The Reign Of The Prairie Schooner


By Randall Parrish in 1907


Prairie Schooner in the Selkirk Mountains, c. 1887, by Edward Roper

Prairie Schooner in the Selkirk Mountains, c. 1887, by Edward Roper

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

Santa Fe Trail Freighters

Santa Fe Trail Freighters

The close of the Mexican-American 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 42,000 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.

Conestoga Wagon by Newbold Hough Trotter, 1883

Conestoga Wagon by Newbold Hough Trotter, 1883

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 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 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. 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

Wagon train

Wagon train

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, 6.000 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, 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 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 18 days’ layover, while the freighter had wheeled slowly 653 miles.

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