Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Conestoga Wagon: Wisdom of the Pioneers

The Conestoga Wagon, 1883.
I love this painting! Such great detail! 

The lightweight and multi-purpose Conestoga wagon was a vital form of transportation in the Eastern United States. These popular covered wagons were used in the Conestoga Valley of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and surrounding frontier areas for over one hundred years. They were introduced to the states by German settlers beginning in the early 1700s and used to transport military supplies during the war of 1812. 

These wagons slowly made their way into the American West for use by merchants and, again, the military for a logical reason--the sophisticated design prevented contents from slipping and the wagon from tipping. 

Anatomy of a Conestoga Wagon

The Conestoga Wagon was practical for its most common use, which was to transport merchandise. The wagon was shaped like a boat with a sloping front and rear construction to keep contents from tumbling to the ground while climbing steep roads in the Appalachian valleys. It was a large, lumbering vehicle weighing close to a ton with a fourteen-foot under body painted blue, nineteen-foot upper body painted red, and a 16 foot by four foot by four foot bed.

In The Expressmen, David Nevin states that the size of these wagons actually varied according to their purpose. For instance, if the wagon was used to haul "fast" or light freight it was smaller and had a one ton capacity inside, but if the wagon was used to transport mining machinery it was larger and referred to as a "10-tonner." He does state that most of the wagons were the same size, though, an average size that could serve many purposes, capable of hauling a maximum of between five and seven thousand pounds.

The wagon was crafted with hand tools using white oak and poplar woods. Heavy, wooden ribs stretched from side to side forming a cage. the bows were often made of Hickory wood and fitted into sockets on both sides of the wagon.

The white cloth canopy spread across the bows was water-proofed with linseed oil. During the early years of Conestoga Wagon construction the canopy was made of hemp cloth, but through the years these canopies were replaced with canvas as it was found to be a more durable fabric. The front and rear of the canopy was tied shut for privacy.

Interior of a Conestoga Wagon. Note the wood ribs and tipped bed. 
This Conestoga Wagon was used by George Fleck to move his family to western Pennsylvania.
The wagon is on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pennsylvania. 

There was often a chain gate at the end of the wagon used to both secure the merchandise and keep it from tumbling out the back when the wagons moved uphill, as well as make it easier to unload the merchandise. This was particularly important when the wagons were used to transport large loads of merchandise between towns.

The Conestoga Wagon also had a toolbox at the front for repairs. Inside the toolbox was a special jack used to raise the wagon so the driver could change or fix a broken wheel. There was also a grease bucket tied to the back to grease the axles and wheels.
The driver of a Conestoga generally walked alongside to lead the horses or rode the left wheel horse, but this particular wagon was also designed with a small seat known as a lazy board where the rider could guide the horses when moving at high speeds.

Researcher David Nevin states clearly in The Expressmen that drivers who used whips never used them on animals. Whips were snapped alongside animals to keep them attentive and moving. Animals used to haul wagons were valuable and necessary, and a skilled, intelligent driver would never harm an animal with the use of a whip.

According to the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, a Conestoga Wagon generally cost around $250. The horses or oxen used to pull the wagon were an additional expense.

In the horse versus oxen debate, horses generally won. 
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

Horses vs. Oxen

In The Pioneers, researcher and author Huston Horn explains how emigrants often debated the advantages of using horses or oxen to pull wagons. Depending on the amount of merchandise loaded in the wagon, between four and twelve horses were required to pull it along, but two to four oxen could complete the same task.

Although fewer oxen could be used, horses were faster and required less food and care during the trip. On the other hand, horses could easily be stolen when used for long distance travel. Their harnesses were removed and they were allowed to graze then tied to posts, and horse thieves could easily untie them and quickly run off. Nevertheless, horses generally won in the horse versus oxen debate.

An article on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website explains that horses chosen for use with the Conestoga Wagons were a unique breed, a cross between Flemish draft horses and Virginia mares. These horses were eventually named Conestoga Horses after the area in Pennsylvania where they were bred. They were most often black, stood five feet tall, and were perfect for use in the crowded cities as well as on country roads because they were remarkably calm. There was also a dappled gray Conestoga Horse believed to be a cross between Suffolk Punch or Chester Ball strains.

Conestoga Horses cost between $170 and $200. When they were used to pull the Conestoga Wagons they were decorated with elaborate head and forelock gear and even pom poms. They looked quite showy as they marched through towns and villages. The wagons were also decorated with brass or iron bells to add to the show. Sadly, Conestoga Horses are now considered extinct.

Meeting the Needs of Merchants

The Conestoga wagon played an important role in early American commerce, transporting loads of goods as heavy as eight tons across the Allegheny Mountain Range of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to merchants on the frontier, and returning with equally full loads of frontier products for town merchants to offer for sale.

In The Expressmen, David Nevin states that the Conestoga Wagon design was the model used for all other designs of American freight wagons that came later. Eventually, the popular Conestoga Wagon was replaced by the lightweight Prairie Schooner as transportation needs changed when pioneers migrated long distances into the American West as the Prairie Schooner was more practical for transporting families and households.


  • Horn, Huston. The Pioneers. The Old West. Time Life Books. Canada: 1976.
  • Nevin, David. The Expressmen. The Old West. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
  • "The Conestoga Wagon.” The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Retrieved March 8, 2009.


Anonymous said...

Great information and are we not glad the early pioneers
had the courage to undertake this journey

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Yes--it must have been a difficult and somewhat frightening decision!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...