COVERED WAGON, the means of transcontinental transportation used for two centuries of American history. The covered wagon was fundamentally a wagon box with a framework of hoop-shaped slats over which a canvas tent was stretched to make a "covered" wagon. Each wagon was drawn by several teams of horses, mules, or oxen. Many were boat shaped with oarlocks so they might be floated over streams, the animals swimming across.
Although derived from the Conestoga wagons built in Lancaster, Pa., in the early eighteenth century, the covered wagon used by emigrants on the Oregon and California trails differed in size, design, and purpose. Conestoga wagons were primarily designed to haul heavy goods for trade along the eastern coast, while smaller covered wagons were the vehicle of choice for emigrant groups headed to western destinations.
Emigrants using covered wagons assembled at such points west of the Missouri River as Independence, Mo., and Council Grove, Kans., and organized into caravans—called wagon trains—for companionship and protection. Emigrants usually took between four and six months to make the two-thousand-mile trek that lay between the Missouri and the Pacific Ocean. Although the threat of Indian attack was small, emigrants would often draw their wagons into a circle to serve as a corral for their animals and post sentinels to guard against livestock raids. Covered wagons remain in museums, including the Conestoga wagon original at Pittsburgh, Pa., and Ezra Meeker's prairie schooner at Tacoma, Wash.
Dunbar, Seymour. History of Travel in America. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1915.
Winther, Oscar Osborn. The Transportation Frontier: Trans-Mississippi West, 1865–1890. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
The covered wagon came to symbolize America's pioneer days. (The term was in use by 1745.) It consisted of a wooden wagon with a canvas top, which was supported by a frame of either wood or metal. Depending on size and cargo, the wagon was pulled by one team or several teams of horses, oxen, or mules. Pioneers relied on their covered wagons for shelter during long cross-country journeys. Another name for the covered wagon was prairie schooner, because the white canvas cover resembled the sails of a ship as it moved slowly across the "sea" of grasslands.
Another type of wagon used during pioneer times was the Conestoga, so named for Pennsylvania's Conestoga Valley, where it was first built during the early 1700s. Alternately called the camel of the prairies, the Conestoga was an uncovered wagon, pulled by teams of four to six horses. This wagon had wide-rimmed wheels that prevented it from getting stuck in the mud. The wheels could also be removed so that the wagon could be used as a boat or barge. For this reason, the front and back of the Conestoga were built higher than its middle section.
See also: Westward Expansion