Colorado pioneers mostly came in a wagon — the slow way

This article first appeared in the Broomfield Enterprise (Oct 21, 2007).

Those of you who are as ancient as I am might remember the old TV series, “Wagon Train.” The program showed the adventures of a group of hardy pioneers heading west in search of new lives. They were looking for farmland or gold or excitement or Eldorado. Whatever they thought they were going to find, it took a gutsy sort of people to leave their old world behind and head out into the wild unknown.

Most of those who came along the Cherokee Trail to this region were probably looking for gold. In the late 1850s, 100,000 people arrived in the front range in the space of a few years, just about all of them suffering from gold fever. Still, some of the newcomers were farmers — ordinary people who possessed that extra dose of moxie — and those were the folks who were most likely to stay on and build a community.

Though the railroad era began in the 1830s back east, the trains did not arrive in this region until the 1870s. Those who came, therefore, arrived on horseback, by foot, or riding in a covered wagon.

The journey west would have been a slow one, perhaps anywhere from one to fifteen miles per day. Since the distance between St. Louis, a common departure city, and Denver, is about 800 miles, that adds up to a lot of days. Since there were no McDonald’s or KFCs along the trail, they brought as much food with them as they could — items such as potatoes, rice, beans, dried meats, and yeast and flour. They also had to bring their own tools and cooking utensils, along with clothing and whatever household treasures they felt they couldn’t live without. Some probably tried to bring their pianos.

Obviously, they needed something strong to carry all these things. For that, they used the covered wagon, sometimes called a prairie schooner.

Typical immigrant outfit

The most famous wagon from that era is the Conestoga. The Conestoga was a big rig drawn by anywhere from four to eight animals — oxen, mules, or horses. It had large wooden hoops that held the canvas cover, which they rubbed with oil to make it waterproof. Depending on who was pulling it, the wagon could carry up to 2,000 pounds, which probably meant that most of the family was walking alongside.

A common freight wagon was the Studebaker, which looked like a large rectangular box on wheels with a seat fixed to the top. Studebaker also had a covered wagon. (As an interesting aside, several Studebakers live in this area.)

Dinner time at the chuck wagon

One can’t forget the most important component of the wagon train — the chuck wagon, which served as the pioneer cafeteria. In 1866, a Texas ranger named Charles Goodnight rebuilt a Studebaker wagon into a custom-built chuck wagon that included shelves, drawers, and a drop-down work surface. Variations of this wagon are still being used by cattlemen to this day.

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