Conestoga wagon

Conestoga wagon kŏnˌəstōˈgə [key], heavy freight-carrying vehicle of distinctive type that originated in the Conestoga region of Pennsylvania c.1725. It was used by farmers to carry heavy loads long distances before there were railroads to convey produce to markets. Later it was used to carry manufactured goods across the Alleghenies to frontier stores and settlements and to bring back the frontier produce. The transportation of goods by wagon train developed into a major business employing thousands of wagons before the railroads crossed the mountains c.1850. The larger Conestoga wagons, usually drawn by six horses, carried loads up to eight tons. The bottom of the wagon box was curved, rising at both ends, so that in going up and down hills the goods would shift less easily and the tailgate would be subjected to less strain. The same curve was carried out in the white hood, at first made of hempen homespun and later of canvas, which rose up and out at each end, covering the front and rear openings with a poke bonnet effect to keep out sun, rain, and dust. The wagons were striking and graceful vehicles as they moved over the hills and were often called “ships of inland commerce.” The drivers usually rode the left wheel horse and are credited with originating the American custom of turning out to the right. The prairie schooner was a modification of the Conestoga wagon.

See study by G. Shumway and H. C. Frey (3d ed. 1968).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. History