradoxically, some of them were so religious as to refuse to move their wagons on Sunday”.

(To be continued)