The Conestoga Wagon: The Road Westward

From the Lecture Series: Experiencing America — A Smithsonian Tour through American History.

By Richard Kurin, PhD, The Smithsonian

This Conestoga wagon, from the National Museum of American History, was probably built and used in the 1840s and ’50s, a little after the heyday of the Conestogas. It is unusually large, 18 feet long, and almost 8 feet wide, indicating its intended use, hauling large, heavy consignments of freight. Discover how central Conestogas were to the settlement of America.

(Image: Photo Ad Meskens of painting by Newbold Hough Trotter (1827-1898)/Public domain)

Westward Expansion

North America is a vast continent. For centuries, as the United States has taken shape, it has spread westward and beyond, toward new frontiers. That spread occurred because Americans used and invented mechanized forms of transportation so that large numbers of people and a huge amount of raw materials and finished goods could reach every corner of a growing, dynamic nation.

The Conestoga wagon is not what many people think it is. If you’ve watched Westerns with scenes of covered wagons moving across the great prairies, this wagon probably appears quite familiar. The Conestoga wagon is the forerunner of 19th-century prairie schooners, which were smaller, lighter, and usually drawn by oxen.

Learn More: Planes, Trains, Automobiles…and Wagons

Anatomy of a Conestoga Wagon

Conestoga wagons originated in the mid-1700s… near Lancaster, Pennsylvania and the Conestoga River.

Conestoga wagons originated in the mid-1700s, maybe even a little earlier, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the Conestoga River. The frame and suspension were made of wood, while the wheels were typically iron-rimmed for greater durability. Wagons needed to be sturdy; they had to cross streams and shallow rivers, navigate steep mountain passes, and deal with rutted roads and deep mud. Notice how the body of the wagon is shaped; it’s curved. As the wagons traversed hills and mountains, the cargo would shift toward the center, rather than slide toward the sides and destabilize the wagon.

This is a transcript from the video series Experiencing America — A Smithsonian Tour through American History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

photo of Conestoga wagon and 6-horse team
Conestoga wagons were typically drawn by a team of six horses. Note the position of the drivers or wagoners. (Image: Ware Bros. Co., photographer/Library of Congress)

Wagons combined utility with Pennsylvania German folk art with a blue body, red running gear, and decorative ironwork. Six horses pulled the wagon. Passengers rarely rode in it. The wagoner, or driver, typically rode on the horse nearest the wagon, on the left side, or sat on the lazy board, which extended from the wagon, or, they walked alongside it. Finally, a stretched tough white canvas cover protected it from the weather. In good weather, the wagon would travel about 10 to 15 miles a day.

The Route West

painting of Conestoga wagon stopped in town
Conestoga wagons carried goods and people as Americans moved westward. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

If these weren’t the wagons taking pioneers to the West, where exactly were they going? In a sense, they were going West, just not in the way you were probably visualizing. The American colonies and the young United States were rich in resources. Conestoga wagons transported supplies and finished goods from eastern towns, like Baltimore, to settlers in the interior, and returned with flour, whiskey, tobacco, furs, coal, iron, and other products that could be processed in coastal cities or sold abroad. An interesting historical note, the slang term “stogie,” for a cheap cigar, comes from the Conestoga wagon.

Learn More: Gold, Guns and Grandeur–The West

But these wagons weren’t only used for shipping goods; they were a major part of colonial migration. An ancient pathway that the Indians called “Jonontore” and the colonists eventually called “the Great Wagon Road”, stretched from Philadelphia through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and on to Augusta, Georgia. Between 1700 and 1775, some 100,000 German and Scots-Irish immigrant settlers made their journey southwestward along the Western Appalachian foothills using this road, seeking land on the colonial frontier.

The Great Valley Road went from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Roanoke, Virginia. There it split with one fork going to Knoxville, Tennessee, and the other to Augusta, Georgia
Conestoga wagons had to navigate around the Appalachian mountains. (Image: Family Search Wiki user: Map of the Great Valley Road in the southeast United States.Drawn by: Diltsgd (FamilySearch Wiki).Date: 26 July 2010.Source: Self. Based on description in Wikipedia article/Public domain)

In North Carolina, for example, the population rose from approximately 35,000 to almost 210,000 people. Today, Interstate Highway 81 runs along a good part of the route, and the settlements grew like a strand of beads along the roadway.

Expansion Continues and Roads Emerge

Settlers’ routes also took them further inland. Up until the year 1700, European colonists mostly settled along the coast. But by the 1750s and the start of the French and Indian War, around the time the Conestoga wagon was invented, the colonists had pushed into the Eastern Appalachian foothills, but not much further. After that war, treaties with the defeated Indians allowed the colonists to push through the mountains and begin to settle on the other side.

Learn More: Emancipation and the Civil War

The first federally funded road, known as the National Road, was constructed between 1811 and 1838.

The War of 1812 put the Northwest Territory, what we now call the Midwest, firmly in American hands. This lured settlers into the Ohio River Valley, and the Conestoga wagon helped them get there. Good roads became essential; upgraded byways linked Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Baltimore to Wheeling. The first federally funded road, known as the National Road, was constructed between 1811 and 1838. It stretched from Cumberland, Maryland, to Wheeling, and then through Ohio and Indiana to Vandalia, Illinois. Much of it still exists today as US Route 40.

Common Questions About the Conestoga Wagon

Q: Why was the Conestoga wagon important?

During the 1700s through the 1800s, the Conestoga wagon was a reliable way to transport a large number of products—around 12,000 pounds—between stores and settlements. The construction of the wagon was very sturdy, protecting goods from damage as the wagon traveled along bumpy roads and through water. The wagon was eventually phased out by trains.

Q: What is the difference between a Conestoga wagon and a prairie schooner?

A prairie schooner, or covered wagon, was smaller and more lightweight than a Conestoga wagon, needing only two to four horses to pull it as opposed to six or eight. The Conestoga wagon was more useful for moving goods in bulk, while the prairie schooner was more practical for general travel.

Q: What wagons were used on the Oregon Trail?

Movies about the Oregon Trail often show Conestoga wagons being used, though in reality, pioneers used covered wagons. The Conestoga wagons were too cumbersome to travel such long distances.

Q: Why didn’t most pioneers ride in their wagons?

The construction of the covered wagons resulted in an uncomfortable traveling experience, where one could feel every bump in the road, and thus most pioneers preferred to travel by horse or foot, walking beside their wagons.

This article was updated on August 6, 2020

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