wagon train

wagon train, in U.S. history, a group of covered wagons used to convey people and supplies to the West before the coming of the railroad. The wagon replaced the pack, or horse, train in land commerce as soon as proper roads had been built. The first frontier region in which wagoning became highly developed was across the Allegheny barrier in the late 18th cent. There were few routes through the mountains, and in the days of the westward movement they were well-traveled by the migrants' wagons and by the wagon trains of professional wagoners carrying goods between the Ohio settlements and the cities on the coast. Used in this trade was the Conestoga wagon, the most efficient freight carrier of the age. On the prairies of the Middle West and on the Great Plains, wagons could be used without the necessity of making roads, and there the covered wagon, or prairie schooner, of the migrant predominated. It was in crossing the Great Plains that the typical wagon train was developed. The vast distances through unsettled country and the danger from Native Americans made it necessary to travel in large parties. Such a train was organized with an almost military discipline for defense. A contract, or constitutional paper, was drawn up, setting forth the objects of the migration, the terms of joining, the rules to be followed, and the officers to be elected. All joining signed this paper and then participated in the election of officers. Sometimes both a military captain and a president with civil powers were chosen. More often the offices were combined in one individual. Aides or lieutenants were elected, and a guide was usually hired for the more difficult parts of the route. The order of wagons both on the trail and in camp was strictly regulated. At night the wagons were drawn into a circular corral, and a strict guard was kept to prevent a surprise attack by hostile Native Americans. Freighters who supplied the early army posts and mining camps also usually traveled in parties for the same reason as the migrants. The wagon trains disappeared in the East in the 1840s and 50s, and the Western trails lost importance in the later 19th cent.

See H. P. Walker, The Wagonmasters (1966).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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