West Wagon Trains | Covered Wagons

American Western Migration
Wagon Trains and Covered Wagons

c.1700 – 1800s
Midwest, Southwest and Western United States of America

In search of inexpensive land and opportunity, American pioneers migrated westward by the thousands. The early British American colonies for the most part hugged the Atlantic Ocean. As the population of the colonies grew and expanded, westward migration began and never really stopped.

After the American War of Independence, the new United States of America experienced rapid growth as farming, trade, construction and manufacturing increased dramatically and waves of new immigrants entered the new nation.

The French

In the early 1800s, the United States was given a major opportunity to virtually double in size. Diplomats representing Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France, approached U.S. government officials with an offer to sell the new nation a huge tract of land stretching from the original boundaries of the United States all the way to the Mississippi River and far beyond.

France controlled this vast area of North America from 1699 until 1762, the year it gave the territory to its ally Spain. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, France reacquired the territory in 1800 in the hope of re-establishing the French empire in North America. A serious slave revolt in the Caribbean island of Haiti, a French possession, forced France to re-evaluate its situation in North America. More importantly, an impending war with Great Britain and other European powers forced France to abandon empire building plans in North America entirely. Plans soon began to sell the vast territory to the United States.

The purchase of the territory of French Louisiana was officially completed by treaty on April 30, 1803 under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson decided to move forward with the purchase in order to remove French presence in the region and to protect both U.S. trade access to the important port of New Orleans and free passage on the Mississippi River. The concept that the new nation of the United States expanded to over twice its original size was a significant added benefit that would be appreciated later by millions of people.

Economic Expansion

As the economy of the United States expanded and immigrants moved into the country, demand grew enormously for new land and resources to feed the growing economy and accommodate the expanding population. Food, timber, fur, minerals, water power and more drove dramatic expansion west where pioneers farmed, mined, constructed and hunted to provide the many resources needed by the growing population both in the East and in the newly expanding Western Territories.

Old and brand new towns like Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St.Louis, Kansas City, Minneapolis and more grew dramatically as people moved west to settle down and find their fortune. The Midwestern and Mid Southern region around the Mississippi and Ohio River areas of the U.S. fed the Eastern U.S. with food, timber, minerals and more to help the seemingly unending economic growth.

The migration of pioneers had pushed the American frontier to the Mississippi Valley by the 1830s. Traders, explorers and missionaries who traveled further west described of fertile valleys, great forests and abundant farming, mining and hunting opportunities in the Oregon, California, Missouri frontiers and other western regions west of the Mississippi River.

From the 1840s to the 1860s more than 300,000 pioneers crossed the plains and mountains of the West along various routes such as the Oregon and Santa Fe trails.

The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) which began on January 24, 1848, when gold was discovered by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California,  accelerated the westward migration. Soon the discovery of other valuable minerals such as silver, lead, nickel, iron ore and more added to the frenzy of people moving west to make their fortunes. 

Covered Wagons

Pioneers traveling west across hundreds and thousands of miles needed supplies, guides and protection to help them make the often treacherous journey. Wagon Trains were formed to allow groups to reduce the dangers associated with the long journey west. Wagon Trains gave pioneers the advantage of strength in numbers along with a mobile “fort” capability when wagons were circled tightly together at rest for protection against hostile Native Americans, roving criminal gangs and wild animals.

One of the most popular wagons used by the pioneers was the Conestoga Wagon. This sturdy wagon was invented by Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants in the Conestoga Valley. Conestoga Wagons moved freight and people westward over the Allegheny Mountains and to the far West from the 1770s through the mid 1800s. These popular wagons were often referred to as the Camels of the Prairie. The ends of the wagon were built higher than the middle and a high, rounded, white canvas roof would cover the wagon making it a Covered Wagon. Teams of four to six horses powered the wagon.

Other wagons used by American pioneers were similar to the Conestoga Wagon but smaller and sleeker. These less robust wagons were called a Prairie Schooner because its white roof cover resembled an ocean sail ship from a distance.

Wagon Trains were composed of up to 200 wagons, though more common were trains of 30 or less wagons. Wagon Trains had large numbers of livestock accompany them. Upwards of 2,000 cattle and 10,000 sheep joined the pioneers in their westward trek.

A pioneer family traveling from Independence, Missouri to Oregon along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s took about four to six weeks. Supplies were needed to last this long or longer due to the lack of very few places if any, to replenish supplies.

Whether traveling northwest, due west or southwest; the journey along the Oregon, Santa Fe and other major trails was long, arduous and very dangerous. Pioneers traveled across immense flat plains, gigantic mountains and scorching hot deserts to reach their destinations.

Native American Attacks

Contrary to popular belief, attacks by Native American Indians were rare. Often, the local Indian tribes welcomed the Wagon Trains to trade. Although the long westward journey caused numerous deaths and injuries through accidents, weather and terrain related causes; the biggest danger was disease.  Thousands of pioneers died along the way due to disease and lack of medical attention.

The long westward journeys of the pioneers in the Wagon Trains succeeded in delivering hundreds of thousands of Americans to conquer the vast American continent and settle and grow the great nation of the United States of America.