Early Transportation on the Great Plains

By Randall Parrish in 1907

Indian Methods of Transportation

Dog Train

Dog Train

The earliest method of transporting goods across the Plains must have been upon the shoulders of men. Long before Cabeza de Vaca wandered through his 10,000 miles of wilderness in search of Mexico, the Indians of the Plains had taken a step upward and learned to shift their burdens onto the backs of patient dogs. Castaneda, the historian of Coronado’s Expedition to the buffalo plains in 1541, wrote: “They go like Arabs with their tents, and their droves of dogs harnessed with saddle-cloths, and pack-saddles, and a cinch. When their load shifts, the dogs howl for someone to straighten it for them.” One hundred years later, another Spanish wanderer, Benavides, wrote:

“I cannot refrain from mentioning something rather incredible and ridiculous, which is that when these Indians go off to trade the whole rancheros go, with their women and children. They live in tents made of buffalo hide, very thin and tanned, and these tents they carry on pack-trains of dogs, harnessed with their pack-saddles. The dogs are medium-sized, and it is customary to have five hundred dogs in one pack train, one in front of another; and thus the people carry their merchandise laden, which they barter for cotton cloth, and other things they need.”

Indian Travois

Indian Travois

By the time the first American adventurers had penetrated beyond the Missouri River, the horse had come to the Indian and been broken to the duties of a burden-bearer. The horse came from the South, gradually overrunning the Plains in wild bands, until the Indian tribes as far north as the Missouri River were well supplied with them. These wild horses were the descendants of those Arabian steeds brought to the New World by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico. As we think of their probable number ranging the Great Plains as long ago as 1750, it is interesting to take note of their small beginnings, when Cortez, in 1519, brought the first horses to the mainland of North America. According to the historian Bernal Diaz, there were 16 horses of the captain and five mares; and he names and describes the latter with care, mentioning the colt born on their voyage from Cuba. And horses had a price in those days in this new land, when for many a year the market held firm at a thousand pieces of eight. But the increase of the stock the Spaniards imported was marvelous, and the prices fell accordingly until, by 1728, horses were down to six dollars each, and mules to ten. It was the wild horse, straying from its old-time Mexican owner into the freedom of the wilderness, captured again by the roaming Indian and reduced to slavery, which, almost in a day, lifted the Indian into a new age of development. The tribes of the Plains knew and used the horse for transportation long before men of English blood came wandering into their villages. Yet, their accepted method was extremely crude, being merely the utilization of two sticks attached to the sides of a horse, the ends dragging on the ground. It was the same plan by which they had loaded their dogs. The French called it the “travois,” and its use was universal from the Great Lakes to Texas.

Spanish Methods

Spanish Pack Mule

Spanish Pack Mule

The next step in advance of Plains transportation was the pack-train of the early Spaniards. The idea was merely an importation from Europe, but its value in the development of the West is beyond computation. The work of the muleteer became almost an art, and there were few regions so isolated, either in mountain or plain, as to remain long unvisited by the pack-train. The distance traveled and the value of merchandise and coins transported in this manner is beyond estimate. In the early history of the Southwest, there were ordinary commercial routes, regularly traveled over more than 1,500 miles long. In 1774 Captain Bautista Anza took such a train from Sonora, Mexico to San Francisco, California, and Coronado wandered the Plains nearly two years, a pack-train bearing his supplies. On the old Vera Cruz Trail, it is said that 70,000 mules were employed each year, the commerce carried on their backs, reaching yearly a total of $64 million dollars. In those days, everything went mule-back, the only concession made to travelers unable to ride in this way being a rude litter on shafts swung to the saddles of two mules walking in single file. Regular commercial routes, over which the pack-mules traveled in long columns, were early established between Mexico and the border Spanish settlements along the Rockies, and thus was the pack-train introduced upon the Plains.

Early Spanish methods of transportation included the use of the carreta

Early Spanish methods of transportation included the use of the carreta

As early, possibly, as the beginning of the 17th century, the first wheeled vehicle made its appearance in this neighborhood but was probably never used on the Plains outside New Mexico. This was the carreta, built without nails or a scrap of iron, being a rude ox-cart, so heavy that no other motive power could pull it. It had two wheels, made from three sections of Cottonwood logs, fastened to a wooden axle, and without tires. Some carretas were still in use within the memory of living men; their creaking and groaning while in motion imparted to the traveler a sensation never to be forgotten. The first wheeled vehicles ever used within the limits of what is now the United States were those Zacatecas wagons with which Juan de Onate traveled in 1596 in his expedition to colonize New Mexico. We only know they were hauled by oxen and that for two centuries following, fairly regular communication was kept up over the same route.

The Mexican Pack-Train

The first overland commerce established by Americans was that along the Santa Fe Trail, and until 1827 it was carried on entirely by pack-trains. After that date, wagons were introduced, yet the other method was never wholly abandoned. The Mexican pack-train, or “atajo,” adopted by the Americans almost in its entirety, was an institution worthy of description. Henry Inman tells the story as follows:

Mule Train by Frederic Remington

Mule Train by Frederic Remington

“A pack-mule was termed a mula de carga, and his equipment consisted of several parts; first the saddle, or aparejo, a nearly square pad of leather stuffed with hay, which covered the animal’s back on both sides equally. The best idea of its shape will be formed by opening a book in the middle and placing it saddle fashion on the back of a chair. Each half then forms a half of the contrivance. Before the aparejo was adjusted to the mule, a zalea, or raw sheep-skin, made soft by rubbing, was put on the animal’s back to prevent chafing, and over it the saddle-cloth, or xerga. On top of both was placed the aparejo, which was cinched by a wide grass bandage. This band was drawn as tightly as possible, to such an extent that the poor brute grunted and groaned under the apparently painful operation, and when fastened, he seemed to be cut in two. This always appeared to be the very acme of cruelty to the uninitiated, but it is the secret of successful packing; the firmer the saddle, the more comfortably the mule can travel, with less risk of being chafed or bruised. The aparejo is furnished with a huge crupper, and this appendage is really the cruelest of all, for it is almost sure to lacerate the tail. Hardly a Mexican mule in the old days of the trade could be found which did not bear the scar of this rude supplement to the immense saddle.”

The load carried by each mule thus equipped averaged three hundred pounds and was hoisted onto the saddle by two packers, sometimes in a single package, sometimes in two, so prepared as to balance themselves. This load, or carga, was secured by a stout rope, drawn as tight as possible under the mule’s belly, and laced around the packs. The operation seldom required more than five minutes. To quote Inman again:

“An old-time atajo, or caravan of pack-mules, generally numbered from 50-200, and it traveled a Jornada, or day’s march of about 12-15 miles. This day’s journey was made without any stopping at noon because if a pack-mule is allowed to rest, he generally tries to lie down, and, with his heavy load, it is difficult for him to get on his feet again. Sometimes he is badly strained in so doing, perhaps ruined forever. When the train starts out on the trail, the mules are so tightly bound with the ropes that they move with great difficulty; but the saddle soon settles itself, and the ropes become loosened so that they have frequently to be tightened. On the march, the muleteer is kept busy nearly all the time; the packs are constantly changing their position, frequently losing their balance and falling off; sometimes saddle, pack, and all swing under the animal’s belly, and he must be unloaded, and repacked again.”

The cost of such transportation was so low that competition, even by wagons in a level country, was nearly impossible. Mules were almost a drug on the market, and the muleteer received only five dollars a month with rations, the latter merely corn and beans. If he desired meat, he had to hunt for it. On the trail, every employee had his place and duty. Each separate band of mules was led by a bell-mare, having a bell strapped about her neck.

It was part of the work of the cook of the party to lead this bell-mare on the march, and the humble pack-animals never failed to follow.

The Prairie Schooner

Covered Wagon

Covered Wagon

After 1824 wagons came into general use for the transportation of this prairie commerce, those commonly used being manufactured in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and capable of carrying about a ton and a half. They were usually drawn by eight mules or an equal number of oxen. Later in the history of the trail, much larger wagons were employed, often hauled by as many as 12 animals. The name “prairie schooner was applied to them. The first caravan of wagons to cross the Plains  —  that experimental trip of 1824 — was drawn by horses and accompanied by a long pack-train of mules. Oxen were first used in 1829, and ever after were common on the Plains, the large Missouri-bred mules necessary for the service is quite expensive. The cost of outfitting for the long, dangerous journey was considerable. During the height of the trade, the wagons cost 200 dollars each; mules 100 dollars each; harness 100 dollars per wagon; water-kegs and extras 25 dollars per wagon. As at least ten mules were required for each wagon, the initial cost per wagon was about 1,300 dollars, or for a train of 20 wagons, —  as small a number as it was safe to travel with through the Indian country, —  26,000 dollars. Besides this, extra mules had to be taken for use in case of an accident. The wagon-master was paid 100 dollars per month, each driver 25 dollars, while there were herders, cooks, and roustabouts to be considered. Altogether it was a venture of importance, and the ambitious Santa Fe trader had to invest heavily. In the last years of the trade, fully 200 wagons were upon the Trail.

Hostility of the Mexican Government to the Traders

For a large part of the time during which this trade flourished, the Mexican Government was openly hostile to the traders. For several years westward-bound caravans would halt on the Cimarron River and send scouts forward to ascertain the feeling of the authorities. From the continual changes in administration, “no one knew what would be the nature of their reception in Santa Fe. Under the governorship of Manuel Armijo, a duty of 500 dollars per wagon, whether large or small and regardless of what it contained, was charged against the helpless trader. To offset this robbery, the freight of three wagons was often transferred to one within a few miles of Santa Fe, and the empty vehicles burned. To avoid paying the export duty charged on coins, false axle-trees were attached to the wagons, in which the money was concealed.

Stampedes

Freight Team on the Plains

Freight Team on the Plains

During these prairie journeys, the perils of a stampede were dreaded almost more than an Indian attack, and, indeed, probably resulted in greater loss. Night or day, this was a never-absent danger. The mule, the patient and good worker as he is, is yet as easily frightened as a Texas steer. A prairie dog barking at the entrance of his burrow, a strange figure in the distance, even the shadow of a passing cloud, has been known to start every animal in the train into a wild run. They seemingly go mad, rushing into one another and becoming so entangled that frequently drivers and mules are crushed to death. They have dashed over precipices and been killed or strayed so far away as to be lost in the desert. Inman quotes an incident illustrating this, which occurred during a winter military campaign in 1868. The mules of three wagons stampeded dashed out of sight and were never found. Ten years later, a farmer who had taken up a claim in what is now Rush County, Kansas, discovered in a ravine on his place the bones of some animals, decayed parts of the harness, and the remains of three army wagons. These were undoubtedly the lost stampeders.

The Starting of a Caravan

The starting of one of these great caravans of the Plains on its day’s journey was a scene long to be remembered, the wild and motley aspect of the men fitting accurately into the barren surroundings of the desert and making a vivid picture. “Catch up! Catch up!” is the order of the captain, and instantly all is uproar and apparent confusion. Josiah Gregg’s description is complete:

Wagon Train on the Santa Fe Trail

Wagon Train on the Santa Fe Trail

“The uproarious bustle which follows, the hallooing of those in pursuit of animals, the exclamations which the unruly brutes call forth from their wrathful drivers, together with the clatter of bells, the rattle of yokes and harness, the jingle of chains, all conspire to produce an uproarious confusion. It is sometimes amusing to observe the athletic wagoner hurrying an animal to its post — to see him heave upon the halter of a stubborn mule, while the brute as obstinately sets back, determined not to move a peg till his own good pleasure thinks it proper to do so. I have more than once seen a driver hitch a harnessed animal to the halter, and by that process haul his mulishness forward, while each of his four projected feet would leave a furrow behind. ‘All’s set!’ is finally heard from some teamster  —  ‘All’s set!’ is directly responded from every quarter. ‘Stretch out!’ immediately vociferates the captain. Then the ‘heps,’ to the drivers, the cracking of whips, the trampling of feet, the occasional creak of wheels, the rumbling of the wagons, while ‘Fall in!’ is heard from headquarters, and the train is strung out, and in a few moments has started on its long journey.”

 

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2020.

About the Author: This article was written by Randall Parrish as a chapter of his book, The Great Plains: The Romance of Western American Exploration, Warfare, and Settlement, 1527-1870; published by A.C. McClurg & Co. in Chicago, 1907. Parrish also wrote several other books, including When Wilderness Was King, My Lady of the North, Historic Illinois, and others. The text as it appears here, however, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.

Also See:

Great Plains

List of Old West Explorers, Trappers, Traders & Mountain Men

Trappers, Traders & Pathfinders

Westward Expansion

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