The Long Journey West

covered wagonWhat made some pioneer wagon trains successful, and others not? Successful companies prepared strong, enforceable, written constitutions of bylaws, rules, and agreements that addressed conduct and possible points of contention, such as halting 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, and 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 known trail landmarks, on schedule. A no-frills approach to packing the wagon before starting out, 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. Pride in the company and a sense of esprit de corps kept dissension to a minimum, and size was a factor. Groups of 50 or fewer individuals were more manageable, although many larger trains were equally successful.

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