Storykeepers #15–Packing and Pacing

wagon train 2

Though my great-great-grandmother had grown up in the aftermath of the Black Hawk War on lands that would become the new state of Iowa after 1833, she must have had many misgivings waiting to join her future husband in the Oregon wilderness.

Infrequent letters made communication difficult. Not knowing what her intended faced on the other side of the continent probably left her apprehensive. If she prepared for the move in the interim and he didn’t return as promised, would her faithfulness be rewarded with the prospect of another suitor? She would wait four years—a lifetime of worries for a woman nineteen-years-old.

One decision to be made would be the kind of conveyance they’d need to travel. Conestoga wagons, built in Pennsylvania by German craftsmen, were designed to haul cargo. Manufacturers and tradesmen preferred the curved ends of these vessels, which made them look like a boat on wheels. Shipments of goods couldn’t move around or fall out either end. Sail cloth was used to cover the freight, protecting it from dirt, dust and the changes in weather. No front seat existed. The driver had to ride the left rear horse using a “jerk line” that connected to the left front animal or he had to walk.

The prairie schooner, of which there are many varieties, became the preferred transportation of those on the Oregon Trail. The beds were flat-bottomed and shallow, with squared ends. They did provide a driver’s seat which allowed the teams to be controlled by a set of reins from the front. Instead of the tight cloth covering of the Conestoga, the wagon traveled beneath a canopy of ribbed arches stretched with cloth which often billowed in the wind. As the pioneers crossed the plains, the white tops looked like the sails of a ship, dubbing the  craft “Prairie Schooner”.

However traveled, the journey would entail long days of grime, wooden seats, and miles and miles of walking—roughly two thousand miles without freeways, bridges, or convenient rest stops. People who knew my great-great-grandmother said she always had her Bible with her. No doubt she relied on Proverbs 3:5-6 to keep her hopes alive. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths. ”

He still directs our paths today.





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