The covered wagon—‘Go west young man’
■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
The covered wagon and stagecoaches superseded more rudimentary means of travel in the United States, both for commerce and personal travel. Of course, the old story of East and West never meeting became the national challenge.
Until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Ohio River was our western frontier and for several years thereafter. It wasn’t until sometime afterward that wagon trains began to assemble in great numbers to cross the mighty Mississippi and venture into what was then known as the wild, wild west.
As delineated in last week’s episode, Americans have always been on the move—by foot, horseback, or horse-drawn carriage. Rivers and oceans had provided us commercial transportation. In all areas east of the Ohio River, ground transportation had been a part of American movement for quite some time. It was also easier to board a ship in New York to travel south to the coastal cities, Florida, and the gulf. From there, it was easier to travel inland by river or horse-drawn carriage.
However, the wild, wild west was as big a challenge as outer space is today. There was lots of danger, but adventurers and folks looking for land and settlements were just as brave as any Daniel Boone or other early adventurers seeking new lands, hoping to make a fortune, or carve new trails into the unknown.
Cities had horse-drawn carriages and carts dating as far back as their European roots. It was the new frontiers that forced development of better modes of transportation.
Highways or cow paths
Without any designated roads or routes from the east to west, pioneers often chose animal paths or trails used by Native Americans as they set out to seek their futures in an unknown western wilderness.
Roads between cities east of the Ohio River were often so narrow that if two buggies met, one might be forced into a ditch so the other could pass. Bridges were few and far between, so buggies sought shallow areas to ford the river. Many were swept downstream or became stuck in river bottom silt.
Horses, mules or oxen
Horses and horse drawn wagons were vital to the process of moving goods between towns and cities and contributed heavily to the growth of communities. As the western movement picked up speed, the mode of transporting goods and colonists required reconsideration. Solo wagons were impractical. All too many who tried such a venture ended up as victims of attacks by hostile tribes or were waylaid by opportunistic bandits.
Wagon trains came into existence for various reasons, first and foremost, as a means of protecting people and goods. The expression “circle the wagons” came about due to a method of fighting off hostile forces. Logistics played an important part in the process of moving people and products across hundreds to thousands of miles of uncharted territories. What to do and how to do it depended on animals as engines of movement.
The methods of movement were varied. Which animal would be used to pull the wagons forward? Below is an example of how those decisions were made.
Preparations for such entourages took time, often weeks or months. Supporting a population of people and animals for such a long journey required necessities for survival, including food for both, medications, clothing and bedding. Numerous “travel guides” were issued, offering suggestions. The following list is from one of those anonymous guides:
“Two hundred pounds of flour, thirty pounds of pilot bread, seventy-five pounds of bacon, ten pounds of rice, five pounds of coffee, two pounds of tea, twenty-five pounds of sugar, half a bushel of dried beans, one bushel of dried fruit, two pounds of sateratus (baking soda), ten pounds of salt, half a bushel of corn meal; and it is well to have half a bushel of corn, parched and ground; a small keg of vinegar.”
Often unlisted in the above list was alcohol. Seldom did a wagon not have a keg of booze. Even prohibitionists brought along their jugs of “medicinal” spirits.
As years passed, forts and towns were established along the way, places where wagon trains could pause for restocking and rest. Cities sprang up—St. Louis, Omaha, Kansas City, and, to the south, El Paso.
California here we come
California became the target of the more adventurous as well as commercial entities. El Paso was one of the more popular kick-off places to the Golden State, although the southwestern deserts offered nothing but heat and hostile tribes but few watering holes. Santa Fe was another point of departure toward California.
Desert routes split off into separate trails west. One such trail passed through Las Cruces across the Chihuahuan Desert to Cooke’s Peak and Fort Cummings, about 15 miles northeast of Deming (New Mexico). This route served John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Service with a station in Moreno Valley.
This was a dangerous route. Two Apache chiefs, Cochise and Mangas Coloradas, plundered and even massacred parties who dared venture through a canyon known as “gauntlet of death.” In one such encounter, 100 people were slaughtered by these hostile Indians.
Crossing the Colorado into California, wagon trains that crossed the Sonoran Desert faced 120-degree temperatures in the summer. One branch took them into San Diego. Another trail brought them into what is now Anza-Borrego, south of Hemet and the San Jacinto Valley.
The Anza expedition of 1775 helped establish this route. The trip from the Pecos River to the Pacific Coast covered 1200 miles. It was always dangerous and hundreds of hopeful colonists died or were massacred along the way. Their bones are still scattered across the deserts and mountains along this route.
Juan Bautista de Anza’s trek through what is now known as Bautista Canyon, east of Hemet, was a milestone expedition in colonizing the San Jacinto Valley and points west. Once gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, the population of California grew like a summer thunderstorm.
More to come next time when we look into passenger, commercial, and mail routes to California. In a future article, we will cover the railroads, so keep reading!