The first major highway built by the United States federal government was the National Road. Construction began in 1811 on the road also known as the Cumberland Road because it began in Cumberland, Maryland. By August 1, 1818, the road reached to Wheeling at the Ohio River. (Wheeling was then in Virginia but is now part of West Virginia.)
Settlers moving westward quickly utilized the road through Pennsylvania and Virginia to the new state of Ohio. Their wagons toted all their worldly goods to a new land.
Conestoga wagons were first built by Mennonite Germans near the Conestoga River area of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the early to mid-eighteenth century. Skilled craftsman created a unique curved bed, designed to prevent freight from shifting while climbing steep hills. Chains held the back gate in place while traveling.
Early wagon covers were hempen homespun. Canvas was used later. They soaked the canvas in linseed oil to waterproof the fabric. This covering was stretched over several wooden hoops.
The builders took great pride in their work. They painted the wagons blue, trimmed with red.
Built with broad wheels, four to six horses pulled five-ton loads over dangerous Pennsylvania roads. Conestoga wagons hauled products from the eastern states to settlers in Western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley and returned with frontier goods like flour, tobacco, coal, and whiskey.
Strong Conestoga horses bred in the Conestoga area of Pennsylvania could pull these loads about twelve miles per day.
Wagoners made their living by hauling freight from the east to the western frontier and back again. These colorful characters made a journey of 250 miles in about three weeks.
Drivers of Conestoga wagons didn’t sit on a bench and hold the horses’ reins. Wagoners rode the left rear horse or walked alongside the horses. When the wagoner tired of walking, he pulled out a lazy board—a wooden board attached to the side of the wagon—and sat on it.
Railroads had slowed the heavy traffic on the National Road by the 1850s. Conestoga wagons were no longer in demand. Wagoners found new ways to make a living.
But what stories they had to tell to their children and grandchildren.
-Sandra Merville Hart
“Conestoga Wagon,” History.com, 2017/04/19 http://www.history.com/topics/conestoga-wagon.
“Conestoga Wagon,” Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2017/04/19 http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_842999.
“Conestoga wagon.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/conestoga-wagon.
Edited by Raitz, Karl. A Guide to The National Road, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
“National Road,” Wikipedia, 2017/04/20 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Road.
White, Roger B. “Covered Wagons and the American Frontier,” Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2017/04/19 http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2012/10/conestoga-wagons-and-the-american-frontier.html.