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The Conestoga Wagon had a little more than a hundred years lifespan but came to symbolize the American growth of colonial expansion. During the 1700's, the Appalachian Mountains were where the frontier began. Places such as Pittsburgh were the hub that connected people in their trek for moving west. With the capacity it could haul and stabilization it produced, the Conestoga wagon was the perfect transportation method used by early colonists.
Photograph by Ed Meskens of a painting completed in 1883 by Newbold Hough Trotter (1827-1898), painting is in the State Museum of Pennsylvania
The first reference of a Conestoga wagon was in an Account Book, 1712-1719, owned by James Logan, secretary to WIlliam Penn, where he makes a reference to a Conestoga Wagon in 1717. Lames Logan had established an irregular freight wagon service between Philadelphia and the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster County using one wagon, By the end of 1717, the fleet had grown to three and Logan was referring to the wagons as "Conestoga" wagons because that was their destination.
Frontispiece from Plain Truth: Or, Serious Considerations On the Present State of the City of Philadelphia, and Province of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia 1747). A Conestoga wagon depicted was widely used by the farmers of Pennsylvania.
Benjamin Franklin talked of a Conestoga Wagon in 1734 in reference to a tavern:
11Jul advertised: John Hobart who lately kept the Sun Tavern in Water Street, Philadelphia, gives this Publick Notice to his Friends and others, that he is now removed to the Sign of the Conestoga Wagon in Market Street next Door to the White Horse."The proprietor kept "good Entertainment for Man and Horses at reasonable rates." Its "large Yard Room for Waggons and Cattle" made it a convenient place "for Killing and Dressing of Hogs" to be sold across the street at the shambles. Farmers often stayed there when bringing their livestock to market.
The first mention of their use in the hauling of freight was during the French and Indian War when supplies were delivered to General Edward Braddock and his troops near Pittsburgh. In a speech to the Pennsylvania Assembly on December 19, 1754, Governor Morris suggested a law that would "settle and establish wages" to be paid for the use of the wagons and horses which soon were to be pressed into military service for the expedition against Fort DuQuesne.
An old photo of a Conestoga wagon
Sir John St. Clair, Deputy Quartermaster General for the British Army in America, had told Braddock, in late February 1755, "of a great number of Dutch settlers, at the foot of a mountain called the Blue Ridge, who would undertake to carry by the hundred the provisions and stores." St. Clair was confident he could have 200 wagons and 1,500 pack horses at Fort Cumberland by early May. On April 21 Braddock reached Frederick, in Maryland. However, only 25 wagons had come in and several of these were unserviceable.
General Braddock was deciding to end the expedition when Benjamin Franklin, who was in Frederick to calm the anger of Braddock and St. Clair against the Pennsylvanians, pointed out that in eastern Pennsylvania every farmer had a wagon. Braddock then suggested that Franklin try to raise the needed 150 wagons and the 1,500 pack horses. Franklin agreed to the terms and was commissioned. On his return to Pennsylvania, Franklin published an advertisement at Lancaster on April 26:
Inside a Conestoga wagon, private collection
Franklin was successful. Shortly after this Pennsylvania farmers were on the march with their wagons and horses.The wagons used in these operations, were referred to as Dutch Wagons or Conestoga wagons. It is doubtful that they were true Conestoga wagons due to the smaller loads they carried and the smaller roads they traveled. Governor Morris indicated loads as small as thirty-five bushels when he sent a dispatch to Braddock informing him that he had bought "one thousand bushels of Oats and one thousand bushels of Indian Corn in this town [Philadelphia], and have directed sixty waggons to be taken up." Braddock also indicated that the farmers wagons were smaller than the English wagons when he wrote "all the King's waggons were also sent back to the fort, they being too heavy and requiring large horses for the shafts...." Governor Morris also "dispatched fifty-two waggons from this town, each carrying fifty bushels of grain, one half oats the ether Indian Corn." The load was approximately 2,200 pounds, quite smaller than an average load a Conestoga wagon could haul. An average load was 6000 pounds, but loads weighing 10,000 pounds, "a hundred hundred" as wagoners boastfully put it were frequently hauled over the road. In 1844, there was a man by the name of Lucas with a team of only five horses who hauled 12,000 pounds over then National Pike, the biggest load up to that date.
An old photo of a farmer with his Conestoga wagon and team
Hauling freight paid well. The rate of hauling freight in 1786 from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh was five pence per pound. The Conestoga wagon hauled practically anything- general merchandise for stores, flour and wheat, produce, spices, tea and teapots, military clothing, nails, gunpowder, glass, pottery, iron ore, pig iron, charcoal, whiskey, tobacco, and flaxseed. In the spring of 1778 one of the wagons guarded by a company of Continental soldiers, brought $600,000 in silver, a loan from the French government, all the way from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to York, Pennsylvania. It was a Conestoga wagon that carried supplies and equipment for General George Washington to Valley Forge during the Revolution.
An old photo of a man with his Conestoga wagon and team
It is not certain whether German or English styles influenced the Conestoga wagon most. Judging from some early English wagons still in existence, it would appear that some of these lines were followed. Even today some farmers, and those who have been close to the wagon and its use, frequently refer to the Conestoga type as "English wagons." With its graceful boat shape of a body, deeply carved with raking ends so the load would settle toward the middle, it was perfect for mountain travel. The wagon bed touched the running gear at only three points.
Conestoga wagon in the possession of Rough and Tumble Museum, Kinzers, PA
The colors used were in the Pennsylvania German tradition- a light but brilliant blue verging on peacock blue for the bodies, the great wheels and all the running gear as well as the sideboards were vermillion. The ironwork was black and the homespun top white. The ornately decorated iron work was certainly of the Pennsylvania German tradition and can be found in the Pennsylvania German Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art- tool boxes whose hand forged iron hasps and hinges were in the form of decorative burning bushes, rams' heads, and tulips. The blacksmith's skill also hand forged hounds that braced and connected parts of the wagon, chains, ax holder, hub caps, and wagon jacks. The wagon jack usually had the name and date of the builder and often the name of the owner.
Another photo of the Conestoga wagon at Rough and Tumble Museum. This wagon was purchased at a farm auction by Earl C. Koons in Greencastle Pennsylvania, Franklin County on March 9, 1968
The Conestoga wagon was designed with various woods- tough oak for the perch, springy hickory for the spokes, non splitting sour gum for the hubs, half inch pine or poplar boards for the body. The heaviest pieces were always seasoned four years before used. On the cut of the wooden spindle, the proper iron plating and the setting of the ponderous wheels, depended the success or failure of the construction.
Lancaster County wrought iron hasp (1770-1850) for a Conestoga wagon toolbox
A lazy board, which extended from the left side under the body, was pushed back under the carriage when not in use. It served as a seat or standing place for the driver when he adjusted the brakes and was made of the toughest white oak, for if this seat would break, it would mean death to the driver and destruction of the team and load. A good driver had the ability to control his team by word of mouth, or to crack his whip without hitting his horses.
Lancaster County wrought iron hasp (1770-1800) for a Conestoga wagon toolbox
Gideon Weaver was a builder of Conestoga wagons beginning in 1836 and extending into the 1860's and 1870's in the Conestoga Valley. He continued producing the same style wagons without canvas tops, which were used in furnaces, forges, and iron mines in Lancaster County. Many forest trees were taken from the stump and converted into a Conestoga wagon. They were made by hand with the exception of using a saw and a turning lathe operated by water power.
The saw mill cut the huge logs into planks, running from four inches down to two inches, by half inch differences in each plank. Another log would contain in its grading, the board's thickness from one half inch to one and one half inches. Another log would make the hubs. Several log butts produced the spokes. All were split and hewed out of the rough by the use of the hand-ax. In this condition the spokes, planks, hubs and boards were ranked in their proper places and re-ranked twice. This lumber was kept under the careful eyes of the wagon-maker for three years, before any of it was used in a newly constructed, first-class wagon.
A closeup of a wheel on a Conestoga wagon, private collection
The diameter of the front wheels varied from forty to forty-five inches with the rear wheels ran ten to twenty inches larger. The wheels needed to be removed every hundred miles so the axles could be greased. They had a four inch tire which was applied to the wheel when the iron was hot. When the iron cooled, shrinkage held the rim tightly into place.
A Conestoga wagon in a private collection. Notice the feedbox attached to the back of the wagon
The average size was usually sixteen feet long, four feet wide, and four feet deep.There was a feed trough or box which was suspended at the rear end of the wagon bed, In the evening, when the day's journey was ended, the troughs were taken down and fastened on the tongues of the wagon to which the horses were tied, three on a side with their heads to the trough. There was a toolbox with a slanted lid which was situated on the left side of the wagon which held the wagon jacks, equipment for shoeing the horses, trimming hooves, repairing harnesses. The standard equipment hauled on all Conestoga wagons was a wagon jack, tar pot, and iron hook for hanging. A water bucket for the horses and an axe were also carried on the trips. A white cover of canvas, sailcloth or homespun hemp stretched over six to thirteen wooden hoops to protect the cargo. There was a tailgate for end loading. Most joints were iron braced.
A toolbox attached to a Conestoga wagon with decorative ironwork, private collection
The most expensive cost of the Conestoga wagon was the iron work that was evident on each wagon. It must have been a contest for the Pennsylvania Germans who could produce the most elegant ironwork on a wagon. After all, these wagons covered the colonial roads continually. Around 1770, Lancaster included among its craftsmen five wheelwrights, thirteen blacksmiths, seven turners, and twenty woodworkers along with ironworkers and storekeepers which kept busy with the production of the Conestoga wagons. The work of a wheelwright and blacksmith took two months to build and cost $200-$250 when completed. This was nothing in comparison to the cost of the special breed of horses which averaged anywhere from $250 up to $1000 per horse.
A man with his Conestoga wagon and team
The horses which no longer exist were known as Conestoga's too and were similar to the Clydesdales. They stood sixteen hands high and weighed as much as 1800 pounds. A typical team of a Conestoga wagon consisted of four to six animals. The harnesses used were highly decorated and polished, colored with ribbons and pompoms. The great majority of wagoners did not use bells on the National Road, but they were common on the Pennsylvania teams in the nineteenth century. The bells were cone or pear shaped with an open end which were attached to a thin iron arch sprung over the tops of the hames. The bells varied in tone. Typically five small bells were used on the lead team, four bells on the middle, and four large on the rear team. It was considered shameful for any driver to arrive at his destination without his bells. This was the origin of the saying, "I will be there with bells on."
Front view of a Conestoga wagon, private collection
The Conestoga drivers were a special breed. They walked beside their wagons on the left side or rode the left wheel horse. If they grew weary, they reclined on the lazy board. Sitting on the lazy board, the driver could operate the break. They worked long hours and bedded down with their teams in good weather or headed for a roadside tavern in inclement or winter weather. They dressed in red flannel shirts, leather boots, linsey pants, and broad-brimmed wool hat. They were a hard drinking lot which were fond of dancing, card playing and smoking cigars known as Conestogas or stogies for short selling for a penny for four-of them.
Then men who hauled merchandise over the road were called wagoners. There were two classes, the "regulars" and the "sharpshooters." The regulars were on the road constantly with their team and wagons and had no other pursuit than hauling goods and merchandize on the road. The sharpshooters were for the most part farmers, who put their farm teams on the road in seasons when freights were high, and took them off when prices of hauling declined. Jealousy existed between the two classes. The regulars drove his team an average of fifteen miles a day while the sharpshooter could average twenty or more miles a day.
There were three main routes that the Conestoga wagons took- over the Appalachian Mountains to Pittsburgh where the freight was then shipped downriver into the Ohio Valley, along the National Road connecting Baltimore and Frederick Maryland with Wheeling West Virginia and eventually to Vandalia Illinois by 1852, and down the Great Wagon Road through the valley of Virginia into North Carolina.
An old photo of an Conestoga wagon in Lancaster Pennsylvania
The traffic of the Conestoga wagon continued to increase until 1775 when there were more than 10,000 wagons which made the trip to Philadelphia annually. Sometimes there were one hundred wagons on a single train. 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".. Their numbers increased year after year until 1830 when canals competed with them for freight hauling. The growth of the railroad also began to diminish the use of the Conestoga wagons over the nation's roads. The Conestoga wagon could no longer be seen on the road, but was still in use on the farms well into the twentieth century.
Closeup photo of a Conestoga wagon, Rough and Tumble Museum
Today the Conestoga wagon is rare and is found only in farm museums, museums, or private collections. In our Auction Results section during January 2010 a Conestoga wagon box, ca. 1800 with a wrought iron tulip form hasp and hinges, retaining a blue surface sold for $3840 at Pook and Pook in Downingtown Pennsylvania. In 1999, a Conestoga Wagon brought $29,150 including a ten percent buyer's fee at Conestoga Auction Company in Manheim Pennsylvania. Today the value of a Conestoga wagon is anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000. They were truly the workhorse of the Colonial period. This Conestoga wagon box sold for $28,080 at Pook and Pook at their sale September 28-29-2007
Source: Research and Text by Bryan Wright
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