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The Covered Wagon Trails

Nothing contributed more to the success or failure of a Western wagon trek than the wagons that carried the pioneers across 2,000 miles of jolting wilderness. Pioneers needed wagons strong enough to haul people and supplies for five months or more. To outlast the rugged trail and months of wear, the wagon needed to be constructed of seasoned hardwood. Most pioneers used the typical farm wagon with a canvas cover stretched over hooped frames. A family of four could manage with a single wagon. It would be very tight on space since supplies would take up almost the entire space within the wagon. If they could afford it, many families took more than one wagon Most emigrants on the trail went West in their farm wagons, modified to take the punishment, while others bought rigs specifically built for the one-way journey.

The Covered Wagon Trails

A wagon had to be light enough to not over tax the mules or oxen that pulled it and strong enough not to break down under loads of as much as 2,500 pounds. For these reasons wagons were constructed of such hardwoods as maple, hickory and oak. Iron was used only to reinforce parts that took the greatest beating such as tires, axles and hounds. An emigrant wagon was not comfortable to ride in, since wagons lacked springs and there was little room to sit inside the wagon because most space was taken up with cargo.

The three main parts of a prairie wagon were the bed, the undercarriage, and the cover. BED = was a rectangular wooden box, usually 4 feet wide by 10 feet long. At its front end was a jockey box to hold tools.UNDERCARRIAGE = was composed of the wheels, axle assemblies, the reach (which connected the two axle assemblies), the hounds (which fastened the rear axle to the reach and the front axle to the wagon tongue) and the bolsters (which supported the wagon bed). Dangling from the rear axle was a bucket containing a mixture of tar and tallow to lubricate the wheels.COVER = was made of canvas or cotton and was supported by a frame of hickory bows and tied to the sides of the bed. It was closed by a drawstring. The cover served the purpose of shielding the wagon from rain and dust, but when the summer heat became stifling the cover could be rolled back and bunched to let fresh air in.

Pioneers faced a hefty climb up California Hill after crossing the South Platte River. Right after reaching the other side of the water, wagons had to drive up 240 feet in a little more than a mile and a half, leaving deep ruts up the hill that are still visible today. Almost everyone on the Oregon Trail had to take this route, and California Hill was the first major climb they encountered on the trail.

The tracks at Guernsey are among the most impressive remnants of Oregon Trail history. Almost every pioneer had to pass through the same spot here, going over soft sandstone. Over time, each wagon wore down the rock a bit more...and more...and more. The ruts eventually became five feet deep, and visitors can walk through them for a real pioneer experience. South of Guernsey is Register Cliff, where many pioneers carved their names into the rock to document their passage.

Along the freeway here, an Oregon Trail historic sign sits on a cliff face next to one of the final sets of wagon ruts along the route to Columbia. These stretch up a hill on the side of the road and go along the cliff for about a mile, leading to an impressive view of the Columbia River.

There were also Indian attacks. One wagon train was wiped out just a couple of miles from the route we traveled. That same band of Indians also killed an entire cavalry platoon sent out to protect the ill fated wagon train.

What amazed us as we rode the wagon across the countryside was how hilly it was. The tall prairie grass makes it look flat and smooth from a distance. Up close, it is a bone-jarring bumpy ride that constantly seems to be rising and falling.

Over coffee that morning, before the guests left their sleeping bags in their Tee-Pees, Carter told me he was looking for help in running his expeditions and thought a workcamping RV couple would be perfect to help drive the wagons, care for the horses, and prepare the meals. He has full hookups on his property. I promised to put the word out, which I just did.

This great little (half) wagon is designed like the wagons used as Trail Pups that were pulled behind chuckwagons for extra storage. This would be a great option for displaying produce and seasonal items for sale. If you would like information prior to purchase, call 605-996-8754.

Answer: We coordinate shipments of large freight items - such as our wagons, carriages, and coaches - within a network of private carriers so that your freight is safely transported to your destination without transfer. These are usually coordinated as partial loads in order to save costs, so it can take anywhere between 2 days to 2 weeks to find a ride. They will be transported in enclosed vans that vary from "U-Haul" size box vans to full 53' semi trailers. Contact us for more information and freight quotes. You may also arrange your own shipping through

Journalist Rinker Buck wanted to find out. He and his brother Nick hitched a covered wagon to mules and set off to retrace what's left of the westward path traveled by thousands of 19th-century pioneers.

One of my sisters says that Nick was "born out of century." We would have problems with the harness where it was rubbing the mules; Nick would pull out some used leather that we had and repair the harness. The wheels would break; he came up with incredibly imaginative solutions to fixing that. ... I call him one of the great team drivers of his generation. And he is. So when we got to these very rough parts, where it was very perilous to get the wagon up and down the mountains, Nick was great at the driving.

The trip was an adventure in discovering myself relative to my brother, and how many foibles you bring along from your old life that you realize when you're on a covered wagon trip crossing the entire Oregon trail you don't need.

The documents reprinted in Covered Wagon Women provide information about an important era in American history through the eyes of participants; that the perspective is that of women, who are still often left out of the narrative of the American West makes these diaries all the more important as a resource. These diaries and letters contribute greatly to our understanding of life on the overland trails, and they deserve our full and careful attention.

The journey was not always safe, and many would die along the way. The Booth family lost their three-year-old daughter Emma on their journey from Wisconsin to Colorado when she fell out of the wagon and was killed.

Covered wagons would be so full of items that there would be no room for riding. Adults or older teens would drive the wagons while the rest walked. They would walk at least seven to ten miles a day during their journey. When they stopped to make camp, everyone had a job to do. Younger children would often look for fuel sources such as wood and bison chips. Bison chips were dried bison poop and made an excellent fuel source if no wood was to be found- which was often the case on the plains. Water had to be hauled in buckets from nearby creeks or rivers, and laundry could be washed if the travelers planned on being in the area for more than a day.

authors thedecline ofmorale among Indians in the thirty yearsbetween the twoversions. Now, tobe fairabout it,theauthors acknowl edge that these are their own "late-twentieth-cen tury 'reading' " (p. 139) Surely, however, they could have done better with thisstory, stillknown atWarm Springs, one that really does express traditional American Indian concernswith learn ingand personal growth. Having discovered "The Deserted Boy,"why did theynot take itsversions inhand and go asking for"inside" commentary on them from some of their Warm Springs in formants? It ispreciselywhen the authors do begin to interrogatetheirsubjectsand leaveoffpronounc ingon them thattheirbook comes alive and be comes accountable and informative.This hap pens inmost of the extended interviewswith Warm Springs residentsthattheyoffer. To be sure, onemight question thevalue of includinga piece on a retired Anglo physicianwith no connections to the situation at Warm Springs except thathe is a reformed alcoholic who fishes theDeschutes; and one might also fairlyaskwhy there are no interviewsherewith elders, teenagers,or Tribal officials. Yet, the well-edited self-portrayals of in dividuals such as school principal Dawn Smith, "expatriate" graduate student and storyteller Brent Florendo, chief of police (and poet) "Stoney" Miller, and Foster Kalama ? artist, coach, andWarm Springs liaison officerfor Ma dras schools?are livelyand insightful,convey ingtheauthorityof "insiders"talkingabout them selves in theircommunity.As such, thesepieces partlymake up for the shortcomings of the rest of thebook. But only partly. Covered Wagon Women, vol. 10, Diaries and Lettersfrom the Western Trails, 1879-1903 Edited by Kenneth L. Holmes, with an introduction by ElliottWest University ofNebraska Press, Lincoln, 2000. Photographs, index. 288 pages. $13.00 paper Covered Wagon Women, vol. 11, Diaries and Lettersfrom the Western Trails, 1869-1903 Edited by Kenneth L. Holmes, with an introduction by Katherine G. Morrisey University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2000. Photographs, maps, bibliography, index. 205 pages. $13.00 paper. Reviewed by David M. Wrobel University of Nevada Las Vegas These two fine volumes conclude the University ofNebraska Press's reprinting of thelate Kenneth L.Holmes's indispensableCov ered Wagon Women series,firstpublished by the ArthurH. Clark Company (1983-1993).The ready availability of theseworks once again for class room adoption and for a general readership is welcome indeed. The seriesbegins in 1845with theearliest lettersand diaries ofwomen journey ing westward and uses 1890 as thecutoffdate for inclusion of accounts (although one latersource, Anna Hansberry's letterfrom 1903,closes thefi nal volume). The elevenvolumes in the series to gethercontain approximately one hundred travel accounts, ranging in lengthfroma fewpages to asmany as fifty.It isa remarkable catalogue of a 134 OHQ vol. 104, no. 1 half-century ofwomen's voices from the trails detailingculturalencounters,social life, landscape, and climate. Social historians, western histori ans, and scholars of women, the family, gender, and race relationswould alldo well to reconsider these works or toconsider themforthefirsttime. What ofparticular importancedo thesefinal twovolumes offer? What issignificant aboutwest ward journeying inthe late1870sand 1880s? Trav elingwas certainly easier in thisperiod than it had been inprevious decades, as evidenced by the experience of Mrs. Hampton and her family. The Hamptons leftEdwards County, Kansas, in the fallof 1888but aftertwomonths abandoned the trailat Fossil, in westernWyoming, aswinter set in.They loaded theirwagon and team onto a freighttrainand themselvesonto a passenger train to theirfinal destination? Portland, Oregon. Supplies and comfortable lodgingswere readily available along thetrails by thistime.By the1880s, emigrantswere more likelyto comment on In dian reservation life than on "Indian dangers" (whichhad been enormously exaggerated inear lieraccounts). Travelers could literally follow the railroad tracksfor much of theirjourney.Even if theychose not to or could not affordto take the train, most of these lateremigrantswere in sight of "civilization" much of the time. Yet those parallel realitiesof coveredwagon women journeying insightof"Pullman pioneers" in theirpalatial railroad cars are, as Elliott West emphasizes inhis introductiontovolume 10,part of thewonder of this transitionalperiod. These were not by anymeans the lastmigrants, not even the lastEuropean American migrants, to venturewestward in search of promised lands. (It is worth remembering that more homesteads were taken up between 1900 and 1920 than be tween 1862 and 1900.) They were the last such western homeseekers to record theirexperiences in largenumbers during the journey,however? the lastto consciously view themselves,forbetter or worse, as part of the "frontier movement." Two years...


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