Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Conestogas moved country westward on big wheels


Conestoga wagons were the heavy-duty freight haulers that moved the world westward on their big wheels. They got their name after the Conestoga Valley of Pennsylvania where they originated.

These monsters of the Great Plains were generally over 24 feet long, usually nearly 12 feet high, and weighed something around two tons when they were unloaded. They had rear wheels bigger than the front wheels and rolled along on iron tires.

It took some strength to pull these freight liners across the countryside, ideally three pairs of the huge Conestoga draft horses. They often were pulled by teams of oxen or mules. The teams of horses, oxen, or mules could generally pull the boat-shaped wagons between 12 and 18 miles each day. The body of the Conestoga was deeper in the middle than on the ends — hence the boat-like shape. This was so cargo would be less likely to spill out of the Conestogas when they were traveling uphill and downhill on steep grades.

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In their hayday, the Conestogas were the preferred freight haulers all over the Great Plains, dominated freight along the Santa Fe Trail — and were nicknamed “prairie schooners” because of their resemblance to boats as they lumbered through the prairie.