Conestoga horses: wagon gears and bells

No less interesting than lhe Conestoga wagons of which John Omwake had made such a detalled study in hls book, “Conestoga Six-Horse Teams ot Pennsylvania” are the Conestoga horses which were as distinctive as the wagons themselves.

As these great, heavy vehicles became more common as a means of transportntlon, at first between Lancaster and Philadelphia, and later between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, this particular breed of horse was developed to meet the special demands made upon them,
for strength, enddurance and intelligence. “It was indeed“, to quote Mr. Omwake, “an animating sight to see five or six well-fed horses, half covered with heavy bear skins, or decorated with gaudily fringed housings, surmounted with a set of finely-toned bells, thelr bridles adorned with loops of red trimming, as they moved over the ground. Wlth a brisk, elastic step they snorted disdainfully at surrounding objects, as if half-conscious of their superior appearance.”

Before the days of Conestoga wagons, early Pennsylvania settlers had used small, sure-footed riding horses which had great endurance and could go anywhere. Then as the land was cleared and roads and settlements were made, a large type of horse, capable of farm work and hauling heavy loads, was needed. The exact ancestry of these Conestoga horses, as they came to be called, is not easy to trace. Undoubtedly, the first settlers who arrived in Pennsylvania with William Penn brought with them farm horses from their English homes. Those emigrants who settled in the Conestoga Valley probably obtained their first stock of horses from their neighbors in Chester County and the vicinity of Philadelphia, who had settled there earlier.

Their horses were fed well, stabled comfortably and never overworked or abused, and… as the years went by, their descendants obtained powers seldom found in the horses of any other country and much surpassing the original stock.

Spans that pulled the heavily loaded wagons of merchandise over the Alleghany mountains varied from four to elght horses in length, wlth sometimes a ninth in slngle harness as a leader. They ranged from 16 1/2 to 17 1/2 hands high, with their bodies solid and bulky in proportlon. With the driver seated on the near wheel horse they made a picturesque sight, indeed. Their usual rate of travel was about 12 lo 14 miles a day.

The saddle on the rear left horse is described by Mr. Omwak as ”low, but ample, after the English type, having a rounded pommel and brass-bound cantle with rings to fasten packages. The skirt was quite long and square cornered, while the stirrups were of brass or iron, although later they sometimes had wooden ones with leather guards… The team was guided by a jerk line to the forward, or lead, horse.” The wagoner held his line, giving short jerks to turn the lead horse to the right, and a long pull to turn him to the left.

Of the friendly, almost human relationship between drivers and the horses of whom they were so proud, Mr. Omwake writes, “the wagoner also talked to his horses, and ‘haw’ and ‘gee’ meant ‘left’ and ‘right’ to Conestoga horses, as they have to horses all over the country since those old days.

“One old teamster would stand before his lead horse, ‘Bill’, and tell him what was expected of him, and ‘Bill’ would hang his head, and point his ears, and plainly promise to do his best. But when they stopped for breath at the top of a long hill, and the wagoners told them what good horses they were, they arched their necks and champed their bits proudly.”

A wagoner’s whip was a long, handsome affair which, although it could be cracked fiercely, was seldom, if ever, used to strike a horse. Made of leather, sewed to form a cylinder-like handle, which was filled solidly, the end was tapered and finished with a plaited leather cracker, tipped with a plaited, waxed thread. So perfect was the understanding between a wagoner and his team that he had no use for his showy whip. On the contrary, he could nod in his saddle at the end of a long day, and still find himself at his destination come nightfall.

No story of Conestoga wagons and their horses would be complete without a description of the bells which were suspended from arches above the shoulders of the horses. Usually these bells were of the open type and suspended from flat iron hoops, the round end of which pointed downwards and passed through eyes in the hames. The number and size of these bells varied, just as did the material from which they were made. Some were of welded or brazed iron, while others were of brazed bronze or brass, cast brass and turned brass. There are also many interesting variations in the shape, size and arrangement of these bells. One set, in particular, Mr. Omwake described as “ a chime of bells which consisted of eight bells mounted on a broad double strap or thiong, the bells spherical, varying from three inches in diameter to two inches, and giving a pleasant composite sound together. They are quite loud, and could, I think, have been heard a quarter of a mile away through the woods.”

Originally the purpose of these bells seems to have been to sound a warning to teams coming in opposite directions along the narrow roads. Often one wagoner helped a fellow traveler in distress, for which service the latter had to pay by the gift of his hame bells. It is said that often a wagoner in trouble would turn his teams sharply to the side and break off the tongue rather than to be pulled out of the ditch and thus loose the bells to his rescuer.

Wagoning was at its zenith around 1830, some 36 years after the completion of the Philadelphia-Lancaster turnpike. Then came the railroad, and with it the end of long distance freighting by wagon. For a time these wagoins were still used for shorter hauling, especially that between the farm and thge town. Finally, they were brought out only for election days and other special occasions in the life of the smaller towns. And now they are to be found only in the sheds of a few Lancaster County barns or in an occasional museum. But in their heyday there was no mre thrilling sight than a big white-topped Conestoga wagon, with its team of handsome horses.

(To be continued)