Early Transportation on the Great Plains

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 round 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 being 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 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.


Freight Team on the Plains

Freight Team on the Plains

During these prairie journeys the perils of a stampede were dreaded almost more than Indian attack, and, indeed, probably resulted in greater loss. Night or day this was a never-absent danger. The mule, 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 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 June 2018.

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

Westward Expansion




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