As people began making the journey West, the Great Plains offered little to farmers who were used to working on rich land with plentiful rainfall. There-fore, Settlers continued west, crossing the Great Plains to get to the Pacific Northwest, which was then called the Oregon Country. This area carried a reputation of near paradise, where the climate and the soil could almost guarantee prosperity and health. The central valleys of California were
viewed in much the same way. However, this journey would test the courage and determination of all who attempted it. Oregon and California were not only on the other side of the Great Plains---more than 2,000 miles away from Missouri---they were also on the other side of deserts and the two tallest mountain chains in the nation!

Still, many were willing to make the trek in order to reach their imagined promised land. In fact, more than a third of a million people moved from the Missouri Valley to the Pacific Coast between 1841 and the late 1860s.There were several routes that pioneers could take to the West. None of them were easy. Most people followed the overland trails, which included the Oregon Trail and the California Trail. The Oregon Trail went northwest for 2,400 miles
across endless grasslands of the prairies, through the desert, over the Blue, Cascade, and Rocky Mountains, onto Oregon. The California Trail went southwest over the Sierra-Nevada to California. Other major trails included the Mormon Trail and the Santa Fe. All the major trails began at one of the early "jumping-off places" in Missouri, such as Independence, St. Joseph, or Kansas City. Pioneer familes gathered there, joined up with a wagon train, and began the most difficult journey of their lives.

Most emigrants made the over 2,000-mile journey on foot. While the covered wagon was essential for the trip, it was used more often to carry supplies and possessions, rather than people. Because life is made up of more than necessities, the pioneers tended to greatly over-load their wagons with special treasures which they felt they just could not leave behind. Sadly, these possessions would be some of the first items left behind along the trail.

For this westward journey, pioneers did not usually use the large conestoga wagons because they were simply too awkward and difficult to manuever. Rather, they used smaller farm wagons, which were much easier to handle because the undercarriage was centered around a king pin, allowing the front wheels to pivot and the wagon to turn more easily. The front wheels were smaller than the rear wheels, and this also helped the wagon to make sharper turns.

The cotton covers of the wagon were drawn tightly at both ends in an attempt to keep out as much dust as possible. They were also treated with linseed oil to keep them as dry as possible in the rain, but eventually, most leaked anyway. These wagons were called "schooners", or "ships of the plains" because their cloth tops would wave in the wind, giving each wagon train the appearance of a fleet of ships.

Large conestoga wagons were not typicallyused for the long Westward journey.

Schooners had smaller front wheels, and
were easier to handle.

As the wagon was meant to carry supplies, most emigrants tried to load them with all their possessions, including those of sentimental value--even furniture! But space within a covered wagon was limited; the interior size of a wagon was only about 10 feet long by 4 feet wide, yet they were loaded up with over a ton of cargo. Pioneers needed to carefully consider what to bring along, because packing enough food and water for the long journey was, of course, a necessity.A family of four needed over 1,000 pounds of food to sustain them. Foods included such as 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 200 pounds of flour, 20 pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of salt, at least one 125-pound sack of corn meal, bags of rice, beans, and dried apples and peaches.Tools were vital, also, and most wagons had at least one toolbox built on the side. Candles, household utensils, guns and ammunition were also essential items.

The wagon had a box built on the front for the driver, and staples could be stored in this box as well, plus the box could be lifted off the wagon and used as a table during stops. Several 50-gallon barrels of water were packed onto the wagon, then chests (which had been packed with clothing for the trip) were placed behind the food storage chest. Another trunk containing dishes and other household items that the settlers were bringing along for use in their new life, was then packed on the wagon. The dishes which would be used along the journey were stored in baskets, and these dishes were most often made of tin. A washtub was placed in the wagon where it would be handy, and any other personal items that could fit were packed--books, family pictures, children's favor-ite toys, butter churn, furniture such as chairs, tables, spinning wheel, etc.....and finally, most imprtantly to the emigrants--their feather mattress. This represented for them, the "better life" to which they were heading.

Though the tonage of cargo carried inside the wagon was supported by huge axles, if an axle broke along the trip, the emigrants would have had serious problems. The wagon train would have to stop while repairs were made, but if there was no spare axle or wagon to use, they would have been forced to abandon their wagon, or re-design it as a 2-wheeled cart.

As the journey began, most emigrants quickly realized how overloaded their wagons were, and soon they began discarding items along the way. Often, the trail was so thick with discarded treasures and supplies, that scavengers could fully load wagons with the items they found!

The pioneers usually waited until late April or early May to begin their journey because the grass would be long enough for the animals to feed on during the trip, but they could reach the West before the bitter snow winter set in. Delays were the greatest enemy, and though a hundred or more wagons began the journey in the spring, many did not succeed in arriving to their final destination. Accidents and disease were inevitable. Delays were un-avoidable. The wagons had no real safety features, and if someone fell under the giant wheels, death was immediate. This type of accident happened to many children, though many adults lost their lives this way also. Dangers and hardships increased as the pioneers traveled farther west. Many pioneers were injured or killed when wagons tipped over while crossing the rocky areas at the foot of the mountains. Illness took a terrible toll. Cholera might have been the most severe problem on the trip West. There was no cure for cholera, and it was a deadly disease. A person often died within hours of contracting the disease. In an attempt to limit the spread of the disease, many times those who were sick were abandoned, and left to die alone. Cholera caused the death of more emigrants than anything else. Some wagon trains lost as much as two-thirds of their people to the disease.

Along the journey, pioneers had a constant fear of being attacked by Indians. However, most of the frighten-ing stories they had heard were false, and in actuality, they had greater dangers to fear than the Indians. Few pioneers realized that it was a custom among many of the tribles to exchange gifts with strangers, but those pioneers who understood this custom were often rewarded with fresh meat or fish--both greatly needed foods--for which they traded goods that they had stored in their wagons. Of course, some deadly attacks did occur--albeit, rare as they might have been. The land being crossed and settled by westward pioneers had been the home of Native Americans for thousands of years. The cultural losses they suffered during the western expansion, not to mention the destruction and suffering they endured, caused natural rebellion.

But, the pioneers risked most everything to build a new life for themselves and their families. Despite the fact that many people died, and others turned back along the way; despite delays and hardships, many continued and determinedly, courageously completed the journey. Now, they had arrived in a strange land, thousands of miles from the homes they left behind, and many uncertainties still faced them. However, they felt fairly sure that their struggles and ordeals on the westward journey had strengthened them for whatever lay ahead.

(Excerpt and photos taken with kind permission from Victorian Lace ~ Victorian Lifestyles