The origins of the distinctive horse-drawn freight wagon known as the Conestoga wagon can be traced to the Conestoga River region of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County in the mid- to late-18th century. Conestoga wagons, with their distinctive curved floors and canvas covers arched over wooden hoops, became a common sight over the next century, as they carried farm products to cities and other goods from cities to rural communities, particularly in Pennsylvania and the nearby states of Maryland, Ohio and Virginia but also elsewhere in the United States and in Canada.
The Conestoga River (also referred to as the Conestoga Creek) is a tributary of the Susquehanna River that flows through the center of Lancaster County. The word “Conestoga” probably derives from the Iroquois language, and is sometimes defined as “people of the cabin pole.” Before the arrival of European settlers in the region, the Conestoga–a Native American tribe also known as the Susquehanna or Susquehannock–lived along the Susquehanna River.
Around 1700, the Conestoga established trade relations with the colony that would become Pennsylvania, founded by the Quaker leader William Penn. As the fur trade moved out of the region, the influence of Conestoga declined, and many moved westward. In late 1763, in retaliation for Native American aggression on the western frontier during Pontiac’s Rebellion, a vigilante group known as the Paxton Boys brutally massacred most of the remaining Conestogas.
Design of the Conestoga Wagon
By that time, skilled craftsmen in the Susquehanna Valley–believed to be Mennonite German settlers in Pennsylvania–had begun to build the distinctive covered wagons that would bear the Conestoga name. Designed for hauling heavy loads over rough roads, the covered wagons could carry as much as six tons of freight; each one was handcrafted from wood (including oak and poplar). The floor of the Conestoga wagon curved upwards at each end to prevent the wagon’s contents from shifting or falling out when it was in motion, while gates at the end were held in place by a chain and could be dropped for loading and unloading purposes.
The white canvas cover on the Conestoga wagon protected the freight from inclement weather; it was stretched taut over a series of wooden hoops that arched over the wagon bed. The fabric could be soaked in linseed oil to make it waterproof. Each Conestoga wagon was pulled by four to six horses, ideally of a type bred in the region and known as Conestoga horses. These horses were docile and strong, and could cover some 12 to 14 miles a day. The driver of the Conestoga wagon would usually not ride inside the vehicle but walk alongside, ride one of the rear horses or perch on what was called the lazy board, a piece of wood that could be pulled out from beneath the wagon bed in front of one of the rear wheels.
Role of the Conestoga Wagon in American History
The peak years of use for the Conestoga wagons were from 1820 to 1840. They were used most extensively in Pennsylvania and the nearby states of Maryland, Ohio and Virginia. The wagons proved to be of particular use in carrying farm products such as corn, barley and wheat to be sold in cities, and to transport commodities back from urban to rural communities. The mid-century expansion of railroad lines ended the regular usage of the Conestoga wagon to haul heavy freight, and by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 they were no longer being manufactured.
It is a popular misconception that the Conestoga wagon played a role in the great westward migration towards territories like Oregon and California during the 19th century. Conestogas were too heavy to be pulled such long distances, and west-bound travelers turned instead to the sturdy covered wagons known as prairie schooners or “Western wagons.” These had flat bodies and lower sides than the Conestoga; their white canvas covers made the wagons look like sailing ships from the distance, earning them the “schooner” name.