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Source: April 1984 Volume 22 Number 2, Pages 43–50

The Conestoga Wagon

Leighton Haney

Page 43

The primary source for this article is a very fine book entitled Conestoga Wagon, by George Shumway, with help on a chapter or two by Edwin Durrell and Howard C. Frey, (It has been in my wife's family since it was written in 1966 and is a presentation copy to her father, signed by George Shumway.) I also used Pennsylvania : Birthplace of a Nation, by Sylvester K. Stevens; Pennsylvania Beautiful, by Wallace Nutting, America's Most Historic Highway, by Joseph Jackson,

My initial interest in the Conestoga wagon came from riding by the high school with a friend. We looked at the wagon and horses that are on the side of the school, and he said, "I wish someone would come up with the money to give us two more horses and make that the way it ought to be," I thought that what he meant was that there should be six horses on a Conestoga team, I checked it out, and I found that a Conestoga wagon team could have four or five horses, though normally they did have six. I reported this back to my friend, and said, "Well, you're right and you're wrong!" "But this team should have six," he replied, "for the six school districts that got together for the formation of the joint high school and that pulled together as a team!"

In any event, this did get me interested in the Conestoga wagon.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, in 1787, described the Conestoga wagon: "A large strong waggon covered with linen cloth is an essential part of the furniture of a German farm. It is pulled by four or five large horses of a particular breed, and will carry 2000 to 3000 pounds." He also recorded that in September and October, the harvest period, "on the road between Philadelphia and the Valley you'll see 50 to 100 a day"..

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The word "Conestoga" comes from the valley of the Conestoga Creek that starts in northeastern Lancaster County and flows into the Susquehanna in the southwest corner of the county. The creek in turn took its name from the Conestoga Indians, who were part of the Susquehannas. "Conestoga" is a corruption of "Grandastogues", the name which the French gave them. It was spelled in many different ways; in 1715, I found, it was also spelled "Conestogae".

This area was settled very early in the eighteenth century by Germans and Swiss. They were both great craftspeople and great farmers. The large farms they developed required large farm wagons. They built the forerunner of what we call the Conestoga wagon. So far as we know, none of these early eighteenth century wagons has survived. There are drawings and descriptions of them, however, as many of them survived into the nineteenth century.

There were apparently quite a number of "Conestoga roads" besides the Conestoga Road we know. The first road was started in about 1683 and completed by 1734. On one early map is shown a Conestoga Road running out of Philadelphia along what would almost be today's West Chester Pike, then up Strasburg Road, and continuing down to the village of Conestoga; in Philadelphia, where Market Street (which was then High Street) crossed the Schuylkill it became Conestoga Road. That was in the early 1700's. Another Conestoga Road is the provincial road; on a map of 1794, prior to the completion of the Lancaster Turnpike, it is shown coming up the river on the west side of the Schuylkill to about Swedesford, and then into Downingtown, skipping this ridge area completely. Apparently people in the Philadelphia area thought of all Lancaster County as the "Conestoga" area, an area important not only for its farms, but also for raising tobacco and making cigars. Hence the "stogies", coming from Conestoga, the black, big cigars that the wagoners traditionally smoked.

The wagons were first made by the farm people, and were first known as "Dutch" wagons. It is estimated that by 1750 there were seven thousand of them. They countinued to be manufactured until about 1850, when the railroad took over. This doesn't mean that there weren't lots of wagons made after that, but the particular configuration of the Conestoga wagon declined with the development of the railroad. The larger Conestogas in use after the Revolution, after the roads had been constructed out to Pittsburgh, were also known as "Pitt" wagons.

The Conestoga wagon was, like other inventions, an invention born out of necessity. Many different people made them, but they all made the same basic type of wagon.

The wagon had two parts: the box (or bed) and the running gear.

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The box was about 16 feet long, and was more like a basket than a bed. It had a sloping configuration, so that the load wouldn't shift so much going up and down hills. It was ship-shaped, built like a ship, bowed rather than rigid to adapt to the roads it had to go over. It was normally painted blue, various shades of blue, with the top covered with a hempen or linen cloth. There were eight to twelve bows of bent wood to support the cloth, the number depending upon the length and size of the wagon. Staples of iron, in the top and side rails, held the bows that went over the top. Every wagon that had a cover, however, was not necessarily a Conestoga: without these staples it was not one.

The side panels had a curved profile, swept up at the front and rear, with top and bottom side rails. The front and back of a true Conestoga had a slope. The sides were constructed with three more or less horizontal parallel rails, with eight to ten more or less uprights, the number depending on the length of the wagon. The space between the rails was fitted with boards that could be moved in or out.

The front end panels, as noted, were not vertical, but sloping, and the top half was sometimes removable. There was also decorative carving at the extreme edges of the front end panel, and also on the rear gate. The top rail and middle rail of the front end panel were down-bowed in the middle. The rear end gate was also slanting, as previously noted, removable, and fastened at the top with pins to extensions of the top side rails. The top rail and middle rail of the rear end gate were bowed downwards, for appearance.

The Pennsylvania Germans were craftspeople; they could have made a wagon that was much simpler, but appearance was important to them. This was particularly true of the iron work. While no wagons have survived, much of the iron work has. It is decorated, and often dated and initialed. The blacksmith took a lot of care in the work he did. The artisans who made these wagons were the same artisans, out of the exact same area, as those who made the Pennsylvania rifle, better known as the Kentucky rifle, made with great care and of a certain design.

White oak was mainly used in the wagon's construction.

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Each wagon had a tool box. It had to be permanently fastened, on the left hand side, for the wagon to be a true Conestoga. A feed box rode on a support at the rear. When the horses were stopped, the feed box was taken off and taken around to the front end, where a mechanism held it in front of the horses so they could eat from it.

The running gear was painted red. The rear wheels were 54 to 72 inches in diameter, with 14 to 16 spokes, and were 3-1/2 to 4 inches in width. The front wheels were smaller. The axles were made of wood, shod top and bottom with iron clouts. Linch pins held the wheels onto the axles. The tongue was roughly one horse length, and was rigidly fixed to the front hound (a piece of metal that held the axle to the running gear). The rear axle was fastened to the rear hound by iron hound pins. There were iron hub caps on the ends of the axles, and a staple on the tongue for the feed box lug, used when the feed box was brought around from the rear to the front of the wagon.

An axe was a most important tool, and each wagon had an iron axe sheath and an iron ax handle ring at the left of the front hound. If a brake mechanism was present - it certainly wasn't on the earlier wagons it was operated by a large iron handle on the left side.

Each wagon also had a tar pot on a hook and staple. The tar pot contained pine tar and lard, which was used for lubricating the wheels.

The top and bottom of the wagon - that is, the box and the running gear - met in only three places.

The oldest surviving wagon known at the time of Shumway's book in 1966 was called the "Weber" wagon. It was driven from Lancaster County to Ontario by an Abraham Weber in 1807. (Weber's trip was part of the great migration to Ontario in the late 1790's and early 1800's that is described in the book Trail of the Black Walnut, by Elmore Reaman.) It is not a true Conestoga wagon, however, because the front and back were straight, rather than sloped or slanted. Other than that it meets the specifications of a Conestoga pretty well.

The Conestoga wagon was originally a farm wagon, but it soon was used between Philadelphia and the Conestoga area to haul freight. In a ledger of James Logan, in 1716, he mentions the "Conestoga waggon", so it was used for freight by that date. Logan set up a trading post in the Conestoga Valley, and by 1717 he was operating two wagons from Philadelphia to the Conestoga Valley, all of course on behalf of William Penn. Benjamin Franklin, in 1747, also made reference to hemp from the Conestoga Valley, brought by wagon.

The first big use of these wagons was in Braddock's march on Fort Duquesne in 1755. He had asked for wagons from Maryland and Virginia, but the wagons didn't arrive. He then appealed to Franklin, who went into Lancaster County and contracted with farmers there to supply about 150 farm wagons and teams; the wagons that he got were of the Conestoga type.

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The classic period of the Conestoga wagon was after the War of 1812. It lasted about thirty years, until the railroads came. However, wagons of a covered type continued to be used out in the west, and there were certainly many of them still used in the east after that. But the use of them as the main method of carrying freight in the eastern part of the United States ended with the coming of the railroads.

The main route of these freighters, the Pitt Qaas, from Philadelphia was on the Lancaster Turnpike, completed in 1794. It was a great financial success, with nine toll gates between here and Lancaster. It was the first stone-bedded road in America, designed by MacAdam, the Scotsman who had built roads of this type in Scotland, (I assume this is why we call a stone road, even though it has a blacktop now, a macadam road.) It went to Lancaster, and from there various roads were used to Pittsburgh. Most of the traffic, as I understand it, went over a road which is very near where the Pennsylvania Turnpike goes today, through Fort Littleton and Bedford into Pittsburgh. A tremendous number of wagons also used the National Road from the Baltimore-Washington area up through the Cumberland Gap into Washington, Pa., down to Wheeling, and then on by boat down the Ohio River to the west.

One writer noted that "in 1826 the road was lined with Conestogas, and you couldn't see anything for the dust". There is also a painting of the Fairview Inn, three miles outside Baltimore, in 1801, that shows five Conestoga wagons in the yard, one turning into the yard, and five more on the road!

I liken these wagons and their drivers to the trucks and truckers of today. The chrome tail pieces coming out the rear of trucks and the pride that many of these independent truckers take in the appearance of their rigs compares with the way these wagoners took care of their wagons and the pride that they had in them.

There were special taverns where they stopped - not necessarily the stage coach stops - but more like what we'd refer to as "truck stops". The main thing was that they were able to take care of their teams, that there was water and feed. The team was most important. After the team was taken care of, the wagoners joined other wagoners in the tavern. They apparently drank to their heart's content, and when they got tired they went to the bunk room (which, incidentally, didn't have bunks). There they slept in their bed rolls on the floor, got a big feed the next morning, and took off. The wagoners were apparently a bit too rowdy for the normal stage coach stops (which weren't such . a great thing either!). Liquor was sold, and a record kept as to how much each wagoner had and what his bill was going to be, with "P" for pints and "Q" for quarts for what he drank or ordered for anyone else to drink. If it looked like he was drinking too much or was overextending himself, the bartender would tell him "to mind his 'p's' and 'q's. Meals ran about $.125 a piece, and one could figure on about $1.75 for the night, for lodging, care of the team, and meals.

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On High Street in Philadelphia, between 4th and 5th streets, as earlyas in 1750, there was an inn called "The Conestoga Wagon Inn", so the words "Conestoga wagon" had become well established by 1750.

The wagoners were, as I said, very rough. This excerpt from Thomas Buchanan Read's famous poem, "The Wagoner of the Alleghenies", gives a description of one of them:

" 'Twas April, and the evening winds
Were rattling at the open blinds;
The sign, upon its hinge of rust,
Made dreary answer to the gust,
That smote the masts like an ocean squall,
And, whistling, mocked the boatswain's call.

"The latch went up; the door was thrown
Awide, as by a tempest blown;
While, bold as an embodied storm,
Strode in a dark and stalwart form,
And all the lights in the sudden wind
Flared as he slammed the door behind.

"The noisy revellers ceased their din, And into the corner skulked the cur,
As the startled keeper welcomed in The feared and famous wagoner!
Not long they brooked the keen eye-glance
Who gazed into that countenance;
And even in his mildest mood
His voice was sudden, loud, and rude
As is a swollen mountain-stream.
He spoke as to a restive team.
His team was of the wildest breed That ever tested wagoner's skill;
Each was a fierce, unbroken steed, Curbed only by his giant will;
And every ostler quaked with fear
What time his loud bells wrangled near."

They were tough!

During the summer season most of them worked on farms. The big use for the wagons was for carrying grain after the harvest, in the fall. They were noted for their feats of strength. They were great story tellers; tellers of yarns, lies , or whatever. One of the oldest stories they tell is about a wagoner who would lie on his back and have his six-team of horses and his wagon, just by voice command, run over his body as he laid between the wheels; then turn it around and run it back again. That man was a real wagoner!

The wagons were made by individual families until about 1750, when in York a company was set up with sort of a production line so that there was more than one man putting a wagon together. In 1860 there were six factories in Hanover making wagons.

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They continued even after the wagon boom burst, and from 1830 to 1880 Hanover was the top place in the country for the manufacture of buggies and other type wagons.

Even the horses became a recognized breed; in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century there was the Conestoga horse. Horse-lovers have great arguments as to what the horse was and how it was developed. But the consensus is that there was a Conestoga horse, and it is fairly well agreed that it was a long-legged horse and fairly light in carcass; it was tall, about 17 or 17.5 hands high, making it a fairly heavy horse. But it was not a Clydesdale type. It is believed that the horse probably came to Lancaster County from Chester County and was improved by selective breeding for the job it had to do. It never was a pure breed, and by the end of the nineteenth century there was no longer a horse around called the Conestoga horse.

The team was a team of four, five, or six horses. It was guided by one line - and one line only, leading to the front left, or "nigh", horse. The line divided back of the neck, one side going to one side of the bit in the horse's mouth, the other to the other. But this was the only horse that got any direct feeling from the driver. In fact, most of the control of that horse and the team was done by the driver's voice; "Haw!" meant left, "Gee!" to the right, and "Whoa!". A good driver could control a good team that way. The line was a "safety first" more than anything else.

The other horses followed in various ways. The lead horse on the right had a bar that connected from its bit to the neck of the nigh lead horse; if the latter turned his head and started to move either way, the horse on the right would feel it and follow. The pulling force was also balanced by double and single trees that were, connected by chains; the other horses had bits, with reins back to their own harness, and when the lead horses started to turn they too could feel which way they were turning and turn with them.

The wagoner generally rode on the left horse closest to the wagon, or, in rough terrain, walked along beside the team.

The harnesses were extremely fancy in all their work, and were topped off by bells. This was another hallmark of the Conestoga wagon. The lead horses would have five bells, the second pair had four, and the horses nearest to the wagon had three. A driver was very proud of his bells. If his wagon somewhere got into difficulty - stuck, upset, off the trail, or whatever - and another wagoner had to help him, that wagoner had the right to claim the first one's bells. When he came in without his bells, he was disgraced. Hence the saying, "I'll be there with bells on!"

I mentioned earlier that the earlier wagons did not have brakes. To slow the wagon while going down a steep hill, shoes or skids were attached to the rear wheels, the wheels rotated so that the shoes were on the ground, and the wheels then locked by chaining them to the box.

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As the wagon went down the hill, the rear wheels simply slid on these shoes, the shoe being there so the wheel wouldn't wear out. Down on the flat again, the shoes and chains would be taken off and the wagon would proceed as normally.

Each wagon had quite a few standard accessories. A water bucket was very necessary, particularly to water the team. I've already commented on the feed box on the rear, and on the tar pot, which was usually made of wood. Each wagon also had a jack - to put on the shoes on hills, to keep from getting stuck, if a wheel was lost. This jack was almost an exact copy of jacks that were made in the 1600's in Europe; the mechanism is identical to the cross-bow cranks of the 1600's and 1700's. Dated jacks have been found for the period from 1739 to 1889; except that they got heavier as the wagons got heavier, the basic design remained the same. The jack, incidentally, was the one accessory for which there was no specific place on the wagon; it was carried inside with the load and not on the outside.

On the left side of every true Conestoga was a tool box, fastened with iron to the side of the wagon. The tool boxes were beautifully decorated in most cases, and are a collector's item today. (Unfortunately many Conestoga wagons were destroyed when people cut out the sides of them in order to get the tool box. They are the one thing that have survived plentifully from the old wagons)

Not all Conestoga wagons were built in Pennsylvania. With the migration down through the valley of Virginia, wagons of a very similar type were built there in the 1800's. The Moravians went out to Salem, N. C., and a man by the name of Nissen started building wagons out there in 1771. The Nissen Wagon Manufacture continued to make wagons up to 1900. There are pictures of small two-horse-team tobacco wagons, going to the tobacco auctions in North Carolina in the early 1900's, that were still a basic Conestoga-type wagon.

But by the Civil War the farm wagon of Pennsylvania was a much simpler type of wagon, a flat bed wagon. No longer needed was the curved-bed Conestoga wagon, going into Philadelphia over hill and dale, loaded with freight. Wagons were just farm wagons, and not of a specific type.

Although probably less than 150 Conestoga wagons of the nineteenth century have survived, we are fortunate in being able to see examples of them in several relatively local museums, as the one at Valley Forge, the Hagley Museum, the Hershey Museum, or the Pennsylvania Farm Museum of Landis Valley, If you get an opportunity to examine one of these surviving wagons, try in your mind's eye to picture it going down Conestoga Road, with bells ringing and the dust behind. What a sight it must have been!


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