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Covered Wagons: Definition, Types & Facts

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has taught high school history in several states with a master's degree in teaching.

Two main types of covered wagons were used to shape and transform early America. In this lesson, learn about the role of covered AND Conestoga wagons, their diverse purposes and their unique designs.

Frontier Transportation

Trips today are difficult enough to plan, even with access to countless internet sources and almost endless modes of transportation. Imagine trying to plan a trip into an unchartered area or without using any modern forms of transportation! That was the exact challenge faced by early Americans who wanted to travel westward for settlement or business reasons. These early Americans depended on two types of wagons, the larger Conestoga Wagon in the east and the smaller covered wagon in the west. Although similar in design, there were small differences in their design that best enabled them to fulfill their role in expanding America.

Similarities in Wagons

Both wagon types were made of wooden frames and covered with cloth that had been waterproofed with either paint or oil. Wagons had four large wheels that helped make the ride over rough terrain as smooth as it could be. The wheels were wide, which helped prevent the wagon from sinking into soft ground. Surprisingly, the drivers of the wagons did not ride inside the wagon, as you might assume! To best control the animals (mules, oxen or horses) that pulled the wagon, the drivers either walked next to or rode on the team of animals. Although the design of these wagons was similar, the uniqueness of each of their roles led to several differences between the two wagons.

Conestoga Wagon: East Coast Shipments

The larger Conestoga wagon used to transport goods. Can you imagine 5,000 pounds of goods inside?

The Conestoga wagon was much larger than the covered wagon. This worked well because its primary purpose was to carry finished goods from major east coast cities (like Baltimore and Philadelphia) to small towns as far west as Ohio. On return trips, Conestoga wagons would bring back raw goods like flour, whiskey, tobacco, and furs to the east coast. The Conestoga wagon was named after a Native American tribe in Pennsylvania that English and German settlers traded with. Conestoga wagons could carry up to five tons of goods! These wagons had a curved shape inside to help keep the goods from shifting during transportation. Although terrain made a difference, on a typical day Conestoga wagons would travel between 12 and 14 miles.

The Conestoga was the most common method of transporting goods from larger cities on the east coast from the mid-1700s until the 1850s. In the 1850s, Conestoga wagon use quickly ended when railroads connected east coast cities to towns along the Ohio River. Although similar to covered wagons, Conestoga wagons were too large to use on the long journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Covered Wagon: Western Explorer

The smaller covered wagon. Can you imagine the cover blowing in the wind and see why it was nicknamed the prairie schooner?

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