The overland wagon came in many varieties, ranging from the reinforced farm wagon to the specifically designed Murphywagon. The typical covered wagon used in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s was nicknamed a "prairie schooner". Anyone traveling west on a trail was outfitted with heavy supplies that slowed the speed of the trip. The general rule was to carry no more than 2,500 pounds of supplies. The basic staples were flour, bacon, coffee, sugar, and salt. The wagon also carried cooking and bedding equipment as well as tools, farm equipment, and personal possessions. All of these varied supplies left little or no space for travelers, who usually walked the distance. Quite often the trails were littered with debris of abandoned supplies thrown out to lighten loads and make better time.
Trail travel to Oregon or California generally took four to six months and the average distance covered was 10-15 miles per day. Pioneers traveled in groups and often cut a swath of up to twenty-five wagons across the trail. In inclement weather travelers slept underneath the wagon. Oxen more often than mules pulled the wagons, since they could graze on the indigenous grasses. When overlanders made camp in the evening, they formed a circle with the wagons to corral their animals.
Overland travel was difficult and the wagons served as "ships" across a "sea" of land. Mormons, mountain men, forty-niners, and dream seekers followed the trails west. The end of trail travel came as the railroads were built across the country. The tedious task of crossing the Great American Desert and western mountains had come to an end.
Listen to the audio clip narrative from a woman on a wagon train headed West telling the story of her adventure. You can also read the woman on a wagon train narrative. (Note: Opening an audio file may also open a blank browser window.)
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