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The Reign Of The Prairie Schooner

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By Randall Parrish in 1907



Prairie Schooner

The Prairie Schooner was heavily used by emigrants traveling to the western frontier. The schooners were much lighter than heavier covered wagons, which required a six-horse team. The prairie schooner could be drawn by as few as two horses or oxen. 


I hear the tread of Pioneers,

Of Nations yet to be;

The first low wash of waves, where soon

Shall roll a human sea.


-- John Greenleaf Whittier





Increase of Santa Fe Trade


The close of the Mexican war brought with it a new era to the Plains. The reign of the prairie schooner then began in earnest. Almost immediately the freight business between Missouri River points and Santa Fe increased to a wonderful degree. Where before a yearly caravan was deemed sufficient for the trade, from now on, during the season of safe travel, the trail was seldom vacant of slow-toiling wagons. Wages for teamsters rose steadily, although prices for transportation had a marked tendency downward because of increasing competition. However, profits were sufficient, even taking into account the growing hostility of the Indian tribes, and the consequent danger of the passage. The usual price charged for thus hauling freight to Santa Fe was ten dollars a hundred pounds, each wagon earning from five hundred to six hundred dollars every trip, the average time consumed being eighty or ninety days. About this time the eastern terminus of the trade shifted to a considerable degree from Independence to Westport, and Kansas City began her steady advance toward supremacy.


The Rush of Gold-Seekers over the Oregon Trail

During this period the Oregon Trail was not neglected, but was being constantly traversed by emigrant trains bound for the Columbia River country of California. But by the Spring of 1849, when the gold rush began, this slender current became suddenly transformed into a mighty torrent. In all the chronicles of men there is nothing to compare with the stream of humanity which then began flowing across an unconquered wilderness. No one may even guess at the numbers involved. There are no statistics to turn to. It has been roughly estimated that in that first year alone forty-two thousand people crossed the Plains. Lummis, in a remarkable article on Pioneer Transportation, in McClure's Magazine, from whom I quote freely in this chapter, pictures this exodus in these powerful words:


"In its pathless distance, its inevitable hardships, and its frequent savage perils, reckoned with the character of the men, women, and children concerned, it stands alone. The era was one of national hard times; and not only the professional failures, but ministers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, and farmers, with their families, caught the new yellow fever, and betook themselves to a journey fifty times as long and hard as the average of them had ever taken before.


Powder, lead, food-stuffs, household goods, wives, sisters, mothers, and babies rode in the Osnaburg-sheeted prairie schooners, or whatsoever wheeled conveyance the emigrant could secure, up from ancient top-buggies to new Conestogas; while the men rode their horses or mules, or trudged beside the caravans. A historic party of five Frenchmen pushed a hand-wagon from the Missouri to the Coast; and one man trundled his possessions in a wheelbarrow. At its best, it was an itinerary untranslatable to the present generation; at its worst, with Indian massacres, thirst, snows, tender-footedness, and disease, it was one of the ghastliest highways in history. The worst chapter of cannibalism in our national record was that of the Donner Party, snowed in from November to March, 1849-50 in the Sierra Nevada.


In the fifties the Asiatic cholera crawled in upon the Plains, and like a gray wolf followed the wagon-trains from the River to the Rockies. In the height of the migration, from four thousand to five thousand immigrants died of this pestilence; and if there was a half-mile which the Indians had failed to punctuate with a grave, the cholera took care to remedy the omission.


The two-thousand-mile trip was a matter of four months when least, and of six with bad luck. Children were born, and people died; worried greenhorns quarreled and killed one another -- and the train straggled on. Up on the head-waters of the Platte one probably could find, even now, the crumbling remnants of a little cottonwood scaffold, and of her rocking chair, which was left upon it to mark the grave of a mother who gave up her life there to the birth of a child later not unknown in the history of California. On the southern route -- through New Mexico and Arizona -- Commissioner Bartlett took cognizance of one hundred deserted wagons. Already in the summer of 1849, 1,500 wagons, bound for 'Californy,' crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph alone in six weeks. In 1850, Kirkpatrick counted 459 west-bound teams in nine miles."


Freight Traffic to the Pacific in the Sixties


In the rear of this immense emigrant traffic there immediately sprang up a vast freighting interest, which at this day seems almost incredible. We can but roughly estimate its importance. We know this, that during the sixties five hundred heavily laden wagons frequently passed Fort Kearney in a single day. In 1865, within six weeks, six thousand wagons filled with freight rolled past that isolated post on the Overland Trail. Frank A. Root, about that time an express messenger, who later published an interesting volume, "The Overland Stage to California," records that in a single day's ride between Fort Kearny and old Julesburg, he counted 888 west-bound wagons, drawn by 10,650 oxen, horses, and mules.


Sioux and Blackfoot Warriors

Sioux and Blackfoot Warriors, painting by Charles  M. Russell 1902.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE! 


Freight Train

A female bullwhacker leading a freight train.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!


In illustrating the slowness of this mode of travel, Root, starting one day from Atchison on his stage, spoke to a bull-whacker who was just pulling out. Root went through to Denver, and doubled back, meeting his friend on the road. This experience was repeated again and again, the express messenger seeing the bull-whacker for the last time as he rolled into Denver. Root had accomplished five single trips, having covered 3,265 miles, with eighteen days' lay over, while the freighter had wheeled slowly 653 miles.


Freighting across the Plains attained to its greatest magnitude during and for a short time after the Civil War, from 1863 to 1866, but during the entire decade from 1859 to 1869 it was of immense proportions. The major portion of it was carried on along the mainly used trails to Santa Fe and California, but the minor trails, soon established, and leading from post to post scattered throughout the Indian country, were often traversed by freighters in Government employ. In such cases small detachments of troops, commonly riding in an ambulance drawn by mules, accompanied the lumbering wagons as escort. These found many a bit of strenuous service to perform in bringing their charges safely through. On the long trails, however, the hardy wagoners had to rely upon their  own ready rifles to assure their passage, and usually traveled in long trains, under a rude yet effective discipline. It was sure to be a long, tedious trip, but usually contained sufficient incident to relieve the dull routine. During all the later years the Indian tribes were restless and dangerous, seldom venturing on open attack, but always seeking opportunity to run off stock, or dash down upon a loitering wagon, or a straying hunter.


This hostility of the savages can be traced back to the reckless barbarism of the teamsters themselves. The Santa Fe Trail became a trail of blood, yet it was peaceful enough until wanton shooting of Indians by whites compelled the tribes to retaliate. In the earliest days an unarmed man could have walked in safety the entire distance. In the height of the freighting enterprise oxen were more commonly used than any other animals. They made from twelve to fifteen miles a day with loaded wagons, and averaged twenty miles when returning light. With good care oxen covered two thousand miles during the usual season of Plains travel, extending from April to November.



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