(Editor’s note: Bob Brennecke and his wife recently traveled the Oregon Trail. Here are notes and observations about his journey.)
Can you imagine getting ready to cross the west with a wagon, oxen, food, personal effects and your family? Just the thought of getting ready is daunting.
What special tools will you need and will you know how to use them? How much grease for the wheels? What about, flour, bacon, shot and powder for your rifle? Should you take a plow to break ground when you get to Oregon, or take any other farm implements or will you be able to purchase them when you arrive?
You know there were some unscrupulous people who were preying on these greenhorns to wagon travel as they prepared to make the journey to Oregon.
Some of these entrepreneurs printed in the local newspapers at their own expense what was recommended for travel going west on the wagon trains.
One of the biggest purchases was, of course, a wagon. There were only a few choices at first until it was realized there was quite a market for wagons, until options changed in later years.
We all have probably seen the depiction of the large Conestoga wagons that were rumbling across the prairie. Conestoga wagons were large, heavy, and hard to maneuver, also needing another 2 to 4 oxen or mules to pull the load.
The majority of the wagons were actually the regular farm wagons with the large rear wheel and the smaller front wheel.
The larger the wheels, the smoother the ride and the better the clearance. The front wheel was always smaller to accommodate the turning radius of the wagon. There was a steel plate screwed to the front side of the wagon where the steel tire rim would rub in case of too sharp of a turn.
To these greenhorns, a wagon was a wagon, but the real truth was the wagons took a lot of planning, with the choice of proper materials.
If you were to choose a tongue or a pulling tree of pine or cottonwood, or placed a proper oak timber in place with the grain or growth rings incorrect, or drilled wrong, the wagon might not be roadworthy for the whole trip.
If the wagon maker got in a hurry and did not allow the wood for the spokes to be dried to the correct moisture content before shaping and installed into the wooden wagon wheel rim, the wooden spokes would shrink making the wheel loose and dangerous to use.
Wagons were not only made locally on the western part of Missouri, but also by companies like John Deere, Studebaker, Sears, Roebuck Co. and small start-up companies.
Peter Schuttler Wagon Co. was a small start-up company in Chicago. Mr. Schuttler may have been one of the first to start using interchangeable parts for his wagons before Henry Ford.
Schuttler’s wagons may have been the minivans of the west, and he was one of three millionaires in Chicago in the 1880s. The Schuttler wagons were pre-packaged by parts and sent by bulk, by steamboat, and assembled by mechanics in the field.
Wagons did not have any undercarriage suspension, only wood on wood, and wood on steel wheels. The ride in a wagon is extremely rough. Some of the seats were fitted with steel leaf springs fitted to a framework that slid front to back, sliding on a wooden saddle over the sides of the wagon.
Tallow or grease was used liberally “if smart” to lubricate the axles. The axles started out being only wood with stops at the ends to keep the wheels from sliding on. Later on the cast iron sleeve axle came into use, which was a cast iron tube that slid over the main wooden axle.
This sleeve not only prolonged the wear on the wooden axle but made the cast iron bushing on the wheel much more durable.
Many things needed to be thought of before setting off on this long and dangerous trek. The entrepreneurs that placed the ads in the newspapers suggested many more times what was needed to travel to the next supply station or even to the first river crossing.
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There were accounts of tons of salt pork rotting along the trail along with personal items like dressers, trunks, pianos, organs, or anything that weighed too much that they really didn’t need.
The Oregon Trail was the first and largest littering fields in American history. You could actually follow the trail by following the trash of other pioneers.
Another, and possibly the most important item or items that a pioneer needed to choose, was “what type of propulsion or animals needed to be chosen” to pull their wagons.
The choices were horses, mules, or oxen as “draft animals” (animals trained to work). Horses were very readily available but that type of horse needed to be beefier than a regular horse.
Draft horses were good choices to pull heavy loads like a wagon, but horses needed to be fed grain regularly and watered frequently.
Mules were the next choice. Mules had just recently been introduced into the United States and were a good, tough working animal, if trained properly. Not only do mules have the strength to pull a wagon, they didn’t need special foods all the time.
Mules do need to be watered, of course, but not to the extent or volume of a draft horse. Since mules were a new addition to working stock, not many people knew how to train these animals with a “special attitude.” You have heard “being stubborn as a mule”?
Mules have attitudes and training them will get that attitude to work for you, not against you. Since mules were fairly new on the scene and there was a great need for them, the propagation of these animals was accelerated so as to take advantage of the need of the pioneer market.
Untrained mules were put on the market and sold to the pioneers without the warnings of how spirited or non-conforming they were.
Mules are spooked easily and when one animal is startled by a shovel being dropped or a board being banged, not just one animal but all will follow with all their speed, running through a crowd or tearing down fences with the wagon being dragged behind.