Wagon train

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Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska by C.C.A. Christensen.png
Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska
1912 Pioneer Day re-enactment of a wagon train in Utah. WagonTrn.jpg
1912 Pioneer Day re-enactment of a wagon train in Utah.

A wagon train is a group of wagons traveling together. Before the extensive use of military vehicles, baggage trains followed an army with supplies and ammunition.


In the American West, settlers traveling across the plains and mountain passes in covered wagons banded together for mutual assistance. Although wagon trains are associated with the Old West, the Trekboers of South Africa also traveled in caravans of covered wagons.

In migration

Transit, traces and trails

Wagon trains followed several trails in the American West, with virtually all originating at Independence, Missouri. [1] Perhaps the most famous wagon train trail was the Oregon Trail which had a span of over 2,000 mi (3,200 km). [2] Other paths included the Santa Fe Trail, the Chisholm Trail, the California Trail (which split southwestward from the Oregon Trail), the Mormon Trail, and the Old Spanish Trail.

Although "wagon train" suggests a line of wagons, when terrain permitted, wagons would often fan out and travel abreast to minimize the amount of dust blown onto other wagons. Travel by wagon train occurred primarily between the 1840s–1880s, diminishing after completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Some remnants of wagon ruts along the well-travelled trails are still visible today. [1]


Originally, westward movement began in small groups, but well-funded travelers with a hundred or more wagons could employ professional wagon masters (or trail masters) and ostlers.

Overland emigrants discovered smaller groups of twenty to forty wagons were more manageable than larger ones, especially without professional wagon masters. Many operated under democratic principles, creating bylaws and electing a captain. In reality, a captain had limited authority. His role was largely confined to getting everyone moving in the morning and selecting when and where to camp at night. [3]

Membership in wagon trains was generally fluid and wagons frequently joined or left trains depending on the needs and wishes of their owners. An accident or illness, for instance, might force someone to fall behind and wait for the next train, or an emigrant might "whip up" to overtake a forward train after a quarrel. Some might break away to settle in Colorado Territory or other territories along the way.

At night, wagon trains were often formed into a circle or square for shelter from wind or weather, and to corral the emigrants' animals in the center to prevent them from running away or being stolen by Native Americans. While Native Americans might attempt to raid horses under cover of darkness, they rarely attacked a train. Contrary to popular belief, wagons were seldom circled defensively. [4]

Modern-day treks

Today, covered wagon trains are used to give an authentic experience for those desiring to explore the West as it was in the days of the pioneers and other groups traveling before modern vehicles were invented.

Indian teams hauling 60 miles to market the 1100 bushels of wheat raised by the school at Seger Colony, Oklahoma fghuv Hgo, circa 1900. "Indian teams hauling 60 miles to market the 1100 bushels of wheat raised by the school. It brought four cents more than - NARA - 519190.tif
Indian teams hauling 60 miles to market the 1100 bushels of wheat raised by the school at Seger Colony, Oklahoma fghuv Hgo, circa 1900.

Baggage trains

The advent of gunpowder warfare meant that an army could no longer rely solely on foraging in the surrounding countryside, and required a regular supply of munitions. [6] In the 18th century, organized commissary and quartermaster departments were developed to centralize delivery of supplies. [6] The delivery took the form of "baggage trains", large groups of wagons that traveled at the rear of the main army.

Westward-bound collective treks are reflected in numerous books, films and television programs about the journeys. Examples include: Emerson Hough's 1922 novel and James Cruze's silent film based on it, The Covered Wagon (1923); Raoul Walsh's film The Big Trail (1930); Robert N. Bradbury's film Westward Ho (1935); John Ford's Wagon Master (1950) and the television series it inspired, Wagon Train (1957–1965); William Wellman's film, Westward the Women (1951); A. B. Guthrie Jr.'s 1949 novel The Way West and Andrew V. McLaglen's 1967 film based on it; and the "Wagons West" series of 24 novels written by Noel Gerson (under the psudonym Dana Fuller Ross) between 1979 and 1989.

See also

Related Research Articles

Oregon Trail Historic route to and through the American Old West

The Oregon Trail was a 2,170-mile (3,490 km) east-west, large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail in the United States that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. The eastern part of the Oregon Trail spanned part of what is now the state of Kansas and nearly all of what are now the states of Nebraska and Wyoming. The western half of the trail spanned most of the current states of Idaho and Oregon.

California Trail historic migration route in the western United States

The California Trail was an emigrant trail of about 3,000 mi (4,800 km) across the western half of the North American continent from Missouri River towns to what is now the state of California. After it was established, the first half of the California Trail followed the same corridor of networked river valley trails as the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail, namely the valleys of the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater rivers to Wyoming. In the present states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, the California and Oregon trails split into several different trails or cutoffs.

Fort Laramie National Historic Site Historic site

Fort Laramie was a significant 19th-century trading post, diplomatic site, and military installation located at the confluence of the Laramie and the North Platte rivers. They joined in the upper Platte River Valley in the eastern part of the U.S. state of Wyoming. The fort was founded as a private trading post in the 1830s to service the overland fur trade; in 1849, it was purchased by the United States Army. It was located east of the long climb leading to the best and lowest crossing point of the Rocky Mountains at South Pass and became a popular stopping point for migrants on the Oregon Trail. Along with Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River, the trading post and its supporting industries and businesses were the most significant economic hub of commerce in the region.

Fort Kearny United States historic place

Fort Kearny was a historic outpost of the United States Army founded in 1848 in the western U.S. during the middle and late 19th century. The fort was named after Col. and later General Stephen Watts Kearny. The outpost was located along the Oregon Trail near Kearney, Nebraska. The town of Kearney took its name from the fort. The "e" was added to Kearny by postmen who consistently misspelled the town name. A portion of the original site is preserved as Fort Kearny State Historical Park by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Emigrant Gap mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada range in California, USA

Emigrant Gap is a gap in a ridge on the California Trail as it crosses the Sierra Nevada, to the west of what is now known as Donner Pass. Here the cliffs are so steep that, back in the 1840s, the pioneers on their way to California had to lower their wagons on ropes in order to continue.

Bozeman Trail protected area

The Bozeman Trail was an overland route connecting the gold rush territory of Montana to the Oregon Trail. Its most important period was from 1863–68. Despite its name, "the major part of the route in Wyoming used by all Bozeman Trail travelers in 1864 was pioneered by Allen Hurlbut". Many miles of the Bozeman Trail in present Montana followed the tracks of Bridger Trail, opened by Jim Bridger in 1864. The flow of pioneers and settlers through territory of American Indians provoked their resentment and caused attacks. The challengers to the route were newly arrived Lakotas and their Indian allies, the Arapahoe and the Cheyenne. The United States put emphasis on a right to "establish roads, military and other posts" as described in Article 2 in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. All parties in the conflict had signed that treaty. The Crow Indians held the treaty right to the contested area and had called it their homeland for decades. They sided with the whites. The U.S. Army undertook several military campaigns against the hostile Indians to try to control the trail. Because of its association with frontier history and conflict with American Indians, various segments of the trail are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

Covered wagon

The covered wagon was long the dominant form of transport in pre-industrial America. With roots in the heavy Conestoga wagon developed for the rough, undeveloped roads and paths of the colonial East, the covered wagon spread west with American migration. The Conestoga wagon was far too heavy for westward expansion. Typical farm wagons were merely covered for westward expansion. Heavily relied upon along such travel routes as the Great Wagon Road, the Mormon Trail and the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, covered wagons carried settlers seeking land, gold, and new futures ever further west.

Applegate Trail United States historic place

The Applegate Trail was an emigrant trail through the present-day U.S. states of Idaho, Nevada, California, and Oregon used in the mid-19th century by emigrants on the American frontier. It was originally intended as a less dangerous alternative to the Oregon Trail by which to reach the Oregon Territory. Much of the route was coterminous with the California Trail.

Cherokee Trail

The Cherokee Trail was a historic overland trail through the present-day U.S. states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming that was used from the late 1840s up through the early 1890s. The route was established in 1849 by a wagon train headed to the gold fields in California. Among the members of the expedition were a group of Cherokee. When the train formed in Indian Territory, Lewis Evans of Evansville, Arkansas, was elected Captain. Thus, this expedition is sometimes written as the Evans/Cherokee Train. In 1850 four wagon trains turned west on the Laramie Plains, along Wyoming's southern border to Fort Bridger.

Hastings Cutoff

The Hastings Cutoff was an alternative route for westward emigrants to travel to California, as proposed by Lansford Hastings in The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California. The ill-fated Donner Party infamously took that route.

Meek Cutoff wagon trail of the 19th century

Meek Cutoff was a covered wagon road that branched off the Oregon Trail in northeastern Oregon and was used as an alternate emigrant route to the Willamette Valley in the mid-19th century. The road was named for frontiersman Stephen Meek, who was hired to lead the first wagon train along it in 1845. The journey was a particularly hard one, and many of the pioneers lost their lives.

The Oregon-California Trails Association is an interdisciplinary organization based at Independence, Missouri, United States. OCTA is dedicated to the preservation and protection of overland emigrant trails and the emigrant experience.

Sager orphans seven American orphans

The Sager orphans were the children of Henry and Naomi Sager. In April 1844 the Sager family took part in the great westward migration and started their journey along the Oregon Trail. During it, both Henry and Naomi died and left their seven children orphaned. Later adopted by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, missionaries in what is now Washington, they were orphaned a second time, when both their new parents, as well as brothers John and Francis Sager, were killed during the Whitman massacre in November 1847. About 1860 Catherine, the oldest daughter, wrote a first-hand account of their journey across the plains and their life with the Whitmans. Today it is regarded as one of the most authentic accounts of the American westward migration.

In 1841, the Bartleson–Bidwell Party, led by Captain John Bartleson and John Bidwell, became the first American emigrants to attempt a wagon crossing from Missouri to California.

Great Platte River Road

The Great Platte River Road was a major overland travel corridor approximately following the course of the Platte River in present-day Nebraska and Wyoming that was shared by several popular emigrant trails during the 19th century, including the Trapper's Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Trail, the Pony Express route, and the military road connecting Fort Leavenworth and Fort Laramie. The road, which extended nearly 800 miles (1,300 km) from the Second Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie, was utilized primarily from 1841 to 1866. In modern times it is often regarded as a sort of superhighway of its era, and has been referred to as "the grand corridor of America's westward expansion".

The Salt Lake Cutoff is one of the many shortcuts that branched from the California, Mormon and Oregon Trails in the United States. It led northwest out of Salt Lake City, Utah and north of the Great Salt Lake for about 180 miles (290 km) before rejoining the California trail near the City of Rocks, Idaho. From there Oregon Trail travelers could easily travel down the Raft River valley portion of the California Trail to return to the Oregon Trail. It provided a way to stop in Salt Lake City for repairs, fresh supplies, fresh livestock etc.. In later years it was used by tens of thousands of pioneers and miners going east and west on their way to or from the future states of California, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada or Washington.

In the American Old West, overland trails were built by pioneers and immigrants throughout the 19th century and especially between 1829 and 1870 as an alternative to sea and railroad transport. These immigrants began to help colonize much of North America west of the Great Plains as part of the mass overland migrations of the mid-19th century. Settlers emigrating from the eastern United States were spurred by various motives, among them religious persecution and economic incentives, to move to destinations in the far west via routes including the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail. After the end of the Mexican–American War in 1849, vast new American conquests again enticed mass immigration. Legislation like the Donation Land Claim Act and significant events like the California Gold Rush further lured people to travel overland to the west.

Southern Emigrant Trail

Southern Emigrant Trail, also known as the Gila Trail, the Kearny Trail, Southern Trail and the Butterfield Stage Trail, was a major land route for immigration into California from the eastern United States that followed the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico during the California Gold Rush. Unlike the more northern routes, pioneer wagons could travel year round, mountain passes not being blocked by snows, however it had the disadvantage of summer heat and lack of water in the desert regions through which it passed in New Mexico Territory and the Colorado Desert of California. Subsequently, it was a route of travel and commerce between the eastern United States and California. Many herds of cattle and sheep were driven along this route and it was followed by the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line in 1857-1858 and then the Butterfield Overland Mail from 1858 - 1861.

Clayton's Guide, Clayton's Emigrant Guide, or as when published The Latter-Day Saints' Emigrants' Guide published by Missouri Republican Steam Power Press, Chambers & Knapp, 1848 and written by William Clayton, was one of a number of very popular guidebooks written to support the westward expansion of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century when organized emigrant wagon trains began to form in large numbers at various river ports on the Missouri River.

The Oregon Trail is a historic 2,000-mile (3,264-km) trail used by American pioneers living in the Great Plains in the 19th century. The emigrants traveled by wagon in search of fertile land in Oregon's Willamette Valley.


  1. 1 2 Billock, Jennifer (October 3, 2016). "Nine Places Where You Can Still See Wheel Tracks from the Oregon Trail". Smithsonian magazine. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  2. Brown, Dee Alexander, and Martin Ferdinand Schmitt. The American West. New York: Scribner, 1994. Print.
  3. "Life and Death on the Oregon Trail, "Provisions for births and lethal circumstances", OCTA." Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) – Oregon Trail History. Oregon-California Trails Association, n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2013. <http://www.octa-trails.org/learn/people_places/articles_life_death.php>.
  4. Gregory, Leland (Jun 15, 2009). "Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Through the Ages". Andrews McMeel Publishing. p. 209. Retrieved 2 December 2013.
  5. Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture:Washita County
  6. 1 2 Huston, James A. (1991). Logistics of Liberty: American Services of Supply in the Revolutionary War and After. Newark: University of Delaware Press. pp. 15–18. ISBN   0-87413-381-5.

Further reading

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