As America moved West in the 1800’s, there were numerous routes and trails that the explorers, traders, prospectors, cowboys, immigrants, and so many others followed. Legendary routes like the Oregon, California, Santa Fe, Chisolm, Bozeman, Western, and Goodnight-Loving Trail have all rightly garnered their share of attention. Even so, as committed to research as we’ve been, the trail we end up following a good part of the time is a bit different. It’s called, the ‘Paper Trail.’
Twenty-one years ago, it was a bit of a pipe dream to believe that anyone could assemble enough scattered files from an all-but-forgotten industry to add much to our knowledge of wagons and western vehicles. And ‘yes,’ I still have folks tell me the same thing... that the subject isn’t worth pursuing, isn’t interesting enough, or even the coup de grâce of discouragement – “There’s already sufficient research and knowledge about wagons and western vehicles.” I’ll admit these are comments that I don’t really understand. After all, as a historian involved in this study for more than two decades, there is one thing I know for certain... with all we think we know, America has only begun to learn about this industry, its vehicles, stories, and the values associated with each.
Perhaps it’s too big of a stretch to believe we can uncover and preserve all of what might still exist. Then again, why wouldn’t we try? After all, a lack of knowledge is what has allowed too many historic pieces to drift into oblivion. Don’t believe me? Have you ever seen a wagon whose maker you couldn’t identify? How many of those unknown vehicles might have been a 19th century powerhouse brand like Murphy, Caldwell, Kansas, Espenshied, Jackson, LaBelle, or other set of wheels highly desired in the West? These were just some of the renowned names that helped open the frontier and, incredibly, there are none of these 19th century pieces conclusively identified today. Hundreds of thousands of these particular vehicles are gone. So, how can we tell the complete history of the legendary trails in the West without at least one of them? The answer seems clear, which helps explain the urgency in tracking down so much history. The vast majority of America’s surviving wood-wheeled wagons were built in the 20th century. So, how do we determine the evolutionary differences and how can we categorize them within the individual brands? In a nutshell, that’s why we began an earnest study of this part of America’s heritage so long ago. It’s allowed us to separate a great deal of fact from fiction and unsubstantiated claims from actual history.
This image shows a small sampling of original catalogs and promotional materials in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.
So... what’s included in studies of the Paper Trail? Reams of period business correspondence, catalogs, ledgers, photographs, illustrations, blueprints, advertising, news articles, legal documents, and other government records all work to provide a more complete picture of what was a massive industry with extensive histories of individual brands. It’s another reason why it would be impossible to ever produce a single book volume outlining everything a person could know about these complicated machines.
Even so, tenacity has a way of accomplishing what often seems fruitless. We see it in the effects of time, wind, and water wearing down solid rock, creating the Divine masterpiece we know as America’s Grand Canyon. Persistence has always had a way of delivering great things. The diligence it manifests has allowed us to uncover near countless trails to our past. In several circumstances, the materials we’ve come across were just days away from being destroyed. Clearly, history doesn’t seem to be overly important to everyone. It’s interesting to note, though, that some of the world’s best marketers and advertisers are students of history. They work hard to uncover past consumer habits in an effort to better predict future behavior. It’s one of the reasons why bread and milk are typically located in the back of the store and not the front, why certain shelf space is more valuable than others, and the understanding that, given an equal choice, most folks will go to the right side of a store first. This research may be called a lot of things but, make no mistake; it’s the study of history as much as anything else. In a similar way, our nation’s first transportation industry offers insights that help us see and appreciate our entrepreneurial, free market roots in a more responsible way.
Week in and week out, our own determined study is punctuated by countless discoveries. The process has given us rare gifts of original materials produced by legendary St. Louis builder, Joseph Murphy. Likewise, we’ve been able to secure previously unknown records outlining exact paint specifications for 1870’s–era Studebaker wagons. We’ve stumbled upon the only known photograph of a legendary Caldwell/Kansas wagon and acquired through-the-years visuals documenting the changing look of Weber, Mitchell, Bain, Fish Bros., and so many more vehicles dominating the Old West. Recently, we’ve also been fortunate to pin down a number of obscure facts related to the operations of both J. Stephens Abbot and Louis Downing during the years when these legendary coach makers were separated (1847 – 1865). These kinds of details can be crucial when evaluating a specific vehicle’s identification and authenticity levels.
Ultimately, the same pitfalls don’t generally lie in wait for us as they did for those headed west in the 1800’s. There are other challenges, though. There are long, dry spells of finding nothing. There are dead-ends in search directions that prevent us from moving forward. Equally taxing are issues with transportation as we travel for research. And then, there's the ever present mental voice asking, ‘Are you crazy for doing this?’ I may already know the answer to that last one. Even so, the stories and discoveries continue to draw me in. In the end, the old trails of the West allow us to feel a connection to who we are as a people while the ‘Paper Trail’ helps us better understand how we got there.
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.