Tumbleweed Wagons

Tumbleweed Wagons

A tumbleweed wagon was a jail on wheels used to take prisoners to a more permanent jail or prison. They called em “tumbleweed wagons” because like their namesake, the Russian thistle, they seemed to wander aimlessly across the territory picking up bad guys.

These deputies with the wagons had to deal with some nefarious bad boys and had to be every bit as rough and tough as the outlaws they transported. Out of some 200 deputies sixty-seven died in the line of duty.

The wagons were popular in the 1870s and 1880s before the railroads were criss-crossing the territories. In the Indian Territory in what later became Oklahoma U.S. deputy marshals like the storied Bass Reeves would take a wagon or maybe even a caravan of barred wagons and make their rounds picking up prisoners and hauling them to Fort Smith for trial before Judge Isaac Parker, the famous “hanging judge.”

The wagons might be out two or three months. The prisoners would be chained to the floor. They made camp at night and the most dangerous would be chained to a tree or one of the wagon wheels. This caravan would also have a chuck wagon and cook a remuda for the deputies and teamsters for the other wagons. Depending on the “cargo” there might also be extra deputies.

Much like a circus train they created quite a spectacle as they passed through town as locals would gather along the street to get a look at the prisoners. One can imagine mothers warning their sons of what might be in store for them if they didn’t mend their ways.

What do you think?

Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu or Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327.