Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Trail Wagons

America’s early growth was shaped by a host of transportation routes.  From the National Road in the eastern U.S. to numerous western trails like the Santa Fe, Oregon, California, Chisolm, Goodnight-Loving, Western, and Sedalia, there’s a great deal of our past that still surrounds the present.  Reinforcing America’s tie to legendary trails, I have a fair amount of early vehicle information that I’ll be unveiling in just a few weeks.

To that point, have you ever really thought about all it took to go from point A to point B one hundred fifty to two hundred years ago?  Excruciating summer heat, violent storms, piercing winters, and very few creature comforts were a regular part of cross-country transportation via equine or oxen.  Merciless environments were inescapable, making long-distance trail travel largely incomprehensible today.  Absent the comforts of air conditioning, GPS maps, modern weather forecasting, convenience stores, and even legal protection, countless wagons moved along these corridors throughout the nineteenth century.  While there were a lot of differences in the vehicles, one thing they all had in common was that each one was a product of its time.  In other words, every set of wheels on these trails was subject to the technology available up to and including the time of its use.  As an example, this means that a wagon built in the 1860’s typically carried noticeable differences when compared to one crafted in the 1890’s.  Due largely to the driving force of competition, virtually every era was full of advancements and distinctions in these wooden warriors.  As a result, we’re able to use many of the variations as part of an authentication process.  The same information is also crucial when determining timeframes of manufacture.

Freight wagons on the Santa Fe Trail varied in a number of ways, including by design, size, and construction features.

Ultimately, the differences in every set of wheels are important points to anyone interested in the real story of these transports – and America’s growth.  In the absence of these details, every old wagon is typically treated the same as another.  In fact, rarely a week goes by that I don’t find myself re-explaining this truth.  Blanketing every wagon with the same history is an all-too-common, backward, and wholly inaccurate way to look at these vehicles.  Think about this example for just a minute.  Would you say that a pickup truck produced in 1967 is the same as one built in 1997?  Clearly, they both have four wheels, a tailgate and bed, hood, lights, a transmission, and motor.  That makes them the same, right?  Of course, the statement is wrong.  They’re nowhere close to being the same.  It’s the same situation with early horse-drawn wagons.

Still, there are deeply ingrained perceptions that persist in lumping all wagons together into one mass heap of indistinguishable identities.  Perhaps that’s why few – if any – major western films are known for using period-correct wagons.  The presence of wood in the wheels seems to be the only criteria many use to automatically pigeon-hole a wagon as a member of the 1800’s.  On one hand, there’s a case to be made for rolling with the flow and ignoring the lack of accuracy.  On the other hand, what is the history we pass along if it’s not accurate? 

This photo of an early freighter shows a number of transitional design elements.  Each helps show how America’s heavy vehicle industry evolved beyond the traditional Conestoga styling.   

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be finishing up an extensive study that’s part of a presentation to the Santa Fe Trail Association and National Stagecoach and Freight Wagon Association.  The conference is open to interested parties (although there are registration fees) and takes place toward the last of September.  It will include a host of speakers covering topics from American Indians, surveys, soldiers, harness, wagons, and more topics related to the history of the Santa Fe Trail. 

There’s a fair amount of information in my presentation that won’t be available anywhere else.  Some of what I’ll be sharing centers around new discoveries that have not been reported in nearly two centuries.  If you haven’t signed up for the event, I’d encourage you to do so.  It will be a rare opportunity to ride along for a special look at early wagons on the Santa Fe Trail as well as these nineteenth century vehicles in general.  The timeframes covered will stretch from the 1820’s through the 1880’s.  The on-line registration ends on September 15th so there’s not a lot of time left to make plans to be there.  

The only real disclaimer I’ll give is that the presentation is limited to an hour.  In that small amount of time, we’ll be rushing through a lot of information and, undoubtedly, will not cover all there is to know.  Even so, it should be a great time to step back into the past and not only profile more of what these vehicles looked like but a good number of the differences as well.   

Looking forward to seeing you there!

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