Wagon Trains

views updated May 23 2018


WAGON TRAINS. For purposes of protection and efficiency, traders and emigrants of the trans-Mississippi West before 1880 customarily gathered their wagons into more or less organized caravans or trains. William L. Sublette, a partner in the reorganized Rocky Mountain Fur Company, conducted a ten-wagon, mule-drawn train over the Oregon Trail from St. Louis, Missouri, as far as the company's Wind River rendezvous (in present-day Wyoming) between 10 April and 16 July 1830, returning to St. Louis on 10 October. Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville is usually credited with the distinction of having taken the first wagons through South Pass; in July 1832 his twenty-wagon train reached the Green River by that route.

At Elm Grove, Missouri, beginning in 1842, settlers came in covered wagons each spring, elected their captains, guides, and other officers, and began the long trek westward via the Oregon Trail. The caravan of 1842, organized by Dr. Elijah White, traveled as far as Fort Hall (in present-day Idaho) before the wagons were abandoned. From there the people traveled on foot, horseback, or by raft down the Snake and Columbia Rivers. The following year more than one thousand immigrants moved over the same route in many wagons, some of which reached the banks of the Columbia River.

It was not until 1843 that the celebrated "cow column" Oregon emigrant party of about one thousand persons brought most of its 120 wagons over the trail to arrive near the Columbia River on 10 October, the first wagon train to reach Oregon Country. By some accounts the so-called Stevens-Murphy-Townsend party of some fifty persons was the first group to bring wagons all the way from Missouri and through the Sierra Nevada by the California Trail, Donner Lake, and Truckee Pass, from October to December of 1844. William Becknell, a Missouri merchant, took the first wagon train, of three wagons, to Santa Fe (in present-day New Mexico), from May to July 1822; and the first wagon trail from Santa Fe to southern California seems to have been marked during the Mexican-American War by Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke with his Mormon Battalion (19 October 1846–29 January 1847), by way of Guadalupe Pass, the Gila River, and the Colorado Desert to San Diego.

The eastern section of the Old Spanish Trail, from the Wasatch Mountains through present-day Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico to Santa Fe, was seldom traversed by wagons, although Mexican pack trains had used it at least as early as 1830. During the gold rush the western section of this trail, through southwestern Utah and across Nevada and California to the vicinity of Los Angeles, bore waves of wagon trains of emigrants as they turned southward from Salt Lake City, in Utah Territory. A number of well-marked wagon routes ran across Texas from its coastal towns and from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to El Paso, Texas, or other points on the Rio Grande, from which connections could easily be made with the Gila Trail. Caravans of twenty-five wagons or more were used largely to transport trade goods over the Santa Fe Trail valued at $35,000 in 1824, $90,000 in 1826, and $150,000 in 1828.

The number of wagons making the overland journey annually from 1843 to 1848 is difficult to determine with accuracy. One report, dated 23 June 1849, estimated that 5,516 wagons had passed Fort Kearney on the Platte River (in present-day Nebraska), bound for California or the Columbia Valley.

During the 1850s, caravans, large and small, were thronging all roads across the Great Plains. Randolph B. Marcy conducted a caravan of one hundred wagons from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to the New Mexico Territory via the Canadian River in 1849, on the first leg of its journey to California; the Indian agent William Bent estimated that sixty thousand emigrants crossed the plains along the Arkansas route in 1859. Heavy freight caravans plied the routes between San Antonio, Texas, and Chihuahua, Mexico, between Santa Fe and Chihuahua, and from points in present-day Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado to the far West by 1860. A well-known road from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the Great Salt Lake in Utah Territory via Fort Bridger (in present-day Wyoming), was traveled by thousands of Mormon pilgrims from 1847 to 1860. By 1865, trains five miles long were occasionally reported. An average caravan was composed of scores of giant prairie schooners, each capable of transporting between four thousand and seven thousand pounds and drawn usually by five or six yoke of oxen.

The organization and daily routine of a wagon train depended on the danger expected from the Native American tribes into whose territory it had traveled, the terrain, and the size of the caravan. Mormon trains, in particular, had a semi military formation. It was customary to elect a captain as central authority, and several lieutenants were put in charge of keeping order in assigned sections of the train. One function of the captain was usually to select each night's camping site, on the advice of a guide or the reports of horsemen sent out in advance during the day. At night the wagons were commonly drawn up in a circle or a square, end to end, so as to form a corral for at least the more valuable horses, mules, and cattle, as well as a fortress for the passengers. Indian thefts, buffalo herds, storms, and animal stampedes made life in the wagon camps treacherous. Horse-or mule-drawn wagons could make from ten to fifteen miles a day.

Even after the completion of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific tramontane railway line in May 1869, caravan trade and travel persisted for a decade. However, the wagon trains and caravans decreased in size, except in the case of freighting lines. The establishment of stagecoach lines, the military defeat and relocation of the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains Indians, the decimation of the buffalo herds, and the building of other far western railways in the 1880s all combined to transform the wagon train into a means of freighting heavy goods rather than of carrying passengers. It became increasingly safe for poorer emigrant families to make their way westward in a single covered wagon.


Butruille, Susan G. Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail. Boise, Idaho: Tamarack Books, 1993.

Connor, Seymour V., and Jimmy M. Skaggs. Broadcloth and Britches: The Santa Fe Trade. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1977.

Faragher, John Mack. Women and Men on the Overland Trail. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Gardner, Mark L. Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Hafen, Le Roy R., and Ann W. Hafen. Old Spanish Trail: Santa Fé to Los Angeles. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

MacGregor, Greg. Overland: The California Emigrant Trail of 1841–1870. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Walker, Henry P. The Wagonmasters: High Plains Freighting from the Earliest Days of the Santa Fe Trail to 1880. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Rufus KayWyllys/a. r.

See alsoCarriage Making ; Conestoga Wagon ; Gold Rush, California ; Mormon Trail ; Oregon Trail ; Prairie Schooner ; Santa Fe Trail ; Stagecoach Travel ; Westward Migration andvol. 9:Across the Plains to California in 1852 .

Wagon Trails to New Mexico

views updated May 14 2018

Wagon Trails to New Mexico


A Remote Economy . With comparatively few desirable commodities, and lacking precious metals, the New Mexican economy in the period from 1800 to 1860 remained fairly stagnant. The colonys population grew but stayed quite low. Nevertheless, trade networks did exist on a North-South axis. The Spanish crowns policy of tightly controlling commerce did little to help the economy of the northern frontier. By the time Chihuahuan traders transported manufactured goods north to distant New Mexico, the prices were extremely high. Before 1821 it was illegal for New Mexicans to trade with the Americans, English, or French. Not surprising, smuggling existed throughout Spains northern frontier; nevertheless, because of its isolation New Mexico generally remained distant from this black market despite the attempts of a few French traders. Overall, Spanish crown policies tended to discourage the formation of the kind of economic changes occurring in the English-speaking world. Thus, though the American economy boomed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, its economy was already weaker than that of the United States.

The Santa Fe Trail . Independence for Mexico meant the legal opening of New Mexican markets to outsiders. In 1821 William Becknell, a Missouri merchant, reached Santa Fe with American goods. By the end of the year two other wagon trains owned by American merchants entered the city. The famous Santa Fe Trail was born. It ran from eastern Missouri through Kansas and south into New Mexico. At first the Hispanics of New Mexico appreciated the Anglo merchants since these newcomers sold many desirable items; local customers particularly wanted clothing and household goods. The American wares were more numerous, more varied, and less expensive than those coming north from Chihuahua. As a result the route from Missouri to Santa Fe, traveled largely by Anglo entrepreneurs, thrived; but the good times failed to last. Declining profitability led Americans to travel south out of Santa Fe to trade with Chihuahua.

Tensions in the Region . Still, from the 1820s to the 1840s citizens of Mexicos northern frontier relied heavily on U.S. goods. Soon northern Mexico entered the economic orbit of the United States. The Americans brought badly needed capital into the region. They financed and, in the end, largely benefited from the development of the fur trade and most new mining ventures. Yet the Anglos who brought all these wonderful goods did little to hide their racist sense of superiority, thereby creating tensions with longtime residents of the region.

American Dominance . In response to both the growing dependence on and the crude behavior of the Anglo merchants, the Mexican government passed restrictions and tariffs to encourage national economic strength. These laws tended to be piecemeal and far from enforceable. Anglos and New Mexicans alike often evaded them. The officials in Santa Fe were torn because they wanted a stronger territorial economy free from the Anglos, but they also desired goods that failed to arrive from Mexico; widespread smuggling and corruption resulted. Although Mexicans had a role in at least most aspects of the changing economy, American dominance continued into the 1840s.

The Threat to Mexico . In the long run, Mexico suffered from the Santa Fe Trail trade since this commerce discouraged economic development on its northern frontier. The presence of Americans in the Southwest boded ill for the Mexicans. Anglos moved into and eventually took Texas. Although New Mexico remained a part of Mexico until 1846, the many commercial ties between Missouri and Santa Fe facilitated the conquest of the region by the United States in the Mexican-American War.


David Weber, The Mexican Frontier: The American Southwest under Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982);

Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).