Conestoga Wagons, part 3 – classes of wagoneers, songs, Lancaster turnpike

Conestoga wagoners were a rugged lot who competed ruthlessly among themselves for the business of the road and the right-of-way. Yet the majority were honest, industrious and thrifty, loyal to the traditions of their calling. They were proud of their teams, their wagons and their work. It is said that many of them refused shelter from the weather themselves if their teams had to remain unsheltered.

Among themselves they held to a code of courtesy as evidenced by the fact that when they stopped at wagon stands on cold winter nights the younger men deferred to the older ones by giving them the best places near the fire in the “common” room. All slept on the floor on narrow mattresses of shoulder width which, with their blankets, they packed in their wagons while they were on the road. On pleasant nights they usually slept outdoors.

At the wayside hostelries the wagoners drank, sang and danced. Old Monongahela whiskey was three cents a glass, two for five, while a meal cost about twelve cents. They smoked long and somewhat rank cigars which sold four for a cent and were called “stogies” because of their popularity among Conestoga wagoners.

In the early days of the Turnpike, sharply defined lines were drawn between the various classes of wayside taverns. Those of the better class, such as the famous Spread Eagle of Strafford’s early days, were known as “Stage Stands”, those taverns patronized by wagoners and teamsters. Before the time when these hostelries of various types became frequent along the highway, travelers secured entertainment at private homes.

John Galt, an early historian, writing in 1738, tells us that in the house of the principal families in the County “unlimited hospitality formed a part of their regular economy. It was the custom of those who resided near the highways, after supper and the religious exercises of the evening, to make a large fire in the hall, and to set out a table with refreshments for such travelers as might have occasion to pass during the night. And when the families assembled in the morning, they seldom found their tables had been unvisited”. But inns soon became havens for the sojourner whether “he were farmer, drover, teamster or traveler, upon business or pleasure bent.”

Conestoga wagoners ordinarily wore plain suits of homespun wool, blue cotton shirts and broad-brimmed hats. For the most part they spurned underwear and stockings, their feet bare in their high leather boots or in their “stogy” shoes, so named for the wagons they drove. Since each teamster manned a vehicle hauling two to six ton loads, they were necessarily men of prodigious physical strength.

In “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends” the author of the chapter on “Conestoga Wagoners” writes “It is almost inconceivable that any man “for only one accompanied a wagon) could remove or replace the heavy endgate of a wagon with the rear wheels six feet high – to say nothing of loading and unloading the cumbersome barrels of merchandise.”

Among the wagoners’ feats of strength were these: lifting a hundred pound keg of nails out of the wagon by grasping the narrow edge of the keg between the fingers and thumb of one hand; unloading a six hundred pound barrel of molasses singlehanded; walking off with a half-ton of pig iron to win a wager; handling a 56-pound weight with the ease of a gymnast throwing a dumbbell; and lifting a wagon off its four wheels by lying under it and pushing upward with both hands and feet.

Some of these feats seem as fantastic in the telling and as unlikely as some of the tall tales exchanged around the blazing log fire in a wayside tavern. In addition to their story telling these wagoners were known as singers of ballads and drinking songs as they stood around the wayside barrooms.

To the accompaniment of fiddle, accordion or banjo they sang such favorites as “Little Brown Jug”, “Ach, du Lieber Augustine”, “The Arkansas Traveller”, “Turkey in the Straw” and many others.

In addition to singing their traditional ballads, wagoners made up their own songs to long familiar tunes. “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends” gives the texts of many of these new ballads, improvised from old ones, among them parodies on “Jordan Am a Hard Road to Trabbel”, “Lieber Heindrich” (Dear Henry) and “The Farmers’ Alliance”.

As these wagoners traveled beyond their native counties of York and Lancaster they swapped songs and stories with the people they met along the road, thus accumulating a vast store of folklore. Apparently no particular attempt was made to record this folklore while the original wagoners were still on the road. What has come down to us has been mostly through the memories of their sons and grandsons.

Even the original source of the name “Conestoga” is not clear, although it is supposedly the Indian equivalent of “Great Magic Land”. In a map of the lower Susquehanna valley dated 1665, there is a stream of water named “Onestoga”. There is also an early tribe of Indians designated as “Conestoga”, as well as a manor in Lancaster County. All these antedate the Conestoga wagon and the Conestoga horse which, according to tradition, were named for the section of Lancaster County where they probably originated. Even the Philadelphia – Lancaster turnpike was for a time called the Conestoga Road because it was the favored route of Conestoga freighters.

In 1792, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Company was chartered and two years later America’s first hard-surfaced road was completed, at a cost of $465,000. The route of the Turnpike was virtually that of the old King’s Highway, which at some points it paralleled and at others it crossed. Nine toll gates were set up along the route to collect from wagons and stage-coaches a specified toll, based on the number of horses and width of tires. By 1798 a nine arch limestone span bridge was finished over Conestoga River, thus completing the last mile of the new highway.

This new road “eliminated much of the hardship of travel – and some of its color, too”, to quote from “Pennsylvania Cavalcade”. Faster travel was possible and lighter vehicles came into popularity, “foreshadowing the doom of the massive Conestoga wagon”. Then in the middle of the nineteenth century canals presented a new method of transportation, and only a little later the first railroad between Philadelphia and Lancaster was in operation. The deep resentment of the teamsters over this encroachment on their domain was expressed in bitter fights in taverns between railroad laborers and teamsters.

But eventually it became plain to even the wagoners themselves that their wagons were superseded by the canal and the railway. It was then that the merry songs of this stalwart group were changed to this last unhappy one: “Oh, it’s once I made money by driving my team, but now all is hauled on the railroad by steam. May the devil catch the man that invented the plan, for it ruined us poor wagoners and every other man”.


For her information for this series of articles your columnist is indebted to “It’s an Old Pennsylvania Custom”, by E. V. Mitchell; “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends”, edited by George Korson; “Pennsylvania Cavalcade”, a Pennsylvania writers publication, and “The Wayside Inns on the Lancaster Roadside”, by J. F. Sachse.

Conestoga Wagons, part 2 – Teamsters, King’s Highway, “There will be bells”

“I’ll be there with bells!” How many among the readers of this column know that this expression originated 200 years or more ago among the drivers of Conestoga wagons along our old Lancaster highway?

How long the narrow trail had sufficed the Indians for their travels from their inland homes to the sea before increasing traffic made better roads necessary is a matter of conjecture. It was not until 1733 that the Governor and the Provincial Council recognized a petition by the Conestoga framers for a “King’s Highway”.

Acting on the petition, the Province ordered that a dirt road thirty feet wide be laid from the courthouse in Center Square, Lancaster, “until it fell in with the high-road in the County of Chester”, and so through to the High Street Ferry on the Schuylkill.

Thus was the narrow Indian trail transformed into the dirt road that was the early predecessor of our present 61 mile highway between Philadelphia and Lancaster.

As a matter of fact, this first dirt road was little different from the Indian trail except that it was wider. As late as 1773 tree stumps remained in the road, and for a long time there were no bridges across the streams. During much of the year the road was almost impassable in places. At best, Conestoga Wagons covered only 15 or 20 miles a day.

Often when two teamsters going in opposite directions met, one had to yield the high crown of the road to the other. Sometimes it required a fist fight to settle the matter of who should do the yielding. Eventually one driver often found himself in the ditch. No one ever offered to help him unless he asked for such help. On the other hand, none ever refused to give assistance when asked for it.

Once the request for help was given, the distressed teamster withdrew his own stalled horses to have them replaced by those of the rescuer. If the later was successful, he was rewarded by the gift of the bells from the other team. The unfortunate driver lost the right to use bells until he, in turn, had rescued another team in trouble. If a teamster arrived at this journey’s end with his bells intact, it was assumed that he had had no trouble along the way. And so the saying that is still a common one today, “I’ll be there with bells on.”

Of these early bells Howard Frey, writing in “Pennsylvania Songs and Legends”, says, “Much might be said about the attractive and musical brass bells that were suspended form the iron arch over the horses’ shoulders. The bell arches were ornamented. They were covered with bearskin or some other fur, or with black and red cloth tied with dangling, fancy ribbons. Six sets of bells were usual for a six-horse team, although many teamsters used only five sets because bells on the saddle horse interfered somewhat with driving. There frequently were five bells on the lead horses, four somewhat larger bells on the middle horses, and three still larger ones on the pole horses.

“It is not known just how these bells originated. We do know, however, that the lead horse in a train of pack horses carried a bell, probably to warn approaching persons to move to the side and make way for passing on the narrow dirt paths that led through the wilderness. There is no manufacturer’s name on these bells, and it s not known whether they were American-made or imported; nor does anyone know the significance of the customary 5-4-3 arrangement. The bells of different sizes produce not only noise, but music as well, and were among the proudest possessions of the wagoners.”

Other accoutrements in which the drivers of the old Conestoga wagons took pride were the bridle rosettes, pompons, ribbons and tassels. The rosettes were usually plain brass buttons which were made of horse hair or wood dyed red or blue, and were fastened to the bridle under the rosettes. Sometimes the hair of the horses’ forelocks was plaited with red, white and blue ribbons.

A blacksnake whip was an indispensible part of every wagoner’s equipment, thick and hard at the butt and tapering tot he end, to which was attached a plaited lash. these were the work of highly skilled saddlers. The harness was always the best that could be gotten, with particularly heavy sets for the larger teams.

As they travelled through the villages and Pike towns these caravans of wagons were a never failing source of interest to the inhabitants. At the sound of the Conestoga bells they came to their doorways to watch these wagoners as they drove from their “lazy board” or walked beside their teams. one large wagon alone with its six horses, stretched to a length of 60 feet. There were days in the 1700’s and 1800’s when the sparsely settled inhabitants of what is now Wayne and its neighboring suburbs could probably see several hundreds of these wagons pass in the course of a day, along what then was King’s Highway.

Another expression in addition to “be there with bells on” that stems back from the present to those early Pennsylvania days is, “Watch your p’s and q’s”. It originated when tavern keepers made a record of charges against their customers by wiring on a slate that was kept behind the tavern bar in full view of everyone who frequented the tavern.

“When a pint of whiskey was purchased on credit”, according to Mr. Frey, “the letter P was written on the slate, and when a quart was purchased, the letter Q was recorded. Some of the heavy drinkers would sometimes have too many P’s and Q’s entered back of their names, and the proprietor reminded them that their bills were getting too high by saying “Watch your P’s and Q’s.”

Still another expression that one hears occasionally in these days, though not as frequently as the other two to which we have alluded, is “Old Stuck in the Mud.” If it did not originate with these early teamsters, at least it was an epithet with which they often jeered one another when mishaps occurred along the 30 foot wide dirt highway.

A tale is told of one Abraham Witmer who in 1788 built a wooden toll bridge at Deering’s Ford, across the Conestoga River. When some of the wagon drivers tried to evade payment of toll by fording their heavy vehicles below the span they often found themselves in trouble. Not only did they have to forfeit their bells to the passing team that happened along in time to pull them out of the river mud, but they had to listen to Witmer’s ridicule and his shouts, ‘Old Stuck in the Mud’, don’t you wish now that you had paid toll?”

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)