Monday, January 30, 2017

Conestoga Wagon

Below is a brief excerpt from Development of Transportation systems in the United States. ©1888 As some of you are aware I'm currently working on a non-fiction resource book for Historical Fiction writers revolving around the Carriage and Wagon industry of the 19th century. In my research I've found the Conestoga wagon was the foundation for the birth of the well known Prairie Schooner. There are differences between the two wagons but the Conestoga is the earlier wagon.

The primitive condition of carts and wagons could scarcely have remained unimproved during a very protracted period in any of the numerous communities in which a blacksmith and a wheelwright were established and busily engaged in prosecuting their labors. As compared with the other colonics the early industrial development of Pennsylvania necessitated extra efforts to utilize wheeled vehicles, on account of the absence of tidewater, except along a small portion of her south-eastern boundary, and the great extent to which interior regions were traversed by mountainous systems. The presence of a large German population in interior localities where they would have been shut off from access to markets for surplus produce if roads had not been constructed and carts or wagons used, also gave an impetus to progress which had as one of its results the invention or construction of the Conestoga wagon. It was regarded for a considerable period as the highest type of a commodious freight vehicle in the country, especially for traversing hilly or mountainous roads, and was first used about 1750. One of its peculiarities was a decided curve in the bottom, analogous to that of a canoe, the object of which was to prevent freight from slipping too far to the front when wagons were going down hill, or too far to the rear when they were going up hill. By this device a gain in effective power in movements over the mountains was attained. The Conestoga wagon received that title either because the four, five, or six horses by which it was drawn were usually of the breed of heavy draft horses that had been developed in the Conestoga valley of Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, or because the wagon itself was first constructed there, or because the teams came most frequently from that locality. Although the use of Conestoga wagons gradually extended to a number of sections, the farmers of the Conestoga valley owned an exceptionally large number of them during their period of special usefulness, which was that preceding the construction of canals and railways over important interior routes of trade. Hon. John Strohm, in an article on the Conestoga horse, contributed to the United States Agricultural Report for 1803, says that "the immigration to and settling of the western states created a demand for the transportation of large quantities of dry goods and groceries to supply the wants of those engaged in opening up and settling these new countries; and many farmers in the Conestoga valley occasionally employed their teams in hauling 'store goods' from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, the latter place being the terminus beyond which eastern teams seldom went. During the war of 1812 these noble teams rendered essential service to the country in the transportation of arms and ammunition, and supplies to the army on the frontier. Long lines of these teams were frequently seen wending their weary way to the theatre of action, and contributing greatly to the comfort of the army and the defense of the country. Their usual route of travel was from Philadelphia through Lancaster, crossing the Susquehanna at Columbia or Marietta, and thence over the mountains to Pittsburgh, and sometimes northward to lake Erie. The capacious wagons which the Conestoga farmers then had in use, and the heavy teams of large, fat, sleek horses attached thereto, were the best means of land transportation which the times and circumstances of the country then afforded. These wagons and teams attracted attention and commanded admi ration wherever they appeared; and hence the origin, as I conceive, of the horse and wagon to which the appellation of 'Conestoga' has been attached. The farmers of those days seemed fully to appreciate the importance of these teams, and evinced considerable taste and no little pride in their style of fitting them out. The harness "was constructed of the best materials, with an eye to show as well as utility. In the harness and trimmings of these teams they frequently indulged in expenses that approached to extravagance. In addition to what was indispensably necessary, articles that by some were deemed decorations were sometimes appended, and served to increase the admiration which the noble animals to which they were attached so universally attracted. It was, indeed, an' animating sight to see five or six highly-fed horses, half covered with heavy bear skins, or decorated with gaudily-fringed housings, surmounted with a set of finely-toned bells, their bridles adorned with loops of red trimming, and moving over the ground with a brisk elastic step, snorting disdainfully at surrounding objects, as if half conscious of their superior appearance, and participating in the pride that swelled the bosom of their master and driver."

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