"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

"Wagons West" Was the Cry

by Don Baumgart

In these modern times when our current method of travel, the automobile, is becoming more costly to start up each day, it may be good to look back at the wagon.

Caravans of wagons bearing trade goods headed West long before the cry of "Gold!' rang out in California. Freighters took the Santa Fe Trail across the southwestern plains. St. Louis wagon makers, the forerunners of Detroit car manufacturers, were busily building descendants of the Conestoga wagon, which had seen heavy use in the East.

Joseph Murphy, the Henry Ford of his time, became a leading wagon maker for the westward freight haulers.

When in 1839 the governor of New Mexico slapped a $500 per wagon tax on the freighters, Murphy began making larger wagons so more goods could be moved in each one, softening the tax blow.

The "Murphy Wagon" had rear wheels seven feet tall with metal rims eight inches wide and carried two to three tons of goods.

Seeing he had been outwitted, the governor junked his tax plan, but the giant wagons still crossed the Southwest.

It was vital that a wagon not break down in mid-trip and Joseph Murphy soon earned a reputation for reliable work. When the westward migrations used more northerly routes they needed different wagons. Smaller sizes were necessary to climb the Rocky Mountains and lighter became better. A "drop tongue" was invented, giving up-and-down flexibility to the shaft to which the oxen were hitched. Axles were reinforced with iron against the rougher terrain.

The wagon teams were not driven by someone seated in the rig, as modern movies would have us believe. There were no reins. The driver walked alongside the team, giving them direction by shouting and cracking a whip. Walking on the team's left side the driver would shout "Gee!" for right and "Haw!" for left.

The westward bound immigrants loaded their wagons with between 2,000 and 5,000 pounds of supplies for the trip, plus implements to set up a new home when they got to their destinations. The list became standard as word filtered back to St. Louis about what it took to make the trip. Take 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, ten pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, ten pounds of salt, all tightly packed.

Add a baking kettle, frying pan, coffee pot, bedding, and clothing. Tents, axes, shovels, hammers, nails, and rope also were good to have along. A gun or two was necessary for hunting and protection.

The future home required that furniture be brought. Cows, sheep, and pigs trailed the wagon.

Often the animals became meals along the way and the trails were littered, especially once they became steeper, with furniture discarded so the wagons could make the climb.

Fifteen excavations of five historic camping spots revealed some of the items discarded by the Donner Party, a group of settlers who later became stranded in the Sierra Mountains by winter snow.

Before they reached the mountains, the Donner caravan made temporary camp at five spots on Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert, 120 miles west of what is now Salt Lake City.

The high sand dunes and soft mud combined with the desert heat to kill many of the party's oxen, forcing the travelers to dump the contents of many wagons in the 90-mile stretch of waterless land. Some wagons were loaded with leave-behinds, boarded over and buried.

The State of Utah Historical Society devoted five years to excavating the donner Party campsites starting in 1983.

They found clothing remnants, a shaving brush, ammunition, carpenters tools, medicine bottles, luggage parts, and ink bottle, buttons, pins, lead balls and shot, flints, harness buckles, and horse shoe nails.

Settlers soon were replaced by travelers not interested in farming or in settling down as the world turned its attention to this western upstart, California, where gold had been discovered.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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