By Randall Parrish in 1907
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-American War brought 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 great 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 considering 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 trade’s eastern terminus shifted considerably 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 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 42,000 thousand people crossed the Plains in that first year alone. 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 River to the Co, 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 1850s 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, cholera took care to remedy the omission.
The 2,000-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. Upon 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 1860s 500 heavily laden wagons frequently passed Fort Kearny in a single day. In 1865, 6.000 wagons filled with freight rolled past that isolated post on the Overland Trail within six weeks. 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, Nebraska and old Julesburg, Colorado, he counted 888 west-bound wagons, drawn by 10,650 oxen, horses, and mules.
In illustrating the slowness of this mode of travel, Root, starting one day from Atchison, Kansas on his stage, spoke to a bull-whacker who was 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 trips, having covered 3,265 miles, with 18 days’ layover, while the freighter had slowly wheeled 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 it was of immense proportions during the entire decade from 1859 to 1869. 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 an escort. These found many a bit of strenuous service to perform in bringing their charges safely through. However, on the long trails, the hardy wagoners had to rely upon their ready rifles to assure their passage and usually traveled in long trains, under a harsh 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 an open attack but always seeking an opportunity to run off stock or dash down upon a loitering wagon or a straying hunter.
This hostility of the Indians 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 the 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 regular season of Plains travel, extending from April to November.
The Teamster and the Indian
As well illustrating the constant danger hovering over careless stragglers, a reminiscence related by General Forsyth of an incident that occurred during the construction of the Kansas Pacific Railroad is apropos. It is thus related in “The Story of the Soldier”:
“On one occasion, near the Smoky Hill River in Colorado, five or six of the teamsters during noon hour on a hot midsummer day, despite positive orders to the contrary, strayed over toward the riverbank, a good quarter of a mile away, and dropped down in the shade of a solitary cottonwood tree that grew there. In a few moments a well-mounted war party of eight or ten Cheyenne’s, who were lying concealed in the river bottom just under a cut bank on this side of the river, suddenly dashed out and made for them. But one of the party had any arms, and he had only a revolver. In a moment the Indians were upon them, and the men, running for their lives, started toward the railroad, while the soldiers, grasping their rifles, ran to their rescue, opening fire on the Indians as they ran. Two of the teamsters were shot down and scalped, but the man with the revolver kept his head, and by threatening the nearest warriors caused them to sheer off as they closed on him, and the soldiers getting within range soon made it so hot for them that they fled. One of the men, however, a long-legged Missourian teamster, had been headed off on his way to the track by an enterprising warrior, who sought to run him down and transfix him with a spear after he had failed to hit him with a rifle shot. This teamster happened to have had a new leather-thronged bullwhip issued to him that day, and having some misgivings as to whether he would find it in his wagon on his return from his dinner, had, fortunately for himself, taken it with him when he and his companions sought their noon siesta under the cottonwood tree. Running for dear life, he unconsciously held the whip in his hand, and just as the Indian was upon him, and about to transfix him by hurling his spear, he glanced over his shoulder and almost instinctively made a backward cut with his whip at the Indian’s pony, the lash striking the animal full In the face. The horse swerved so suddenly as to divert the warrior’s aim, and, though he hurled the missile, the spear missed its mark, and as the pony dashed close by him our teamster saw his only chance.
“Grasping the tail of the now frightened and fleeing animal, he began a hail of strokes on the bare back of the Indian that only one who has seen the way in which a Western bull- whacker can handle a blacksnake whip can fully appreciate. Every stroke drew blood, and the teamster rained down the blows unsparingly and savagely.
“In vain did the Indian cower to his pony’s back, and dig his heels into his sides, and lash the animal desperately with his quirt, for the teamster held on like grim death as he ran, and plied his strokes swiftly and unerringly, and it was not until he was exhausted with running and stumbled over a hillock that the Indian’s pony broke loose, and, with a parting cut of the teamster’s whip across his hind legs, tore madly away toward the other warriors, who, fearing the aim of the soldiers, and not daring to come to his rider’s rescue, were galloping wildly around just out of rifle range, whooping, laughing, and yelling with delight at the absurd plight of the discomfited brave, who, it is safe to say, from henceforth, until he had managed to rehabilitate himself by some daring deed of blood, would be dubbed and held only as a squaw in the Indian’s camp. As for our long-legged Missouri teamster he was the hero of the hour, and deserved to be.”
Immense Traffic at the Outfitting Points
It has been estimated that while the reign of the prairie schooner was at its zenith, the floating population on the Great Plains amounted to fully 250,000. In 1865 more than twenty-one million pounds of freight was thus conveyed westward from Atchison alone, and to transport it 4,917 wagons were required, with 6,164 mules, 27,685 oxen, and 1,256 men. Yet this was but a drop in the bucket compared with the traffic at the numerous other outfitting points along the border. The firms engaged in this business were many, and their employees an army. From Fort Smith, Independence, Kansas City, St. Joseph, Atchison, Council Bluffs, and other less known points of departure, the great wagon streams swept forth into the Plains, their aggregate number beyond any possible estimate of today. The greatest firm in the trade, that of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, at one time, employed 6,250 huge wagons and 75,000 oxen. As Lummis says:
“Probably there are not today so many oxen working in the United States as this one firm used half a century ago. This may give some faint idea of the mighty traffic whose wheels wrinkled the face of the Far West and the smoke of whose dusty torments ‘ascended up forever,’ and reddened the prairie sunsets for a generation.”
The Organization of a Freight Caravan
For a moment, consider the organization of such a train end its cost. Usually, not less than 25 wagons traveled together for better protection. They were huge, long-geared prairie schooners, flaring from the bottom upward, sometimes seventeen feet long, with six feet depth of hold and a capacity of anywhere from 5,000 to 16,000 pounds each. Overall, upheld by stout hickory bows was the canvas cover. From six to twelve, yoke of oxen furnished the propelling power under the inspiration of one or more “bull-whackers.” The men traveling with such a caravan numbered 31 — a captain, wagon master, his assistant, a night herder, and the “cavayard driver,” or in Spanish caballada, who had charge of the spare horses, with, at least a driver to each wagon. Of the latter, those handling oxen, or “bull teams,” were known as “bull-whackers,” while the others, devoting their energy and profanity to the steering of long-eared “critters,” were denominated ” mule-skinners,” and each class well deserved its name. The trail was never noted for sentimentality or mercy to dumb beasts. In the last years of prairie freighting, after 1859, “trailers” were quite commonly used. The trailer was a second, and generally, a smaller wagon chained to the one in the lead.
The money invested in such a wagon train reached a surprising figure. The huge Conestoga, Pittsburg, or Pennsylvania wagons cost from $800-$1500 each; first-class mules (and no others could do the work) $500-$1000; harness for the ten-mule team $300-$600, making a total running from $2,600 to $7,100 for each wagon. To this must be added salaries, provisions, and incidentals.
Regular freight caravans, as thus constituted, and running west from the Missouri River, not only greatly stimulated emigration but did much to lower the cost of transportation.
In the days of the pack-train, it was no uncommon thing to pay one dollar a pound per 100 miles or $20 a ton per mile. The tariff of the overland freighters between Atchison and Denver (620 miles) is thus given by Lummis:
Flour 9¢ per lb.
Whiskey – 18¢ per lb.
Sugar – 13 ½ ¢ per lb.
Glass – 19 ½ ¢ per lb.
Bacon and dry goods – 15¢ per pound
Trunks – 25¢ per lb.
Furniture – 31¢ per lb.
Everything went by the pound, and the trip required twenty-one days for horses or mules and five weeks for oxen.
About the Author: The Reign Of The Prairie Schooner 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 other tales by Randall Parrish: