Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Prairie Schooner: Wagons Built for Pioneer Travel

I often daydream about what it would be like to be a pioneer in the 1800s. I know it would be nothing like the life described in contemporary romance novels, but the hardships and painful decisions facing pioneers are what interest me most, and many of these decisions involved travel. 

Go West Young Man! 

"Go West young man!" American newspaper editor Horace Greeley declared, and many young men complied, taking their families with them. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the 1862 Homestead Act sent many daring souls on a 2000 mile adventure into the west, and their primary choice of transportation for pioneer families and fortune hunters was a practical one: a cloth-covered wagon called the Prairie Schooner.

The Prairie Schooner. Line drawing by Pearson Scott Foresman/Public Domain.

According to David Nevin's The Pioneers, the Prairie Schooner covered wagon earned its name from its visual resemblance to the Schooner sailing vessel. To understand the need for a different style of wagon it helps to make a comparison. The Conestoga Wagons used most often in the Eastern United States and by merchants and the military long before the pioneers made their mass expansion into the West was heavier and wider. The Prairie Schooner had a flat body and lower sides. It not only carried the family's belongings, it also served as a shelter at night for sleepy children.

In fact, the Prairie Schooner was considerably lighter than the Conestoga Wagon, which allowed for fewer oxen or mules to pull it along, generally only two or four. It could also be created from the family wagon sitting in the barn, and often was created from the family wagon, which made it economical, as well.

Strength and Durability in Design

The Prairie Schooner was strong enough to transport the family’s most precious belongings and supplies because the wagon was generally made from hard woods such as maple and oak. According to the Historic Oregon City wagon design page (and I highly recommend a quick visit to this page), the bed of the wagon was made as waterproof as possible in case there was a need to "float" the wagon across rivers.

Hickory ribs were positioned along the frame to hold a cloth canopy in place and fit into sockets on both sides of the wagon bed. The canopy was tied in front and back for privacy and protection from dust and rain.

Some parts of the Prairie Schooner, such as tires and axels, were reinforced with metal fittings, but the primary goal was to keep the weight down so the draft animals would not wear out on the journey.

There was a box at the front of the four foot wide by ten foot long body where tools were kept for repairs, such as a jack to raise the wagon to repair broken wheels. A bucket dangled from the back where grease was kept to lubricate the wheels. There was also a water barrel and chicken coop on the side for easy access.

How Pioneers Packed for the Trip

Most travelers packed light to ease the burden on the animals, and supplies for the journey took precedence over all else. A Dutch Oven, three-legged skillet and coffee pot were considered vital for food preparation and room was also needed in the wagon to transport food required for the trip. Bedding and a minimal amount of clothing was packed in the wagon, as well as firearms for personal protection.

First aid kits including liniments, bandages and surgical supplies were included, as well as candle molds, lanterns, and sewing supplies. Clocks, furniture, jewelry and China were considered less important, included if there was room, and discarded along the road when the trail was too steep or the animals tired.

Model of a prairie schooner, 1845, in the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. 
Note the family walking alongside the wagon.

Use and Care of a Prairie Schooner

The driver of the wagon guided the animals by walking alongside the conveyance. "Westward Ho!" The Real West explains that many of the pioneers who traveled across the country did so on foot in order to lessen the load.

The elderly, sick, small children and utterly exhausted walkers could occasionally take refuge inside as the cloth canopy provided a small amount of shelter from rain, dust, and the sweltering sun, but this was not a common practice--the heavier the load, the heavier the burden on the draft animals.

If the driver used a whip, it was only to urge the draft animals along (and as an animal activist, this information certainly made me happy!). Whips were not used on the animals as they could harm the animals, and draft animals were expensive and vital to the survival of the family.

Difficult Decisions for Pioneers Regarding Property

The Prairie Schooner’s overall construction was designed based on lessons learned from the use of its predecessor, the Conestoga Wagon. The Prairie Schooner's heavy tires were designed to withstand the rocks and ruts on the pioneer trails and the burdens of a heavy load. Eventually, however, many pioneers were faced with the decision of lightening the load as their animals grew weary from the long journey.

Huston Horn's The Pioneers tells of trails littered with the priceless family heirlooms tossed from the back of wagons as travelers were forced to choose between transporting their food or their furniture so they could keep up with the rest of the wagon train.

Although these decisions must have been heart-wrenching, pioneers realized they needed to make wise decisions on what to toss and what to keep in order to lessen the load in the wagon and complete their trip safely and within a reasonable amount of time, thus avoiding dangerous weather.


  • Horn, Huston. The Pioneers. The Old West. Time Life Books. Canada: 1976.
  • Nevin, David. The Old West: The Pioneers. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
  • “Westward Ho!” The Real West. The History Channel. Aired June 9, 2008.
  • "Wagons." Historic Oregon City: End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Retrieved April 17, 2009.


Anonymous said...

There is an advertisement on the left side of the screen that covers some of the text. You can't move it or you can't delete it. Please report this to your website designer.

I did enjoy the article though, there were some words I that were covered up, for me.

Unknown said...

Did priair schooners cross rivers with their wheels on or were the wheels removed to enable them to float across? If they were removed, how was this done? Jon Moscow

hawkben62 said...

I have recently inquired about living on the land. Yeah, I like to go back to the old ways. I want to build my own wagon and some horses. Any pointers.

Anonymous said...

it was helpful :)

Anonymous said...

it was helpful:)

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I was sent a message that was accidentally deleted. The question was: Did pioneers remove the wheels on wagons allowing wagons to float across lakes and rivers. I would say no. In order to do this they would have had to carry the loaded wagon down to the water, float it across, swim across with the wheels or place the wheels inside the already over-loaded wagon, then put the wheels back on while the wagon was still in the water in order to move the wagon back up onto the river bank.

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