Western Farms to City Markets and Back: The Conestoga Wagon in Early America.
Updated: Feb 16
During the mid-to-late 1700's, the Appalachian Mountains were the beginning of the frontier. Following the French and Indian War, and again after the American Revolution, a steady stream of people, military land warrants in hand, left the Colonies on the eastern seaboard and set out to build new lives on the Frontier. Augmented, following the American Revolution and into the 19th Century, by recent immigrants from Europe who were arriving at ports such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, the frontier quickly pushed west into Kentucky and the Ohio, Indiana and Illinois country.
As these folks began farming the fertile soils they found there, it became increasingly important to be able to move the crops they produced to the markets in the Eastern cities, and to bring manufactured and imported goods from the cities and ports of the East back to the people living in the interior. While rivers such as the Ohio, Kentucky, Allegheny, and the Monongahela served to transport goods over long distances on the frontier, transporting eastern goods and western crops back and forth across the mountains and into areas away from large rivers proved a challenge.
Later, in the early 1800s, as places such as Pittsburgh became the staging hub for people in their trek west, the need for a reliable and efficient method of moving freight across the mountains became more critical. For over 100 years, the Conestoga wagon filled that need and came to symbolize the growth and expansion of Colonial America and the Early Republic.
THE CONESTOGA WAGON
If you’ve watched a lot of Westerns with scenes of covered wagons moving across the great prairies, you may think those are Conestoga Wagons. While those “prairie schooners” are similar, they are not Conestoga Wagons. In fact, the Conestoga Wagon is the forerunner of those 19th century prairie schooners, which were smaller, lighter, and usually drawn by oxen. In truth, the true Conestoga wagon was too heavy for use on the prairies.
The Conestoga wagon originated during the 18th century in the Conestoga Creek region of Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. Carrying up to 12,000 pounds (6 tons) of cargo, it was the tractor-trailer of the colonial and early-republic period. They hauled everything- general merchandise for stores, flour and wheat, produce, spices, tea and teapots, military clothing, nails, gunpowder, glass, pottery, iron ore, pig iron, charcoal, whiskey, tobacco, and flaxseed. In fact, in the spring of 1778 one of the wagons, guarded by a company of Continental soldiers, brought $600,000 in silver, a loan from the French government, all the way from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to York, Pennsylvania.
The Wagon’s Characteristics
Teams of 6-8 large “draft” horses, specially bred for the job, usually pulled these wagons, however, teams of 12 or more oxen were known to be used occasionally. The wagons were built with their floor curved upward at each end to prevent the contents from tipping and shifting. Including its tongue, the average Conestoga was 18 feet long, 11 feet high, and 4 feet in width. The diameter of the front wheels varied from forty to forty-five inches and the rear wheels ran ten to twenty inches larger. The wheels had a four-inch iron tire which was applied to the wheel when the iron was hot. When the iron cooled, shrinkage held the rim tightly into place. Wagoners had to remove these large, heavy wheels every hundred miles or so to grease the axles.
Tar caulked the seams in the body of the wagon to protect the cargo from water leakage while crossing rivers. A tough white canvas cover, stretched across hoops over the bed of the wagon, supplied protection against inclement weather. The frame and suspension were made of wood with water barrels built on the side of the wagon. Built-in toolboxes held tools needed for repair, and a feed box on the back of the wagon carried feed for the horses.
The design of these early freight wagons did not include a bench for riders. The wagon had a brake handle on the left side between the two wheels and a teamster either walked beside the wagon or could ride standing on a pull-out board, called a lazy board, which extended from the left side under the body and was pushed back under the carriage when not in use. This supplied access to the brake handle. Sometimes the teamster rode the left horse nearest the wagon, referred to as the wheel horse. A good driver had the ability to control his team by word of mouth, or by cracking his whip without hitting his horses. Because of the habit of “driving the wagon” from either the wheel horse or the lazy board, both on the left side of the wagon, it is said that the Conestoga wagon began the custom of "driving" on the right-hand side of the road in this country.
The most expensive cost of the Conestoga wagon was the iron work that was present on each wagon. Around 1770, Lancaster included among its craftsmen five wheelwrights, thirteen blacksmiths, seven turners, and twenty woodworkers along with ironworkers and storekeepers which kept busy with the production of the Conestoga wagons. In the 1770s, the building a wagon required about two months of work by a team of craftsmen and cost around $200-$250 when completed.
The Wagon’s History
Because the Conestoga is quite similar to some of the European wagons of the Middle Ages, some think that the design for these big wagons probably originated in the memory of German settlers, who modified Old World designs for use in the mountains of Pennsylvania. However, it is not certain whether German or English styles had the most influence on the Conestoga wagon. Judging from some early English wagons still in existence, some of these lines were followed. Even today some farmers from the Lancaster region often refer to the Conestoga type as "English wagons." Regardless of its origins, with its graceful boat shape of a body, deeply carved with raking ends so the load would settle toward the middle, it was perfect for mountain travel.
The first reference to a Conestoga wagon was in an Account Book, 1712-1719, owned by James Logan, secretary to William Penn, where he makes a reference to a Conestoga Wagon in 1717. Logan had set up an irregular freight wagon service between Philadelphia and the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster County using one wagon and, by the end of 1717, the fleet had grown to three.
Benjamin Franklin used the term Conestoga Wagon in 1734 when writing about a tavern:
11 Jul advertised: "John Hobart who lately kept the Sun Tavern in Water Street, Philadelphia, gives this Publick Notice to his Friends and others, that he is now removed to the Sign of the Conestoga Wagon in Market Street next Door to the White Horse." The proprietor kept "good Entertainment for Man and Horses at reasonable rates." Its "large Yard Room for Waggons and Cattle" made it a convenient place "for Killing and Dressing of Hogs" to be sold across the street at the shambles. Farmers often stayed there when bringing their livestock to market.
The traffic of Conestoga wagons continued to increase until 1775 when there were more than 10,000 wagons which made the trip to Philadelphia annually. Sometimes there were one hundred wagons on a single train. Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1787, described the Conestoga wagon:
"A large strong waggon covered with linen cloth is an essential part of the furniture of a German farm. It is pulled by four or five large horses of a particular breed, and will carry 2000 to 3000 pounds."
He also recorded that in September and October, the harvest period, "on the road between Philadelphia and the Valley you'll see 50 to 100 a day”. Their numbers increased year after year until 1830 when canals competed with them for freight hauling. The growth of the railroad also began to diminish the use of the Conestoga wagons over the nation's roads. Although the Conestoga wagon was no longer seen on the road, it was still in use on the farms of the Lancaster, PA area well into the twentieth century.
Hauling freight paid well. The rate of hauling freight in 1786 from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was five pence per pound. By 1820, rates charged had increased to one dollar per 100 pounds per 100 miles, with speeds about 15 mi per day due to better maintenance of roads on the major freight routes.
Freight haulers were divided into two groups, the “regulars” and the “sharpshooters”. The regulars, professional teamsters, were on the road constantly with their team and wagons and had no other pursuit than hauling goods and merchandise on the road. They worked long hours and bedded down with their teams in good weather or headed for a roadside tavern in inclement or winter weather. They were a hard drinking lot which were fond of dancing, card playing, and other unsavory pursuits. The sharpshooters were farmers who put their farm teams on the road in seasons when freight rates were high and took them off when prices of hauling declined. Jealousy existed between the two classes and one can imagine the sorts of confrontations that might come about between the two groups in the evening at the roadside Inns.
In colonial times, the Conestoga wagon was popular for migration southward to Virginia and North Carolina through the Great Appalachian Valley along the Great Wagon Road. In Canada, Pennsylvania German migrants who left the United States for Southern Ontario, used the Conestoga wagons settling various communities in Niagara Region, such as Kitchener, the Waterloo area, and the York Region (mostly in Markham and Stouffville)
THE CONESTOGA DRAFT HORSE
For pulling the heavy freight wagons the Conestoga horse, a special breed of medium to heavy draft horses like the Clydesdale, was used. The Conestoga Horse is the first actual horse breed developed in America. First seen in Pennsylvania between 1700 and 1730, these horses were not bred by any scientific system but by a process of natural selection. As generation succeeded generation a horse evolved that met the demands placed upon it by usage and the environment.
The earliest record of the horse that specifically mentions it by name, appears in "The Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports, Volume II," published in 1832. Under the heading "The American Horse," the author listed three breeds. These are the Canadian, the English and the Conestoga. Of the latter the writer states, "The Conestoga horse is found in Pennsylvania, long in limb and light in carcass, sometimes rising to 17 hands."
In the "Practical Farmer" (Cincinnati, 1842) Edward Hooper wrote: "The best model of the heavier kind of farmer's or wagoner's horse, is the Suffolk Punch. It strongly resembles the famous Conestoga horses from Pennsylvania. Although these references are late for our period, it is obvious from Benjamin Rush’s 1789 description of the German wagons and their teams, “of a peculiar breed”, that this breed of draft horse had been in existence for some time.
They stood an average of sixteen hands high and weighed as much as 1800 pounds. Since the Conestoga was never an established breed, and they could be of several colors. At the height of their popularity for freight hauling they cost an average of $250 up to $1000 per horse.
Today, the Conestoga Draft Horse is extinct. John Strohm in an 1863 Congressional Report predicted the demise of the Conestoga Draft Horse when he noted they would be relegated to oblivion by "modern inventions and recent innovations." In the early 20th century the Conestoga Horse disappeared.
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Bartram, W. (1832). The Cabinet of natural history and American rural sports, with illustrations, Volume II. Philadelphia: J. & T. Doughty.
Colonial Sense. (2019). The Conestoga Wagon. Retrieved from Colonial Sense: http://www.colonialsense.com/society-lifestyle/signs_of_the_times/conestoga_wagon.php
Dutson, J. (2005). Storey's Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998, July 20). Conestoga wagon. Retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/technology/Conestoga-wagon
Hooper, E. J. (1842). The Practical Farmer, Gardner and Housewife. Cincinnati: Geo. Conclin.
Richard Kurin, P. (2017, September 6). The Conestoga Wagon: The Road Westward. Retrieved from The Great Courses Daily: https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/the-conestoga-wagon-pushing-westward/
The Conestoga Area Historical Society. (2017). The Conestoga Wagon. Retrieved from The Consetoga Area Historical Society: http://sites.rootsweb.com/~pacahs/wagon.htm