Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Finding 19th Century Wagons

A few weeks ago, several media outlets reported that an old tintype of William H. Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) had been found and, of all things, he was photographed while playing croquet.  It’s an intriguing story and, while the jury may still be out for some historians debating the identities in the image, the discovery made me think about all of the photos each of us has seen of wagons in the West.  Incredibly, and in spite of the way these wheels dominated western history, far too many of the vehicles have been overlooked and their identities lost.  It’s one of the reasons we initiated such a focused study of the subject more than two decades ago.  As time has passed, this hunt for history has led us to a number of destinations throughout the U.S.  Along the way, we’ve been privileged to help preserve and interpret significant elements of our nation’s heritage.

It’s always interesting to come face-to-face with an actual wagon or vehicle image from a particular era.  Many of these can be linked to the times and places associated with legendary outlaws, trail drives, emigrant travel, military expeditions, and overland freighting.  So, while it’s thought-provoking to look into the faces of 19th century personalities of the West, it’s equally fascinating to run head-on into the legendary wheels they saw, walked past, and rode upon. 
Recognizing the traits of 1800’s vehicles has become a passion of mine.  Fortunately, with so many primary source documents in our western vehicle Archives, the rare files have drawn us closer to what these various transports/brands truly looked like throughout the different eras of the 19th century.  Because of the size of the early vehicle industry and the competitive similarities between many brands, the review process can sometimes be extensive.  Nonetheless, over time, we’ve been able through point-by-point examination to conclusively identify wagon brands in a number of largely unknown photos.  Each time we add an identity to the list, it helps bring greater insights into who was doing what, where, how, and when. 

In 2007, we were granted exclusive access to this running gear in the Arabia Steamboat museum in Kansas City.  From provenance details associated with the ship's cargo to a point by point review, we were able to identify the piece as the oldest surviving Peter Schuttler wagon.  It dates to 1856. 

Ultimately, our research almost always leads to some easy conversation starters.  For example... Of the legendary wagon brands that existed during the timeframe of gold discoveries, outlaw exploits, and cattle drives, what do you suppose the paint, striping, and logos looked like?  You can bet it was much different than what many of the surviving wagons typically show today.  Depending on the timeframe, many carried more flare and extravagance to their designs while also embracing construction differences seldom seen in pieces built in the early 20th century.   
Knowing what the different brands were up to at different times not only helps define history more accurately than what’s typically portrayed in the movies, it can also be crucial to sound identification efforts and construction provenance.  In fact, every wagon we acquire goes through this validation process to help corroborate the vehicle’s connection to a particular maker and timeframe.  It’s an important distinction as the world moves farther away from the horse drawn era.  Today, the purity of primary source information goes beyond well-intentioned guesswork by helping verify the details of a vehicle design in its entirety. 
When it comes to authentically telling the story of the American West, it’s always a rush to come across a wagon built during or before the time of Billy the Kid, Geronimo, Jesse James, the Earps, and others.  Unlike the distant viewing of an old tintype, finding one of these wheeled dinosaurs is one connection to the West that we can all experience firsthand.  Still, time is running out on the search for survivors.  Too many sit unprotected.  Unknown to those who pass by and unable to hold on much longer.  
Case in point... many years ago, I saw an original wagon with the well-worn paint and very faded name of “Jackson Wagon.”  I have photos today but wish I had bought the piece.  I only saw it for a few minutes and it took me too long to recognize its significance.  The wagon could be anywhere now but has likely finished weathering away or been destroyed.  It is the only true Jackson, other than catalogs and old photos in our collection, that I’ve ever seen.  Made by prison labor in Jackson, Michigan, the brand carries a well-documented and legendary reputation in the West. 
Like so many others that plied the American frontier, these rare glimpses into yesterday are vanishing.  Reminiscent of an aged and weakened image staring out of an old photo, many antiquated wagons are drifting to a point of no return.  So, we search; continually seeking those amazing links to the Old West.  From vehicles to original documents and images, somewhere, the next discovery awaits.  It likely will not be obvious in sharing its identity.  But, just like the incredible discovery of the Steamboat Arabia in 1988 (see link in the photo caption above), anything is possible if we don’t give up.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.