Overland in Covered Wagons
What made some pioneer wagon trains successful, and others not? Partly luck, of course. But more than that, good fortune turned on the preparedness and determination of its members, and the willingness to remain a cohesive, mutually-beneficial unit to trail’s end, despite personal differences.
Early on, successful companies prepared strong, enforceable, written constitutions of bylaws, rules, and agreements that addressed conduct and possible points of contention, such as planning to halt one day every week (or not) to observe the Sabbath. Smart companies elected wagon masters and other officers who exercised effective management, not merely figurehead leaders chosen out of deference to a man’s social status. Most of all, they hired experienced guides.
The ability of individual members to endure exertion and hardship mattered, as did a consistent pace, because to reach California before snows blocked the Sierra Nevada passes, they needed to arrive at widely scattered trading posts, or at known trail landmarks, on schedule. Their vehicles were essentially ordinary farm wagons, sometimes specially built or adapted for the trail. Outfitting for the journey cost from $400 to $650 in 1840s money, in an era when unskilled laborers earned $1.00 a day and skilled workers might earn $2.50 a day. A no-frills approach to packing the wagon, taking only items that were crucial to survival and relative comfort such as nonperishable food, tools and ropes, adequate clothing and extra shoes, bedding, medicines, and limited kitchen utensils, meant less weight for oxen to pull.
Attentive care of draft animals was important. If pushed too hard, these animals could die or become crippled, leaving their owners stranded in a wilderness. “Frontiering” knowledge was valuable—the more men who could hunt game, or possessed practical mechanical skills, the better. Size was a factor. Groups of fifty or fewer individuals were more manageable, and had a better chance of finding adequate water and grasses for their animals at evening campsites, so very large caravans typically broke into smaller groups as the trip progressed, electing new captains and hiring new guides encountered along the route.