Lone Hand Western - Old West History

Chuck Wagon Central

Chuck Wagon Central covers the history of the chuck wagon as well as the daily life cowboys and history of the great trail drives in the old west.

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The chuck wagon - Chuck wagon central covers the history of the chuck wagon as well as the daily life cowboys and history of the great trail drives in the old west. 

The high time of the trail drives lasted only about 20 years, from the end of the Civil War to the mid -1880's.  In that brief period of time around 10 million cows walked the trails from Texas to the rail heads in Kansas and Missouri.  Many of these went as far as Wyoming and even into Canada.

In the early days of the great trail drives the cowhand had to make do with what he could carry with him.  This caused some rather hungry, uncomfortable times on the trail.  Texas rancher Charles Goodnight saw an opportunity to fill this basic need and in 1866 created the prototype for the chuck wagon. 

Charles Goodnight
Charles Goodnight

Goodnight rebuilt an army surplus Studebaker wagon for his creation. The Studebaker was a sturdy wagon with steel axles that could withstand trail drives that could last up to 5 months. Goodnight designed and added a chuck box and boot to the rear of his wagon and this became the prototype for all the chuck wagons that followed. The chuck box was comprised of a number of shelves and drawers to hold what the cook would need over the course of the day. Once the hinged lid was dropped down to serve as a work surface the cook had everything he needed within easy reach. The boot carried the Dutch ovens and other cooking utensils the cook would need to provide hot meals for ten or more cowboys on long trail drives. A water barrel large enough to hold two days' water supply was attached to the side of the wagon along with an assortment of tool and catch-all boxes, hooks, brackets and the vital coffee grinder. Naturally, wood for cook fires is scarce on the prairie. By suspending a canvas beneath the wagon in hammock fashion the cook had a convenient container for any fuel he collected during each day's move. The wagon box was used to carry the cowboys' bedrolls and personal effects as well as bulk food supplies, feed for the horses and what ever else the crew felt was needed. In some cases a second "hoodlum" wagon was used to carry the gear and supplies of large crews. It was not uncommon to hear a cowboy say that he worked for a "wagon" as opposed to a particular ranch.

Studebaker Roundup Wagon

The Studebaker wagon seems to be the "golden egg" in the wagon world but they were far from being the only wagon factory at the time.  The Mitchell wagon company in Racine, Wisconsin and the Old Hickory wagon company from Louisville, Kentucky were both well established by the time of the great trail drives.  Established in 1834, the Mitchell and Lewis Company claimed to be the oldest wagon factory in America.  

The Moline Wagon Company, started by James First, was another well established producer.  First was a wheelwright by trade and started  repairing wagons in the early 1850s.  In 1854, with the help of hired hands, First was producing up to ten wagons a week.  In 1869, First joined Rosenfield and Charles Benser to form Moline Wagon Company.  More than one million Moline wagons were in use by 1909.  With 500 workers, the factory claimed it could build a new wagon every 30 minutes.  Considering the fact that the Goodnight wagon was of the army surplus variety and looking at the number of other wagons available the average chuck wagon was probably not a Studebaker.

A well supplied chuck wagon contained an amazing assortment of goods and possibles needed for a long trail drive.  Not only did the wagon have to carry food supplies and cooking utensils, it had to carry the cowboy bed rolls and personal effects as well.  Considering the average wagon box was around 10 feet long and only 38-40 inches wide packing and unpacking must have been a science in itself.  It's no wonder cousies had a reputation for being a little on edge most of the time.

There is a mistaken notion that most of the wagons used during the westward migration were of the Conestoga variety. Conestoga wagons were indigenous to the Conestoga area of Pennsylvania and were large freight wagons reaching lengths of up to 24 feet. While a few Conestoga wagons made the trek to the west most of the wagons used were of the typical farm or "lumber wagon" variety. This is the case for both chuck wagons and pioneer wagons. The chuck wagon served to be such a popular vehicle that the Studebaker Wagon Company and other wagon manufacturing companies were selling pre-built "Round Up" wagons by the end of the great trail drives. Simple and functional in its design, the chuck wagon remains important to western cattle drives to this day.