Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Covered wagons were the most common means of transportation for pioneers traveling across the Great Plains in the mid–nineteenth century. Fashioned after the larger and heavier Conestoga wagons, developed by the Pennsylvania Dutch a century earlier, the design produced a vehicle strong enough to carry loads of 2,000–3,000 pounds yet light enough to avoid excessive strain to the teams of oxen and mules that pulled it. Wagon beds were constructed of hardwoods such as maple, hickory, and oak and averaged four feet in width and ten to twelve feet in length. The undercarriage housed the wheels, axle assemblies, and support systems, with iron utilized in the construction only to reinforce those wagon parts under the greatest amount of stress such as the wooden wheels. A wagon's rear wheels might reach six feet in height to allow for clearance on the Plains, while its shorter front wheels provided for some maneuverability.

The most familiar feature of the covered wagon of the Great Plains, its billowing cover, was usually a heavy-duty canvas that served as the pioneers' only protection against the elements and other hazards. A frame of hardwood bows supported this cover, and strong ties secured it to the sides of the wagon bed. Many pioneers designed the canvas cover to be rolled and tied back during the summer months to allow for better circulation. The full outfitting of the covered wagon of the Great Plains was not an inexpensive endeavor and could cost as much as $1,500.

Brenda K. Jackson Washington State University

Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969.

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