Life on the Trail

Our classic image of traveling West is that of the covered wagon. The man is driving, the woman is riding, and the children are peeking out the back or scampering alongside with the family dog. The woman image is usually something like this painting. In fact, women sometimes drove, and sometimes were children, and sometimes even went alone. The wagon was more frequently pulled by oxen than by horses and wagons were not the only method of travel. Going by boat was popular for at least half the trip, and later the railroad would do the job. Among the journals used in this project, the women traveled by large and small covered wagons, boat, railroad, and carriage. Jennie Wriston details her wagon as well as the makeup of her company.

It was necessary to prepare carefully for the journey, perhaps more so in the early years of migration when there was nothing to be purchased along the way. The earliest traveler in our group stopped at inns as she went to Illinois. Had she gone to the Dakotas instead, she would have had no inn at which to eat or sleep. Other women describe the food supplies they took with them, and the availability of foodstuffs while en route. Eliza McAuley describes their preparation of food for the trail.

To take your entire household, or whatever you thought necessary for establishing a new household, would seem to make for very crowded conditions, and, indeed, that is what some of these women describe. Within the wagon which was both RV and U-Haul, there had to be such things as a chicken coop or beehive, a stove, and equipment for the animals. Jennie Wriston inventories the inside of her wagon and Christiana Tillson describes what and how her carriage were packed.

"Our outfit consists of two light strong wagons drawn by oxen and cows, one yoke of heavy oxen for wheelers and a lighter yoke for leaders, with one or two yokes of cows between. We have two saddle horses and a drove of twenty dairy cows, a good sized tent and a sheet iron camp stove which can be set up inside, making it warm and comfortable, no matter what the weather outside."

"We have a plentiful supply of provisions, including dried fruits and vegetables, also a quantity of light bread cut into slices and dried for use when it is not convenient to bake. Our stove is furnished with a reflector oven which bakes very nicely."

Eliza Ann McAuley

"we are a going with two waggons [sic] one span of horses three yoke of cattle two cows we take a tent with us and a small stove and things for our comfort as far as we can"
Martha S. Read

" First, there was the large farm wagon with its white canvas cover spread over the several bows, the ends securely fastened by iron cleats inserted in the sides of the wagon bed. Those hickory bows were high enough to enable a man to stand upright under their shelter and the canvas shielded the contents, mankind or matter, from sun and storm. This vehicle contained supplies of provisions and cooking utensils, as well as such articles of household furniture as were desirable to carry. There must be feed bags for the horses, a kit for mending harness or minor breaks in the wagons, as well as tools and axes which might be useful or necessary in emergencies. The tent poles were strapped on the side of the wagon, with the tent carefully rolled in as small a compass as possible, generally around the poles. At the back of the wagon was attached a double-floored hen coop with slats in the front. This was filled with hens, both upper and lower compartments. On top of this was the mess chest, which contained the food, cooked or otherwise, and the dishes, all made of tin which was unbreakable--a very desirable quality on a long trip."

"This so-called "big wagon" was drawn by the team of large mules and was driven by my father. Then came the "light spring wagon,"
which was provided with extra seats for such of the children as did not ride in the big wagon or on horseback. It was loaded mostly with the clothing and bedding for the family. This wagon was drawn by a team of horses and was driven all the way by my mother."

"Then followed the loose stock-several cows and horses, which latter could take the places of the team driven by my mother, and which were available for riding by William, the eldest son, and by Tom, the "hired man," and they were also used for driving the small herd behind the wagons. In itself it was quite a cavalcade and formed the nucleus for a very much larger company later on."

"Among the loose horses was a small mustang, which was the exclusive property of the two little girls. Fannie was a gentle little creature, greatly beloved by everyone. Following all was the collie, Gypsy, the pet of the entire group. The family itself consisted of father, mother, big brothers, two sisters (twelve and eleven), two small brothers, and little sister (three years old). These, with the hired man, made up the party."

Jennie Atcheson Wriston

"Our carriage being something what such a vehicle as we would now call a two seated buggy, at that time the name buggy was not known. The seats were made so that a trunk that held my leghorn bonnet, and a portmanteau containing the gentlemen's change of clothing. Mrs. Cushman's trunk rode behind, and with a little bamboo basket containing my night clothes, brushes, &c., and a lunch basket, we found ourselves pretty closely packed."
Christiana Holmes Tillson