Wagons on the Emigrant Trails

A replica Conestoga Wagon is pulled by 6 replica oxen.
The famous Conestoga wagon was used, not by emigrants, but to haul freight.


Minivan of the Emigrant Trails

Between 250,000 and 500,000 people made their way west from 1841 until 1869. The covered wagon was one of the main methods of transportation during this time period, often drawn by mules or oxen. Wagons in the nineteenth century varied widely depending on what they were used for. The wagons utilized by the emigrants headed west also varied. They came from numerous locations and manufacturers. This makes it difficult to ascribe a generic label to an emigrant's wagon. However, enough similarities existed to make comparisons. Among the manufacturers, two stood out from the crowd; Murphy and Studebaker.
A replica Murphy wagon in front of a distinct sandstone formation.
The Murphy Wagon at Scotts Bluff National Monument was constructed by the Dewitts Buggy Works in 1979.


Murphy Wagon

Joseph Murphy began producing wagons for the traders headed west from Missouri to Santa Fe and later for the overland emigration. His wagons became the best known on the western trails.

Murphy's wagons consisted of wheels, running gear, a box, and a cover. They were usually nine feet high with a twelve foot long bed. The bed of a Murphy wagon had a straight box, unlike its more famous counterpart, the Conestoga, which had a curved box. A Murphy could comfortably haul between 1,800 to 2,200 pounds. Straying too far above these load weights could risk serious problems.

Oxen were most often used for pulling this type of wagon. It required two yoke (pairs) of oxen. A spare yoke often trailed behind so that the livestock could be rotated and rested.

For those who preferred mules, an equivalent number of harnessed mules could have been used in place of oxen. Horses were used rarely, if ever. They lacked the strength and endurance needed to pull a wagon 2,000 miles. They also required costly supplemental feed.
A replica Studebaker covered wagon.
The Studebaker wagon at Scotts Bluff National Monument.


Studebaker Wagon

The Studebaker brothers began their enterprise in South Bend, Indiana. The Studebaker name was as recognizable on the trail as Murphy. As blacksmiths, the Studebakers provided the hardware for many of the early wagon manufacturers. Nearly every wagon making the journey westward had Studebaker components and spare parts. They would later expand into manufacturing wagons for emigrants and freighting companies.

The influence of the Studebaker family and their adaptive skills would extend into the modern era with the design and production of the Studebaker automobile.
A large Conestoga covered wagon
The famous Conestoga wagon.


Conestoga Wagon

The Conestoga wagon is probably the most familiar pioneer wagon to us of the modern era, as it is often used in films and other media. This vehicle was the primary choice for freighting companies shipping goods to the western frontier. Sleek and angular, with graceful curves, it was attractive to the eye. Sometimes a medium sized variation of the Conestoga would be used by families traveling the Oregon Trail.

The name Conestoga comes from the Conestoga River Valley in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A Conestoga's size was 17 feet long and 11 feet high, reflecting the freighter's need for space in hauling. In addition to a longer bed, it had a curved box much like that on a boat. This curved bed kept freight from moving and shifting, thus keeping the cargo in the center during transit.

This wagon required a double cover. The cover was usually made of canvas, cotton sailcloth, or homespun hemp. It cantilevered out slightly more than that of a typical emigrant wagon to help protect the cargo from the weather.

The front and rear gates angled up higher to help prevent freight from sliding out of the back on steep inclines. A Conestoga could likely haul a load of up to three tons. A load this size may have required as many as eight yoke of oxen.

Historic artist and photographer, William Henry Jackson, first traveled west in 1866. He found employment as a bullwhacker, hauling freight. Jackson painted many images depicting the westward migration, often with Conestoga wagons in the foreground.
A replica Mormon handcart rests in the snow.
Mormon Handcarts were used primarily by European converts.

NPS/Eric Grunwald

Mormon Handcart

If you couldn't afford a wagon, there was the option of a handcart. As the name implies, it was not powered by an animal, but pushed or pulled by a person. The handcart was most likely based on carts used by street sweepers, or luggage trolleys used by railroad porters. It was often seen as an economical means of bringing impoverished Mormon converts west to Salt Lake City.

A typical handcart was three feet wide by four feet long. It had a shallow box that was about nine inches high. Wheels were four feet tall and the carts could carry several hundred pounds. Most Mormon converts were limited to what they could carry because of weight restrictions set by the Mormon Church.

Across the front of the cart was a cross bar that allowed the cart to be either pushed or pulled. Some carts also sported a canvas top, making them resemble miniature covered wagons. Since carts were often made entirely of wood, they were often noisy and subject to frequent breakdowns. During a four year period from 1856 until 1860, over ten handcart companies aided approximately 3,000 Mormons to Salt Lake City.

Part of a series of articles titled The Emigrant Experience .

California National Historic Trail, Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, Oregon National Historic Trail, Scotts Bluff National Monument

Last updated: November 9, 2021