Wagon 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 took three to six months, still saving weeks off the alternate journey by sea around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
Conestoga Wagons and Prairie Schooners
Conestoga 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.
The 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 law breakers, 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.
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 travelling 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 the episode Mutiny, the wagon master reminds members they signed a charter agreeing to obey the military commands of the captain, under penalty of mutiny.
End 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 trip by sea.
Following the Civil War, the military defeat and relocation of the Indians, the massive reduction of the buffalo herds, and 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 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
17 Miracles, (2011), Jasen Wade, depicting Mormons using handcarts on the pioneer trail to Utah in 1857
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