Conestoga wagon

Location: Ulster American Folk Park / Emigrants Exhibition

Conestoga wagons were the heavy lorries of their day, used to carry heavy loads over rough roads—either farm goods to markets, or cargo to distant places. They could carry up to six tons of freight, pulled by a team of six, heavy-set horses.

It boasted some thoughtful design features:

  • Its floor curved to prevent the contents from shifting on rough roads.
  • Its seams were caulked with tar to prevent water seeping in during river crossings.
  • Iron reinforced every point of strain.

It was loaded with features too:

  • toolboxes were standard
  • a feedbox at the rear ensured that the team were fed
  • the distinctive angled sides prevented the load being tipped out on steep hills. Extended to the strong canvas cover, they helped to keep the rain out.

The Conestoga wagon was not intended for passengers. The wagon had a brake handle on the left side between the two wheels. A teamster might walk beside the wagon to maintain access to the brake, or could ride on a pull-out seat called a ‘lazy board’. The left horse nearest the wagon was known as the wheel horse and was sometimes ridden.

Conestoga wagons date as early as 1730s, and perhaps even earlier - a James Logan purchased a ‘Conestoga wagon’ in 1717, according to an entry in his ledger.

They are named after the Conestoga River. This area of Eastern Pennsylvania was settled by German migrants in the 1730s. The Conestoga is their invention, and the decorative folk art that decorated the ironwork of many Conestoga wagons is drawn from German and Dutch traditions.

Conestoga wagons were first used by the army in Braddock’s military campaign against the French in 1755. They carried equipment through the Appalachian Mountains to help establish Fort Pitt, later Pittsburgh, and were used extensively during the War of Independence. They were not, however used further west. Conestoga wagons were not well-adapted to the prairies.

Look for the front and rear overhang and the sloped panel doors. These increase the wagon’s carrying capacity. The wheels are 12 feet apart - any wider and the wagon would be difficult to turn. Smaller front wheels also make turning easier.