Wagon Trains, Contracts, Law 1820-1880

wagon trains contracts lawWagon Trains, Contracts, Law 1820-1880

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, wagon trains or caravans brought pioneer settlers, merchants, missionaries, prospectors, freight and livestock across the Great Plains to the West.

Spanish conquistadors had explored the southwest in search of gold, starting with the Coronado Expedition in 1540. Before the wagon trains, adventurous mountain men and fur traders hunted and trapped the region, mostly seeking beaver pelts to sell to eastern merchants to satisfy fashion trends in big cities.

Hunting Trails to Wagon Trails

Hunting and pack trails used by Native Americans and mountain men were widened to accommodate wagons. As market demand for beaver pelts declined, fur traders became guides for wagon trains through rugged and hostile territory.

Famous routes included the Santa Fe Trail (1821-1880), Oregon Trail (1811-1890), Old Spanish Trail (1829-1848), California Trail (1841-1869), Overland Trail (1858-1870), Smoky Hill Trail (1855-1870), Gila Trail (1846-1880) and Mormon Trail (1846-1868).

The primary starting point was Independence, Missouri. Covered wagons gathered each spring, organized, and set off on the long trek westward. Wagons could travel ten to fifteen miles per day, drawn by teams of horses, mules, or oxen. Oxen teams had more stamina and traveled at two miles per hour.

Average journeys by wagon took three to six months, still saving weeks or months off the alternate 15,000-mile hazardous sea journey. A sea voyage from the east coast to the west coast around Cape Horn at the tip of South America took up to eight months.

Conestoga Wagons and Prairie Schooners

Conestoga wagon oxenConestoga wagons, originating in the Conestoga River Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, were larger heavy wagons, 18x11x4 feet, designed for hauling freight, up to 6 tons. The front and back were curved upward to keep freight from sliding. Seams were caulked with tar for crossing rivers.

Pioneers used smaller, lighter, flat-bed wagons known as prairie schooners since the white canvas covers looked like ships sailing on an ocean of prairie grass. The smaller wagons carried over a ton of cargo and passengers. Popular manufacturers of wagons were Murphy and Studebaker.

The Mormon two-wheel handcart was also used, pushed, or pulled by two people. [See the movie, 17 Miracles, 2011, depicting Mormons using handcarts on the pioneer trail to Utah in 1857.]

Verbal and Written Contracts

Smaller wagon trains were often comprised of family, friends, and neighbors who knew each other and were able to get along without using a written contract. Larger wagon trains comprised of strangers and diverse groups formed companies with bylaws, rules, and contracts. They elected captains and officers. Longer trains included lieutenants for each section.

wagon trains pioneers crossing NebraskaThe captain chose the camping site each night, based on advice from a guide or scout. At night, the wagons formed a circle or a square, serving as a corral for livestock and a fortress for the passengers. There was music, singing, and dancing for entertainment. The tongue of the lead wagon was pointed toward the North Star, for the wagon train to orient its direction the next morning.

Constitution-like contracts for mutual benefit and protection included provisions for voting, decision making, amending the contract, adding or withdrawing members, dissolution, arbitration, jury trials, banishing lawbreakers, gambling, drinking, Sabbath-breaking (some wagon trains did not travel on Sundays), defense, river crossings, hunting, medical care, death, breakdowns, failing to perform duties, and private property rights. Captains served as trail judges.

A panel of three arbiters with binding decisions settled disputes, one chosen by each party and the third arbiter chosen by the first two.

map US Territory 1840

Contracts for guide services commonly included a charge per person or per wagon, to be paid upon safe arrival at the destination. By 1850, trails were well-known and guide books with reliable information were used.

Many miles of wagon trails were outside of state or territorial jurisdiction across unorganized, disputed, or Indian Territory. Contracts provided the rules, laws, structure and self-government for the mobile group.

Maritime Law on Wagon Trains

The 1963 episode titled Caravan, of the TV series Have Gun – Will Travel stated that by custom, a wagon train was governed by maritime law, with the captain in charge.

In the TV series Wagon Train, season 3, episodes 29 and 30, Trial for Murder, the story depicts the arrest and makeshift trial of an accused murderer, around 1870, 200 miles from the nearest town with law officials on the California Trail. The wagon master checks the registration book for passenger occupations to find any lawyers or others with legal knowledge to serve as attorneys in the case.

The wagon master states that under the articles signed by all members, he has the same rights and responsibilities as the captain of a ship to establish and enforce the rules when they are traveling outside the jurisdiction of any other duly constituted authority. A jury is selected by the attorneys. Witnesses testify under oath, sworn on a Bible, administered by the court clerk, with an American flag in the background in a trail-side desert court.

In season 6, episode 1, Wagon Train Mutiny, the wagon master reminds train members that they signed a charter agreeing to obey the military commands of the captain, under penalty of mutiny.

In season 1, episode 14, The Julie Gage Story, the wagon master performs a marriage ceremony, using a Bible, under the same authority as the captain of a ship.

transcontinental railroad Utah 1869End of the Wagon Trains

The first frontier that used wagon trains was across the Allegheny Mountains in the late 18th century. Wagon trains ended in the East in the 1840s and 1850s as railroads were built. In 1852, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) westward route reached the Ohio River, the first eastern seaboard railroad to do so.

Even after the completion of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific transcontinental railroad in May 1869, wagon trains continued for another decade or more, but they decreased in size. Pioneer wagon wheel ruts can still be seen in several states along the old trails. The trip by railroad only took 7 days.

In 1855, the Panama Railroad was completed, shortening the sea trip by 8,000 miles, eliminating the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America. [The Panama Canal did not open until 1914.]

Before the Panama Railroad was built, some adventuresome California forty-niner gold rush prospectors crossed the isthmus by a 4-day canoe river trip, followed by 50 difficult miles of jungle trail by horse or mule to Panama City.

Following the Civil War, the military defeat and relocation of the Indians, the massive reduction of the buffalo herds, and the establishment of stagecoach lines, bridges, ferries, and improved trading posts and services made travel safer, faster, and more convenient. As the population grew, freight caravans carried cargo to cities, towns, forts, and mining camps.

Indian Depredation Claims and Notaries

When wagon trains were attacked by hostile Indians and property or livestock was stolen or destroyed, the victim could file a depredation claim for restitution with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The victim made a list of the lost items and the estimated value and went to a notary or court clerk to make a sworn affidavit describing the incident and the name of the hostile tribe.

Wagon Train Indian Depredation Claim of Richard Barret 1865

Wagon Train Indian Depredation Affidavit of Jerome Crow 1866

Wagon Train TV Shows and Movies

Wagon Train, the Western TV series about the trail from Missouri to California, ran on NBC 1957–62 and then on ABC 1962–65.
The Oregon Trail TV series ran on NBC in 1977.

Movies with wagon trains include
The Covered Wagon, a 1923 silent film about pioneers traveling from Kansas to Oregon. Most of the extras seen in The Covered Wagon are riding in the heirloom real covered wagons used by their pioneer ancestors.
The Big Trail (1930) about the Oregon Trail, starring John Wayne
Zane Grey’s Fighting Caravans (1931) about California freight wagons, starring Gary Cooper and the remake Wagon Wheels (1934) starring Randolph Scott
The Oregon Trail (1936) John Wayne
3 Faces West (1940) John Wayne
Wagon Train (1940) Tim Holt
Kit Carson (1940) John Hall
Bad Bascomb (1946) Wallace Beery
Wagon Master (1950) about a Mormon wagon train to Utah, starring Ben Johnson and Ward Bond
Bend of the River (1952) James Stewart
Arrow in the Dust (1954) Sterling Hayden
Westward Ho, the Wagons (1956) Fess Parker
The Oregon Trail (1959) Fred MacMurray
Thunder in the Sun (1959) Susan Hayward, Jeff Chandler
The Way West (1967) Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark
How the West Was Won (1976-1979) TV series, includes the Macahan family journey to Oregon in the 1860s, starring James Arness
The Chisholms (1979) TV mini-series, 4 episodes, TV series in 1980, 9 episodes, about the Chisholm family moving from Virginia to Wyoming, starring Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris
Into the West (2005) TV mini-series, 6 episodes, covers Westward expansion period from 1825 to 1890
17 Miracles, (2011), Jasen Wade, depicting Mormons using handcarts on the pioneer trail to Utah in 1857

Note: The Chisholms added at the suggestion of filmmaker David DePerro. Thank you.
Fort scenes in several western movies and TV shows including Centennial, How the West Was Won, Dream West, and The Chisholms were filmed at Bent’s Fort in Colorado, on the Santa Fe Trail.

Image Credits
1. Covered wagon, Bent’s Fort, Colorado by Mosab Sasi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Conestoga wagon by Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
3. Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska by C.C.A. Christensen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
4. Map, U.S. Territory 1840, University of Virginia, fair use for education
5. Transcontinental Railroad celebration, Utah 1869 by Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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