Page images

white men was steadily pushed toward the west for geeration after generation the Conestoga wagon was always in the van of travel progress, always years ahead of the stage-coach, the steamboat, canal and railroad. The ruts that were dug deep into the soil by its wide and ponderous wheels were the marks that guided all other vehicle movement by land. Its career as one of the agencies by which white men conquered the continent came to a fitting end in the period between 1848 and 1869, when by its use the final migration across the western plains was accomplished, and there was no longer any West to which it might continue.

The travel conditions which confronted the early inhabitants of Pennsylvania were in several respects different from those faced by the other colonists. There was no considerable seacoast that permitted movement from one part of the commonwealth to another by means of sailboats, the interior was not sprinkled by lakes or traversed by many rivers of the placid and navigable type found in other parts of the country, and much of the colony's extent was rough or mountainous. Necessity forced its people to resort to land travel for journeys of consequence, and to that circumstance was due the widespread use of the pack-train within its limits, and its early efforts to solve the problems of the roads. To necessity can also be attributed the creation of the Conestoga wagon, which, though at first evolved to fit conditions in the neighborhood of its origin, was speedily adopted, with slight modifications, for all long overland migrations and heavy traffic throughout the country.

The precise reason for the name of the vehicle is uncertain. A breed of very heavy horses had already been developed in the valley of the Conestoga, and had com

[graphic][ocr errors][subsumed]


54.-An overland wagon of the Conestoga type approaching Baltimore. busy roads such vehicles were frequently seen in trains

half a mile or more in length.

manded wide notice. Probably the wagon was first built in the same region,' or else acquired its name from the type of horse with which it was no doubt associated in its earliest days. A Conestoga wagon was a huge affair, very heavily built, with a bed higher at each end than in the middle, and topped by a dull-white cloth cover which had a similar curve of still more pronounced degree. The wagon bed was constructed in concave shape in order that its contents might not spill out when it was going up or down hill. Still another distinguishing characteristic of the conveyance was its color. The underbody was always painted blue, and the upper woodwork was invariably bright red. This chromatic scheme was as inevitable for every Conestoga wagon as though it had been prescribed by law with a penalty for refusal so to decorate."

1 Lancaster county.

No sooner was a road made fit for vehicles than the Conestoga wagon appeared upon it, sometimes in solitary grandeur as its owner and his family and household goods moved slowly over hill and valley toward a new home to the westward; sometimes in immense and brilliant caravans that stretched for miles along the highway. There was a majesty in their slow progress. The rumble of their enormous wheels as they lurched onward behind horses caparisoned with almost barbaric splendor, the creaking of harness and their swaying tops conveyed to the beholder a sense of power. They told of an advance that would know no retrogression. They were the frigates of the land. A description of such famous and distinctively American vehicles at the height of their popularity and usefulness,' as set forth by an authority on the subject, is given in the following passage :3

"The capacious wagons which the Conestoga farmers then had in use,” said the narrator, “were the best means of land transportation which the times and circumstances of the country then afforded. These wagons and teams attracted attention and commanded admiration wherever they appeared; and hence the origin, as I conceive, of the horse and wagon to which the appellation of 'Conestoga' has been attached. ... The harness was constructed of the best materials, with an eye to show as well as utility. In the harness and trimmings of these teams the owners frequently indulged in expenses that approached to extravagance. ... It was, indeed, an animating sight to see five or six highly fed horses, half covered with heavy bear skins, or decorated with gaudily fringed housings, surmounted with a set of finely toned bells, their bridles adorned with loops of red trimming ... as if half conscious of their superior appearance, and participating in the pride that swelled the bosom of their master.”

In the course of time tens of thousands of Conestoga wagons' rumbled over all the main roads of the country, serving the emigrant, the traveller whose time did not demand the express speed of a stage-coach, and conveying a large part of the freight that moved between cities not connected by water. The driver of a Conestoga rode on a wheel horse, and he and those with him carried their own bedding, which they spread out on the floor of the public room in the tavern where they halted for the night.

1 The gaudy painting of the Conestoga wagon was another manifestation of the ten. dency of the time toward bright color and vivid decoration.

2 About 1800 to 1815.

The quotation is from John Strohm's account in the United States Agricultural Report for 1863: p. 178.

The slow progress that the country was making in its use of private travel vehicles during the early years of periodic transportation is illustrated by the fact that in the year 1761 there were but thirty-eight wheeled conveyances in Philadelphia. Their several types and numbers were: three coaches, fifteen chaises, eighteen chariots and two landaus. By 1772 the people of the town owned eighty-four vehicles, and in 1794 they had eight hundred and twenty-seven.

There were twenty-two privately owned wheeled vehicles in Boston in 1768, and 145 like equipages in 1798. Similar figures for other communities do not appear, but the advancement of various important cities in the respect indicated was doubtless substantially parallel with the cases cited.

Throughout the eighteenth century, as well as in the seventeenth, the winter season continued to be a favorite time for travel. The scarcity of wheeled wagons of various sorts was not reflected in the use and popularity of sleds. Every family had one or more of them, and the discomforts due to cold weather and biting gales were much preferred to the troubles that attended a journey at any other time. In thickly settled parts of the country, during the frost months, a wayfarer in a sleigh was rarely out of sight of equipages similar to his own. Many hundred horse-drawn sleds were to be seen in the streets of any town on a clear winter day,' and long-extended travel was undertaken in them.” A large proportion of the snow craft were home-made, box-like affairs, but like everything else of the period to which paint would cling they were highly seasoned with all the essences of the rainbow.

1 Those that travelled between the East and Pittsburgh were often called “Pitt Teams," though they were identical with the Conestoga.

1 Henry's "History of the Lehigh Valley”. (Pa.) says five hundred sleds were either standing in the streets of Easton or passing through them at one time.

; Daniel Websier sometimes went between his New Hampshire home and Boston in a sleigh.

« PreviousContinue »