Lone Hand Western - Old West History

The Pioneers

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Ideology and Acts   |    The Pioneer Homestead

The Pioneers

When God made man,
He seemed to think it best
To make him in the East,
And let him travel west.

The great movement into the West was truly one of the one of the most interesting periods of this nations history.  The period of time between the 1840's to the 1890's represent one of the greatest movements of humanity we will ever see in this country and is part of an era we will never see again.  The heartiness and stamina of the people involved are evidence of an American Spirit that is the touch stone of our nations conscience.

The Pioneers in Time

Many events occurred that led to the opening of the west for settlement. 

Population of the United States recorded as 5,308,483.

The United States buys the lands between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains from France for $15,000,000.  This purchase doubled the size of the nation and included un settled territory.

1804 - 1806
The Lewis and Clark Expedition explores the upper Missouri and Oregon Territory.

1805 - 1807
Zebulon Pike searches for the source of the Mississippi and explores the Rocky Mountain.

John Jacob Astor establishes a trading post in Oregon.

1812 - 1814
War between the United States and Great Britain

The United States and Great Britain agree to joint occupancy of Oregon country.

The first American railroad the Baltimore and Ohio, begins operation.  Andrew Jackson, advocate of western expansion, is elected president of the United States.

Joseph Smith founds the Mormon Church.  Congress passes the Indian Removal Act, giving President Jackson the power to remove Native Americans from the east to lands west of the Mississippi.


John Deere patents the steel plow, which, unlike the older cast-iron plow, can turn over the heavy turf of the western prairies.

The Lone Star Republic (Texas) becomes independent from Mexico.  Marcus and Narcissa Whitman establish a Methodist mission in Oregon Country.

1842 - 1845
John Fremont maps the west.

First wagon train crosses to Oregon.

The Lone Star Republic enters the union as the state of Texas. 
John L. O'Sullivan writes of the United States "Manifest Destiny" to expand across the Continent.

California becomes independent from Mexico as the Bear Flag Republic.
The Donner Party disaster.

Oregon Boundary Treaty divides the territory between the United States and Great Britain at 49 degrees north latitude.
Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 12 other settlers are massacred by a group of Cayuse Indians in their mission in Oregon.
Brigham Young leads the Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Utah.

War with Mexico results in the Mexican cession of California and the Southwest to the United States.  Gold is discovered in California, leading to the 1849-1850 gold rush.

The Kansas - Nebraska Act formally opens these territories to white settlement and sparks a new national debate on slavery.

The first pony Express delivers letters from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in tens days.

1861 - 1865
The American Civil War

Homestead Act encourages settlement of unoccupied western lands.

The first American trans-continental railroad is completed.

Barbed wire is patented.  Economical fencing and the introduction of "winter wheat" encourages development of farming on the Great Plains.

Two million acres of Indian Territory (Oklahoma) are opened to white homesteaders.

The Trails

Emigrants had a choice of trails to take to their new homes in the West.  By 1850 most of the United States east of the the Missouri River had already met  the Census Bureau's definition of settled land - 2 or more persons per square mile.  For those people interested in farming and settling in expanses of land the eastern United States was overcrowded.  The Great Plains, also known as the "Great American Desert" to some people, presented an opportunity to re-establish in new and boundless territory.

The chief route west was the Oregon Trail, which began in Independence Missouri, and terminated in the Northwest.  An offshoot, the California Trail, climbed the Sierra and ended in Sacramento.  Another route, used by the Mormons, led to the Salt Lake Valley.  The main artery to the Southwest was the Santa Fe Trail, which linked up with two routes to southern California, The Gila River Trail and the Old Spanish Trail.

Traffic on the trails grew by leaps and bounds.  Estimated numbers of pioneers using the various routes are as follows:

1841     69
1842   200
   1843   1,000
   1844   5,000
     1848   30,000
     1849   35,000

At the peak of migration, in 1850, some 55,000  pioneers rolled westward by wagon train.

Factors Contributing To Western Expansion

Financial Woes

In 1837 the nation suffered its first major financial collapse, the result of irresponsible money and banking policies and speculation in public lands during the Andrew Jackson administration.  During May of the year 1837, the major New York Banks closed and in the ensuing panic banks all over the country also closed.  The depression that followed caused agricultural prices to plummet, farm surpluses clogged the produce markets and farmers could not meet the mortgage payments on their land.  These farmers headed for free land on the west coast.

A pioneer log home circa 1889.


Epidemics of sickness also drove people to the West.  In the East, more people died of such diseases as typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis, scarlet fever and malaria than from any other cause.  Yellow fever so decimated the population of New Orleans and settlements along the Mississippi River to the north that the regional death rate  exceeded its birth rate for nearly a century.  and in the 1830s an epidemic of cholera, which had started in Asia, rampaged through Europe, and came across the Atlantic on passenger ships, struck the East Coast and spread inland.  The disease raged for almost two decades, killing some  30,000 in 1850 alone.

The Civil War

The American Civil War would send another wave of  pioneers to the West.  In the aftermath of the war, thousands looked for an escape from their devastated homes.  To all these people the West was a means to achieve health, wealth and happiness.

The Pioneer Wagon

The most familiar covered wagon crossing the plains and mountains to the promised land of the west was a smaller, lighter cousin on the Conestoga wagon of the east.  This "prairie schooner" was superbly designed for its job of transporting pioneer families and their goods on the five month long, 2000 mile journey west.   The cloth top protected people and possessions from sun and rain, hail and wind, and it could be closed off entirely by drawstrings on each end.  The big wheels rolled easily over the bumps and hole of the rough trails, and wide rims kept the wagons from sinking into the soft ground.  The wagon's 10 - by 3 1/2 foot-  body could take a load of a ton and a half, but experts advised keeping it below this limit.  The lighter the wagon, the less likely it was to bog down in muddy stream-banks or prairie sloughs.  There was not much room inside the wagon, and in decent weather most people cooked, ate, and slept outside.

When you consider the amount of goods that the average pioneer family would have carried with them it is no small wonder that broken axels, wheels and running gear were a common problem on the trail.  Stops were scheduled along the way at groves of hard wood to collect the lumber needed to manufacture replacement parts for the wagons.     

The pioneer wagon carried a huge assortment of goods the families needed to survive the trip and to homestead once they reached the end of their journey.  If you were to take a peak in a pioneer wagon you would most likely see:

Bedding And Tent Supplies

Blankets, feather beds, ground cloths, pillows, tent, poles, stakes, ropes.


Rifle, pistol, knife, hatchet, gunpowder, lead, bullet mold, powder horn, bullet pouch, holster.


Flour, bacon, coffee, baking soda, corn meal, hardtack, dried beans, dried beef, dried fruit, molasses, vinegar, pepper, eggs, salt, sugar, rice, tea.

Cooking Utensils

Dutch oven, kettle, skillet, reflector oven, coffee grinder, coffee pot, teapot, butcher knife, ladle, tin tableware, water keg, matches

Miscellaneous Items

Surgical instruments, liniments, bandages, campstool, chamber pot, washbowl, lanterns, candle molds, tallow, spyglasses, scissors, needles, pins, thread.

Herbal Medicine Kit


Wool sack coats, rubber coats, cotton dresses, wool pantaloons, buckskin pants, duck trousers, cotton shirts, flannel shirts, cotton socks, brogans, boots, felt hats, Palm-leaf sun hats, green goggles, sunbonnets.

Tools And Extra Equipment

Set of augers, gimlet, ax, hammer, hoe, plow, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axels, kingbolts, linchpins, ox shoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, chains.


Canned foods, plant cuttings, schoolbooks, musical instruments, dolls, family albums, jewelry, china, silverware, fine linens, iron stoves, furniture.

Many of the "Western" movies we have seen show a family riding in the wagon on there way to their new home.  This is an inaccurate portrayal to say the least.  When you consider the fact that a wagon box is roughly a 10' by 3 1/2' container with 30 inch sides there was simply not any room for people in the wagons unless they were injured or extremely ill.  The fact of the matter is - most of the pioneers walked around 2000 miles to their new home.

Many times the travelers found that they were trying to take too many of there belongings with them and the draft animals could not handle such a heavy load.  The trails to the western territories were strewn with the  pioneers personal possessions that were left behind in an attempt to lighten the load.  There are even written accounts of pianos and parlor organs seen left behind on the trail.  How hard it must have been to leave behind such a vestige of civilization.  

Oxen, Horses, and Mules

Most of the overlanders chose to use oxen for their draft animals.  Although oxen were slower than mules, they fared much better in muddy conditions and could survive on little food.  Most of the  pioneers used the oxen from their farms back east and were experienced at handling them.  Oxen were relatively cheap.  They cost only $55 to $65 per yolk while mules might be as much as $100 each.  Horses were not used until the later years of western emigration because they could not work well with such poor feed. 

Randolph Marcy Randolph Marcy (1812 - 1887)
Randolph Marcy wrote the book The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook for Overland Expeditions, with Maps, Illustrations, and Itineraries of the Principal Routes between the Mississippi and the Pacific. 
The book is considered to be one of the most important in contributing to to the great overland emigration into the West. 

Below is an accounting of the benefits of using different types of draft animals on the journey westward.

"Wagons with six mules should never, on a long journey over the prairies, be loaded with over 2000 pounds, unless grain is transported, when an additional thousand pounds may be taken, provided it is fed out daily to the team. When grass constitutes the only forage, 2000 pounds is deemed a sufficient load. I regard our government wagons as unnecessarily heavy for six mules. There is sufficient material in them to sustain a burden of 4000 pounds, but they are seldom loaded with more than half that weight. Every wagon should be furnished with substantial bows and double osnaburg covers, to protect its contents from the sun and weather.

There has been much discussion regarding the relative merits of mules and oxen for prairie traveling, and the question is yet far from being settled. Upon good firm roads, in a populated country, where grain can be procured, I should unquestionably give the preference to mules, as they travel faster, and endure the heat of summer much better than oxen; and if the journey be not over 1000 miles, amid the grass abundant, even without grain, I think mules would be preferable. But when the march is to extend 1500 or 2000 miles, or over a rough sandy or muddy road, I believe young oxen will endure better than mules; they will, if properly managed, keep in better condition, and perform the journey in an equally brief space of time. Besides, they are much more economical, a team of six mules costing six hundred dollars, while an eight-ox team only costs upon the frontier about two hundred dollars. Oxen are much less liable to be stampeded and driven off by Indians, and can be pursued and overtaken by horsemen; and, finally, they can, if necessary, be used for beef.

Andersson, in his work on Southwestern Africa, says: " A short strong stick, of peculiar shape, is forced through the cartilage of the nose of .the ox, and to either end of this stick is attached (in bridle fashion) a tough leathern thong. From the extreme tenderness of the nose he is now more easily managed." " Hans presented me with an ox called ' Spring,' which I afterward rode upward of two thousand miles. On the day of our departure he mounted us all on oxen, and a curious sight it was to see some of the men take their seats who had never before ridden on ox-back. It is impossible to guide an ox as one would guide a horse, for in the attempt to do so you would instantly jerk the stick out of his nose, which at once deprives you of every control over the beast; but by pulling both sides of the bridle at the same time, and toward the side you wish him to take, he is easily managed.* Your seat is not less awkward and difficult; for the skin of the ox, unlike that of the horse, is loose, and, notwithstanding your saddle may be tightly girthed, you keep rocking to and fro like a child in a cradle. A few days, however, enables a person to acquire a certain steadiness, and long habit will do the rest."

"Ox traveling, when once a man becomes accustomed to it, is not so disagreeable as might be expected, particularly if one succeeds in obtaining a tractable animal.' On emergencies, an ox can be made to proceed at a tolerable quick pace; for, though his walk is only about three miles an hour at an average, he may be made to perform double that distance in the same time. Mr. Galton once accomplished 24 miles in four hours, and that, too, through heavy sand!"

Cows will be found very useful upon" long journeys when the rate of travel is slow, as they furnish milk, and in emergencies they may be worked in wagons. I once saw a small cow yoked beside a large ox, and driven about six hundred miles attached to a loaded wagon, and she performed her part equally well with the ox. It has been by no means an unusual thing for emigrant travelers to work cows in their teams.

The inhabitants of Pembina, on Red River, work a single ox harnessed in shafts like a horse, and they transport a thousand pounds in a rude cart made entirely of wood, without a particle of iron. One man drives and takes the entire charge of eight or ten of these teams upon long journeys. This is certainly a very economical method of transportation."