The wagon trains first began heading west in the early 1820s with the opening of the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis. However, the emigrant trains to Oregon and California had their origins in the mid-1840s. It hit its peak during the 1850s following the California Gold Rush.
The Civil War came along and soon after it ended the transcontinental railroad was completed. There were still some wagon train emigrants, other transcontinental lines were completed over the next several years but most of the newcomers came by rail. The railroad companies had been awarded large land grants so they recruited large numbers of people from the U.S. and Europe to head west by rail and purchase land from them. That’s an interesting and relatively unknown part of western history. Some emigrants prospered while others found themselves on land useless for farming.
Oxen drove most wagon trains and almost all heavy freight wagons out west. Oxen were slower than horses, often pulling at about two mph, walking speed for a human; this relegated them to freight haulage, while horses and mules pulled passenger and mail coaches. A yoke of oxen cost about $25 in 1846 and $40-$60 during the California Gold Rush. Horses might cost $100-$150 and mules $75 during the peak freighting years from 1848 to the arrival of the railroads.
When the journey was 1,500 to 2,000 miles or over rough sandy or muddy roads the oxen endured better than mules. The ox was patient, durable, gentle and didn’t run off. Indians didn’t steal them as they weren’t for riding. Oxen would plunge through mud, swim over streams and dive into thickets. They would eat almost anything. Good beasts of burden but I wouldn’t place a bet on one in a horse race.
Freighting companies charged $8-$10 per 100 lbs to ship merchandise over the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. Freight wagons carried loads of up to 3 tons so the profits were considerable. During the 1850s Russell, Waddell and Majors made $300,000 on one trip hauling supplies for the Army. Teamsters made good wages. A wagon master could earn $150 a month and teamsters were paid $70-$75 at a time when wages were about $2 a day and a soldier earned $13 a month.
Attacks on large wagon trains were rare if ever, especially if an experienced wagon boss was in charge. He demanded discipline and always had a defense plan in case of an attack. Indians might attack a small train of two or three wagons but it was usually an ambush. Occasionally they would pay a social visit to the wagon train just to probe for weakness or lack of discipline. If they found it was well-defended they’d go looking for another prey.
Those covered wagons, or prairie schooners, whose billowing, white canvas tops made a wagon train look like a fleet of sailing ships cruising across a sea of grass is one of the most enduring symbols of the Old West. They transported thousands of families, five months, and across some 2,000 miles to the promised land of Oregon and California.
Depending on forage available and the time of year, wagon trains could have as many as 150-200 wagons but for practical reasons they divided up into sections. There was more forage on the northern trails but down in the Southwest where grass was scarce the trains might be a dozen wagons or less. Fifteen miles was a good day’s journey, but rain and mud could slow the train down. A rain-swollen river might delay the train for weeks.
Time was the real enemy, rather than Indians, as is so often depicted in movies. They had to leave Missouri late enough for the prairie grasses to provide feed for the livestock, yet they had to cross the westernmost mountains before the snows began to fall in October.
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.