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The horses and wagons over the Rocky mountains?

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  • The horses and wagons over the Rocky mountains?

    When people were going west in wagon trains in the nineteenth century, how did they get the horses and wagons over the Rocky mountains?
    Last edited by Danny Jaime; Oct. 25, 2019, 05:13 AM.

  • #2
    They drove them! In places they had to double team horses/oxen or winch wagons up or down to get thru mountain passes. Sometimes they added drags, usually logs, to prevent wagons pushing teams downhill. They made rafts for river crossings, or had to wait until waters receded, to cross. Water crossings were almost always scary, people died there.

    All covered wagons are NOT built the same. Prarie Schooners were much lighter built, smaller, would float, than Conestoga wagons used for freighting on the east coast. Chuck wagons were not seen on wagon trains, they got developed for cattle drives later in history. The Prarie Schooners could be used as farm wagons once people settled.

    Most pioneers drove oxen, not horses, heading west. It often took two seasons to make it to the west coast areas, so they wintered near the Rockies, then crossed in spring. Those who tried crossing in Fall often died, got snowbound or fell off slippery trails. Winter can start in late August or early Sept in the mountains and pioneers did not listen to good advice. Oxen could pull more, easier to feed, cheaper to buy, eat them if they broke a leg. They did travel slower, so a REALLY good day could be 15 miles, a good day only 8 miles. A very bad day might be only a couple miles in mud. Horses were fairly expensive, more excitable, used more food. Freighters used bigger covered wagons than Prarie Schooners, but still square and high up. Freighters developed delivery routes, wagons pulled by horses and mules as settlements developed, because equines were faster movers. They could get things delivered east of the Rockies, back to civilization with their trade goods before winter came.

    Every day was work, nothing like "seen on TV" rolling along a flat road. Trails were rutted deeply from other pioneer trains, grazing might be scarce, so animals were weak, so goods had to be left beside the trail to lighten the wagon. Some portions of famous trails are still preserved in a few places out west. Deep ruts are still there. Water often was contaminated, making people sick. We won't even talk about angry Native Americans not wanting pioneers crossing their lands! It was a hard and dangerous choice to make the trip West.


    • #3
      Great info (as always) goodhors

      All I can add re: difficulty is: Donner Party
      *friend of bar.ka*RIP all my lovely boys, gone too soon:
      Steppin' Out 1988-2004
      Hey Vern! 1982-2009, Cash's Bay Threat 1994-2009
      Sam(Jaybee Altair) 1994-2015


      • #4
        You might enjoy this modern wagon trip on the Oregon Trail.


        • #5
          Having driven across the country myself. I wonder how Rinker Buck dealt with fences and cattle guards.


          • #6
            Originally posted by Stonewall View Post
            You might enjoy this modern wagon trip on the Oregon Trail.
            Thanks you for sharing.
            google street view maps


            • #7
              We were in Colorado and Wyoming last month on vacation. I kept saying to my husband, "Can you imagine being the first person to attempt to cross these mountains??" I can only imagine the looks on their faces every time they crossed one mountain only to see another, higher mountain still to cross. Took incredibly brave people to travel that way.


              • #8
                DH and I were hiking in the Sierra Nevadas near Truckee, NV on the Pacific Crest Trail. There is an "Emigrant Pass" along there that crosses the trail, and a sign that explains that the emigrants used it to get over the Sierras. It is steep! Very steep! Like, "Man from Snowy River" steep.

                Sign said they unyoked the oxen, led them down the slope, attached ropes to the oxen's harness, ran ropes around trees near the top, and attached ropes to the wagons. Then they slowly moved the oxen up and slowly allowed the wagons to descend. I think (not sure) it said they backed the oxen up.

                Then reassembled everything and continued.

                Must have taken a long time.


                • #9
                  At certain spots with very steep passages, sometimes the animals were unhitched and the wagons were roped up and/or down.

                  A research avenue to pursue for more definitive information: The Mormons perfected the Rocky Mountain passage as they brought hundreds of families across the mountains over a number of years. I don't know their exact chosen routes, but the more direct route from the midwest to Salt Lake City would cross some of the highest and steepest terrain on the continent. The Mormon passage was by far the most successful with the lowest mortality rate, once they had figured out how to do it efficiently.

                  A movie that is a virtual documentary (not an actual documentary) of a typical wagon train's adventurous journey west, including the most difficult mountain passages, is "The Big Trail" released in 1930. It was made just about 50 +/- years after the period of the heaviest westward migration. It has some dramatically re-enacted scenes (no cgi in those days!) that include crossing whitewater rivers and roping wagons down cliffs. I found it terrifying - no way would I have tried to cross those mountains in those days! But of course many of the settlers had little accurate information about what they were in for during a wagon trip west.

                  While living in Denver I was told that the reason there is a city there was not just that it was the gateway to that route through the central mountain passage, but that many settlers with land grant papers for locations on the other side of the mountains took a good look and said "forget trying to cross the mountains, we've come as far as we're going, sell the wagon and we'll just live here and sell supplies to the other settlers".

                  Probably a wise decision as most families making the trip to the far west lost at least one family member in route, usually children. They don't lie when they say those routes were lined with human bones.
                  Last edited by OverandOnward; Aug. 29, 2019, 01:17 AM.


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by goodhors View Post
                    ......... Winter can start in late August or early Sept in the mountains and pioneers did not listen to good advice. ........
                    Some people still don't! One year the USEA scheduled their convention in Colorado Springs in December. There was a blizzard, a heavy one, the entire time they were there. Fortunately most of the guests did manage to get in and out of the airports before and after the heaviest snow and wind. But those of us who lived there (at the time) and drove in daily had to allow an extra hour each way.

                    In Denver there is a sort of informal moratorium on scheduling large gatherings (of any kind) outdoors after about September, and indoors after October, until about mid-April. Preparation and commitments have to be made weeks in advance, but there is no knowing that early if it will be 95 degrees or heavy snow or a full-on blizzard on that day. Sufficiently inclement weather will make attendance impossible for many. Autumn and Spring can be the grandest weather, or not.

                    Things just sort of shut down for the winter. For someone from much milder climates, such as I am, it was kind of weird.

                    Originally posted by goodhors View Post
                    .........Horses were fairly expensive, more excitable, used more food. ........
                    Ain't that the truth. Generally speaking.

                    When I lived and evented in Colorado, on cross-country day at venues with steep slopes on part of the course, it would be quickly apparent which horses were raised and kept on the flats. They would be bug-eyed at their first sight of the ground falling away down a steep slope. Absolutely unnerved at even getting near that broad area where air and sky seemed to replace the ground, where the ground should have been with a flatter line of sight. If that makes sense. It must have looked like stepping off the cliff at the end of the world to them. The horses that were used to it didn't react at all.

                    I personally do not have the fortitude to drag a horse unschooled in the ways of the mountains on foot across the mountains.