THE CONESTOGA AREA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The Conestoga Wagon
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Notice the man on the lazy board, Conestoga Wagons didn't have seats in the front of the wagon as usually thought. The lazy board was where the driver would sit if he didn't want to ride one of the horses or walk.
The earliest history of the Conestoga Wagon is a mystery, where it was first made or what the earliest Conestoga Wagons looked like is unknown. The first reference in the historical record we can find is in the notebook of James Logan, secretary to William Penn, where he makes reference to a Conestoga Wagon in 17171. On Dec. 31 of that year Logan bought a wagon from James Hendricks of Conestoga2. Evelyn Benson, who found the reference in Logan's journal, wasn't sure if this was the wagon we know as the Conestoga Wagon or was it simply a wagon going to Conestoga. I think the fact that In 1718 Logan bought canvas to cover his wagon suggests it was close to what we know as the Conestoga Wagon.
In addition to his job as an aide to William Penn, Logan was involved in trading with Indians. He needed a wagon to move his trade goods from Philadelphia to Conestoga and it returned to Philadelphia with furs and pelts which could be sold in England. The Indian traders that Logan dealt with were James Patterson, Ann Letort (widow of James Letort), Peter Bezaillion and Martin Chartier. The goods they traded were gun powder, rum, salt, lead (for bullets) and kettles, these were given to the Indians in exchange for furs which would be shipped to England to be made into hats and coats. At that time hats made of beaver fur were very popular in England.
Probably the early wagons were small, in those days most of Pennsylvania was covered with woods, and all that existed as roads were Indian trails through the forest. It would be fairly easy to move a mule or an horse over those Indian trails but it would be more difficult to move a Conestoga Wagon down these paths. The wagons were much wider and higher so it would be much more difficult to clear a path wide enough for a Conestoga Wagon and high enough that the top of the wagon wouldn't hit the branches of nearby trees.
The Conestoga Wagon probably began as a farm wagon that was adapted for use on the rough, hilly ground in Lancaster County. A cover was added to protect the goods inside from the rain, the bottom was bowed in the middle to make it less likely that the material inside the wagon wouldn't slide as the wagon went up and down hill, and the wheels were large so the wagon could pass over streams without getting the products inside wet. Also, large wheels meant the wagon could pass over stumps in the roads or large rocks, in those days roads were not paved and the Conestoga Wagon is a perfect example of how a farm wagon was modified to make it better able to move over the rolling hills, the many streams and the poor roads of Lancaster County.
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An advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette (a newspaper later owned by Ben Franklin), on July 11, 1734 ran an ad for the "Sign of the Conestoga Wagon", a tavern in Philadelphia. In those days not many people could read so taverns usually had signs that had a shape that people would recognize. They may have had words on the sign but the important part was that people who couldn't read would recognized the shape, know it was a Conestoga Wagon and realize this was the tavern known as the Sign of the Conestoga Wagon. This suggests that the Conestoga was a familiar shape that lots of people would recognize.
The Conestoga Wagon was made from a variety of woods, each chosen because it had qualities that made it the best wood for the job, some woods were better for the wheels while others were better for the sideboards. The wagon builder would not use fresh cut wood but would use trees he had cut down three or four years earlier, giving the wood time to dry out, age and cure. Cured wood is harder than fresh cut wood.
Conestoga wagons came in various sizes, just like trucks today, some were used on farms, like pick-up trucks and others were the tractor trailers of their time, large, heavy duty wagons hauling goods to Philadelphia and later to the west. The larger of these wagons may have been 14 and 16 feet long and been pulled by 6 large horses. Usually the wheels of the wagons would be painted red while the body of the wagon would be blue, with a canvas top that was white.
The wagon driver would often walk along side the wagon, he could also ride the wheel horse or pull out the lazy board to sit on; there were no real seats on the wagon. The people who used the lazy board ran the risk of being called lazy.
Some of the equipment that was used with a Conestoga Wagon were a feed box to feed the animals, a bucket to water the horses, and an ax to clear the road of any newly fallen trees. There was also a tool box that would allow the driver to make small repairs, grease the wheels of the wagon, and a jack to remove the wheels if necessary.
As they moved down the road, the driver had a long leather line that ran to the lead horse, usually the first horse on the left, and the wagon driver would use this to send directions to his horses. He might also say "haw" to tell the horse to turn to the left or "gee" to tell it to turn to the right.
Since the lead horse was on the left the wagon driver would walk or ride on the left, this meant that if he needed to pass someone he would pass them on the left and drive on the right side of the road. This is thought to be how the custom of driving on the right hand side of the road began in the United States.
When going down a steep hill or if the wagon began moving too fast the driver could use a chain on the back wheel, called a wheel lock chain, so that it would no longer turn but would begin to slide, slowing down the wagon. He had to make sure the wagon didn't move so fast that it would run into and hurt the horses.
It might take several days to move a load of goods the 60 miles down to Philadelphia, depending on road conditions. It was muddy it would take longer while in winter when the roads were hard and frozen it would take less time. By the 1820s and 1830s better and cheaper ways of moving large amounts of goods began to appear, using canals and later railroads. Some Conestoga Wagons still exist, the Conestoga Area Historical Society has a small one while Landis Valley Farm Museum has several of the larger variety.
1 The Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, Vol. 57, No. 5., The Earliest Use of the term "Conestoga Wagon". by Evelyn A. Benson.
2James Hendricks shows up on the Conestoga warrant map as having warranted a number pieces of land in the northern portion of Conestoga Township.
To see the warrant map, click here.
This picture is adapted from the Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, Vol. 51, page 68.
If you would like to read more about the Conestoga Wagon look for:
The Conestoga Wagon-Masterpiece of the Blacksmith, by Arthur Reist, available at many local bookstores including the Conestoga Area Historical Society.
The Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, Vol. 57, No. 5., "The Earliest Use of the term "Conestoga Wagon". by Evelyn A. Benson.
The Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, Vol. 34, no.13, The Conestoga Wagon. by H. C. Frey
The Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society can be found at the historical society or at many local libraries, latter issues are available at the Conestoga Area Historical Society building.
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