The History of Wagon Trains Explained for Students

Cross Country

Covered Wagon

Expansion into the American west in the nineteenth century was never an easy task. The railroads that the west was so renowned for did not appear until late in the nineteenth century. The main method of transportation was the animal drawn wagon. These wagons would open up the vast prairies of the Midwest and Great Plains, eventually reaching the Pacific Coast.

The dangers were related to the environment and the native peoples. Trekking across the country was best done on large groups with experienced trackers and scouts. The safest way was to work as a team in a covered wagon train. This tactic reduced costs and provided extra protection.

The Basic Wagon

Wagon trains were not trains in the traditional sense. They were groups of wooden wagons that moved across the American West. The average wagon carried anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 pounds of material. This depended on the size of the animal that was chosen to pull the wagon. The weight was proportional to the animal being used. These wagons were made from wood since using iron would cause issues with the amount of material the animal team pulled. The construction of the basic wagon was nine to ten feet wide with a width of four feet. The sides sloped outward from the base of the floor of the wagon. Connected to the wagon base were a series of three or four metal hoops. Canvas was attached to these providing shade and protection from the rain and the sun.

The front portion of the wagon had a small bench where the driver sat. The bench was slightly elevated to give the driver a better view of the road ahead of him or her. The driver had to look over the team of animals in front of him and also needed to see the path ahead. Guiding an animal over a large stone may injure the beast and slow the train down.

The wheels on the wagon were made from wood. The use of metal was not a common application since it created weight. A thin strip of metal was wrapped around the spoked wheel in some instances. This was an extra expense and did extend the life of the wagon wheel. This decision was based on a personal choice and also on the general afford-ability by the pioneers.

Animal Team

Three basic animals were used to pull the wagon. The reason for the choices depended on the duty of the wagon and the personal preference of the owner of the wagon. The three choices of animal teams were oxen, mules and horses. The decision was based on the need of each particular wagon. If the wagon was expected to carry a large amount of heavy materials then the choice was either an oxen or mule team. if the load was going to be a lighter load then there was the option of using a horse team. Horse teams were generally quicker than the other two teams.

Pioneer Comfort

This was a very difficult journey for the pioneers. They were exposed to the rain and heat of the plains. Most trips were taken from early spring and hoped to reach the new lands before winter. In order to keep the load of the wagon to the lightest possible weight only select people were allowed to ride in the wagon. These spaces were reserved for the very old, the very young and those that suffered injuries. The majority of the people walked. A few fortunate few had horses but normally those were the wealthy and the hired guide and scouts.

Wagon trains were also not very comfortable because of the amount of noise. Imagine the continual drone of clomping feet and the hollow sound of the wagons bouncing through the ruts. Add to this the large amount of metal equipment carried along. Cooking utensils and tool to repair or dig the wagon out of a mud hole were hanging from the wagon. Each wagon had these items and this created a terrible noise.

Guides and Scouts

Many of the pioneers had no knowledge of where they are going. This is why they hired guides and scouts to ride along with them. A guide started out as a scout and earned the right to be a trail master or guide through experience. There are two distinct advantages to joining a large wagon train. The rate charged by the scouts and guides is spread out over a larger group of people.

This will make the overall cost much cheaper. This is especially important after buying supplies and the wagon and animal team. The guides and scouts also knew the safest and best way to travel the land. They were able to understand the weather patterns and many knew the activities of the local natives.

Common Wagon Train Trails

There were many different trails and off shoots of these routes but there are generally three common routes that were used by the pioneers. These paths were the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail. All of these trails reached different portions of the country. The Santa Fe Trail started in Independence, Missouri and finished in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This Trail had several spur routes that went further into California and Colorado. The Oregon Trail also started in Independence, Missouri. The trail had several different stopping off points through out the Oregon Territory. The purpose of this route was to populate the region and drive the British out of the Pacific Northwest. The Mormon Trail ran from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah. This was the primary route used by those of the Mormon faith to populate the future state of Utah.

Fun Project For Students

Drawing a picture of what the inside of a covered wagon might have looked like is a creative activity for children. Imagine what it would have been like traveling in those days.

Mapping a course of their journey is also another fun activity.

Hope you learned a little more about one of America’s earliest modes of transportation, the wagon train.


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. MacMillian Publishing, 1982.

Conlin, Joseph R. The American Past. Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.

Image: Covered Wagon by Dave Wilson Photography under CC by 2.0