Thursday, September 1, 2016

Westward Ho! Part 5 Wagons & Teams

Excerpt from the Prairie Traveler's Hand-book ©1859


A company having been organized, its first interest is to procure a proper outfit of transportation and supplies for the contemplated journey.

Wagons should be of the simplest possible construction—strong, light, and made of well-seasoned timber, especially the wheels, as the atmosphere, in the elevated and arid region over which they have to pass, is so exceedingly dry during the summer months that, unless the wood-work is thoroughly seasoned, they will require constant repairs to prevent them from falling to pieces.

Wheels made of the bois-d'arc, or Osage orange- wood, are the best for the plains, as they shrink but little, and seldom want repairing. As, however, this wood is not easily procured in the Northern States, white oak answers a very good purpose if well seasoned.

Spring wagons made in Concord, New Hampshire, are used to transport passengers and the mails upon some of the routes across the plains, and they are said, by those who have used them, to be much superior to any others. They are made of the close-grained oak that grows in a high northern latitude, and well seasoned. f

The pole of the wagon should have a joint where it enters the hounds, to prevent the weight from coming upon it and breaking the hounds in passing short and abrupt holes in the road.

The perch or coupling-pole should be shifting or movable, as, in the event of the loss of a wheel, an axle, or other accident rendering it necessary to abandon the wagon, a temporary cart may be constructed out of the remaining portion. The tires should be examined just before commencing the journey, and, if not perfectly snug, reset.

One of the chief causes of accidents to carriages upon the plains arises from the nuts coming off from the numerous bolts that secure the running gearing. To prevent this, the ends of all the bolts should be riveted; it is seldom necessary to take them off, and when this is required the ends of the bolts may easily be filed away.

Wagons with six mules should never, on a long journey over the prairies, be loaded with over 2000 pounds, unless grain is transported, when an additional thousand pounds may be taken, provided it is fed out daily to the team. When grass constitutes the only forage, 2000 pounds is deemed a sufficient load. I regard our government wagons as unnecessarily heavy for six mules. There is sufficient material in them to sustain a burden of 4000 pounds, but they are seldom loaded with more than half that weight. Every wagon should be furnished with substantial bows and double osnaburg covers, to protect its contents from the sun and weather.

There has been much discussion regarding the relative merits of mules and oxen for prairie traveling, and the question is yet far from being settled. Upon good firm roads, in a populated country, where grain can be procured, I should unquestionably give the preference to mules, as they travel faster, and endure the heat of summer much better than oxen; and if the journey be not over l 000 miles, and the grass abundant, even without grain, I think mules would be preferable. But when the march is to extend 1500 or 2000 miles, or over a rough sandy or muddy road, ! believe young oxen will endure better than mules; they will, if properly managed, keep in better condition, and perform the journey in an equally brief space of time. Besides, they are much more economical, a team of six mules costing six hundred dollars, while an eight-ox team only costs upon the frontier about two hundred dollars. Oxen are much less liable to be stampeded and driven off by Indians, and can be pursued and overtaken by horsemen; and, finally, they can, if necessary, be used for beef.

In Africa oxen are used as saddle animals, and it is said that they perform good service in this way. This will probably be regarded by our people as a very undignified and singular method of locomotion, but, in the absence of any other means of transportation upon a long journey, a saddle-ox might be found serviceable.

Andersson, in his work on Southwestern Africa, says: " A short strong stick, of peculiar shape, is forced through the cartilage of the nose of the ox, and to either end of this stick is attached (in bridle fashion) a tough leathern thong. From the extreme tenderness of the nose he is now more easily managed." " Hans presented me with an ox called 2 Spring,' which I afterward rode upward of two thousand miles. On the day of our departure he mounted us all on oxen, and a curious sight it was to see some of the men take their seats who had never before ridden on ox-back. It is impossible to guide an ox as one would guide a horse, for in the attempt to do so you would instantly jerk the stick out of his nose, which at once deprives you of every control over the beast; but by pulling both sides of the bridle at the same time, and toward the side you wish him to take, he is easily managed.* Your seat is not less awkward and difficult; for the skin of the ox, unlike that of the horse, is loose, and, notwithstanding your saddle may be tightly girthed, you keep rocking to and fro like a child in a cradle. A few days, however, enables a person to acquire a certain steadiness, and long habit will do the rest."

" Ox traveling, when once a man becomes accustomed to it, is not so disagreeable as might be expected, particularly if one succeeds in obtaining a tractable animal. On emergencies, an ox can be made to proceed at a tolerable quick pace; for, though his walk is only about three miles an hour at an average, he may be made to perform double that distance in the same time. Mr. Galton once accomplished 24 miles in four hours, and that, too, through heavy sand !"

Cows will be found very useful upon long journeys when the rate of travel is slow, as they furnish milk, and in emergencies they may be worked in

* A ring instead of the stick put through the cartilage of the nose would obviate this difficulty.—Author.

wagons. J once saw a small cow yoked beside a large ox, and driven about six hundred miles attached to a loaded wagon, and she performed her part equally well with the ox. It has been by no means an unusual thing for emigrant travelers to work cows in their teams.

The inhabitants of Pembina, on Red River, work a single ox harnessed in shafts like a horse, and they transport a thousand pounds in a rude cart made entirely of wood, without a particle of iron. One man drives and takes the entire charge of eight or ten of these teams upon long journeys. This is certainly a very economical method of transportation.

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