Conestoga Wagons

Conestoga Wagons

The workhorse of the American road for over one hundred years beginning in the mid-18th century, the Conestoga Wagon was created by the Dutch settlers of the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Used to haul freight between towns and from farms to cities and back again, these stout wagons came in various sizes ranging from 15 to more than 26 feet overall. They could weigh up to 3,000 pounds and carry three tons of freight. Their boat-shaped body with slanted ends and a sag in the center prevented loads from shifting when going up and down hills and gave the wagon a distinctive appearance. No two wagons, however, were alike, since they were often custom built. The Conestoga generally had a vermilion running gear, a Prussian blue wagon body, and a white rain cover of homespun canvas. Its man-high broad wheels kept it from getting stuck in the mud.

The horses used to pull the wagons were the massive Conestogas, one of the few breeds developed in this country. They are believed to have originated from the Tammerlane, several of which were brought over by William Penn. On the average, they stood 16 1/2 to 17 hands high and weighed about 1,600 pounds. At least four horses were used on each wagon. Many used six or eight horses per team. Their work a vestige of the past, the Conestoga breed is all but extinct today.

Characterized by its white canvas cover stretched over eight bentwood hoops above the curved wagon box and towering nearly twelve feet off the ground, the Conestoga and a smaller “cousin” soon became known as “prairie schooners” as they carried families migrating west to a new life along the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails.

Other aspects of Conestoga operations also became ingrained in the American experience. It is said, for instance, that Conestogas were responsible for us driving on the right side of the roadway. Because the wagon had no front seats like other wagons, the wagoneer, when not walking, would ride the left wheelhorse or the “lazy seat”, a pull-out board, located between the front and rear wheels on the left side of the wagon, thereby forcing others to pass on the left. This also put the Conestoga on the right side of the road, and – as the largest vehicle on the roadway – other traffic gave over the right-of-way and conformed to this usage.

Other unique Americanisms, like the expression “I’ll be there with bells on,” may also have their origins with the Conestoga. The wagon’s team of horses were often decked with hoops of brass bells to give warning of the wagon’s approach. If the wagon became stuck or otherwise required the assistance of another team, the bells were forfeited to the rescuer. Thus it came to be a matter of pride to arrive “with the bells on”. The term “Stogy” came from the Conestoga’s wagonmasters who preferred to smoke large cigars as they drove their teams.


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