With only a covered wagon to call home, pioneers braved the Oregon Trail.

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Covered Wagons of the Oregon Trail

It’s a familiar pioneer image: covered wagons rolling across vast prairie to Oregon Territory. But what was it like to call a wagon “home” for six months, traveling over two thousand miles of rough, roadless terrain? Pioneer diaries and letters tell us.

Your wagon must
“. . . be strong in every part and yet it should not be very heavy.”

Jesse Looney, 1843

Pioneers usually constructed their own small wagons, ten feet by four feet, with sides two and a half feet high. Hardwoods like oak or hickory made the best bottom or “box” of the wagon. Many people painted their wagons blue or green.

“Have your wagons well covered so they will not leak, or your provisions and clothes will spoil.”

S.M. Gilmore, 1843

One of the biggest jobs in preparing for the trip west was sewing canvas covers for the wagons. The covers stretched over curved bows or “ribs” of hickory and soon bleached white from the sun and rain. The covers also provided protection from bone-chilling prairie rain and the scorching desert sun.

“We intend to stop [at Fort Laramie] and repair our wagon wheels. They are nearly all loose.”

Mrs. George Donner, 1846

The most important part of the wagon was the running gear—the wheels, the wheel-connecting axles, and the tongues that the oxen were attached to. Early pioneers discovered that the running gear also gave them the most problems. Wheels shrank in the heat and swelled in the rain. Axles splintered. Tongues snapped in half when the animals turned sharply or lost their footing.

Lots of time, attention, and money was spent making or buying the best running gear possible. If something broke in the wilderness, it could mean disaster.

“The loading should consist of mostly provisions.”

Peter Burnett, 1843

Every inch of the wagon was filled. Guidebooks recommended five hundred pounds of food per person, including flour, beans, bacon, rice, dried fruit, and coffee. Bacon was packed in barrels, which were roped to the outside of the wagon.

Pockets sewn into the canvas cover bulged with flour and coffee beans. False bottoms in the wagons held tools and supplies. But the wagons weren’t nearly large enough to carry everything.

Families disagreed sharply on what few personal items to take. Some argued for clothing and extra wagon parts. Others insisted on taking beds, books, and stoves. Almost everyone took too much.

“In crossing the Platte River our end wagons worked downstream until we reached deep water and then rolled over and over, costing us much loss and trouble.”

John Staughton, 1843

Rivers presented a potentially deadly problem. If the river was deep, pioneers removed the wheels and floated the boxes across on log rafts. For shallower water, emigrants stuffed rags between the boards or sealed them with tar. Then they forded the river by fastening wagons together.

“A man named Smith had a wooden rolling pin that it was decided was useless and must be abandoned. I shall never forget how that big man stood there with tears streaming down his face as he said, ‘Do I have to throw this away? It was my mother’s. I remember she always used it to roll out her biscuits, and they were awful good biscuits.’”

Lucy Ann Henderson Deady, Age 11, 1846

Mountains, deserts, and the endless prairie took their toll on animals. Lightening the load was sometimes the only way to keep the exhausted animals going. Grandfather clocks, dishes, and trunks littered the Oregon Trail. At certain forts and crossroads stood piles of food, clothing, and furniture. Even small, treasured keepsakes were tossed out.

“Friday, Oct. 27. Arrived at Oregon City.
“Saturday, Oct. 28. Went to work.”

anonymous emigrant

Once the pioneers crossed the Blue Mountains, they fanned out in the Willamette Valley of the Oregon Territory. As each family claimed a piece of land, the wagons became living quarters while families raced to build log homes before winter set in.

Today, a few wagons survive in museums and historical exhibits. Each twisted tongue, broken board, and warped wheel tells a story of someone who journeyed westward in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail.