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Conestoga Wagon

Conestoga wagon, Ulster American Folk Park Transport CollectionThe Conestoga type wagon was first built by German settlers in the Conestoga river valley region of Lancaster County, Eastern Pennsylvania, in the 1730s. German immigrants in the same area also gave us the Pennsylvanian long rifle and large wooden farm barns.

The first Conestoga wagons, also known as Dutch wagons, were modified versions of English and German wagons. They differed from European wagons in that the wagon body was longer and deeper; the floor had a crosswise and lengthways sag in the middle, and both the front panel and rear door were slanted - a very useful feature on steep inclines. This slope was carried on into the supports for the cover.

They developed initially as farm wagons for carrying loads of up to one ton. After 1750 they had become larger freight type wagons, and by 1830 they were capable of carrying up to 6 tons.

Unlike English farm wagons, Conestoga wagons took on a standard shape very early. English wagons showed great variety of forms, while in Ireland around 1750, the most usual form of distance transport was the block wheeled car.  
Conestoga wagon from Lancaster County.

Conestoga wagons were first used by the army in Braddock's military campaign against the French in 1755 and later during the rest of the French and Indian War of 1755-61. They carried much equipment through the Appalachian hills to Fort Pitt which eventually became the town of Pittsburgh and saw considerable use during the War of Independence.

The Wagon

Conestoga wagons were well engineered. Every point of strain was reinforced by iron, and all rubbing parts were given iron plates. The frame and the floor beams were of white oak and the boards were of poplar. The hoops were made of hickory. At first the cover was made from hemp cloth, later flax tow cloth, and finally canvas, bound on the inside with iron strips riveted through the boards to the outside.

The bed of the wagon was attached to the running gear at only three points - one over the centre of the front axle where the axle swivelled, and at two places over the back axle.  Rather than being a simple box, the bed was a very flexible basket and was able to take the strains imposed on it by rough roads. Its curves may have been exaggerated to reflect the perception of beauty at the time.  Similarly, much of the ironwork found on the wagons was decorated with various motifs.  Pennsylvanian Dutch tulip, heart and birds-head designs were frequently used.

The floorboards ran lengthways and the beams under the wagon bed extended beyond the side of the floor, with iron braces resting on them to prevent the sides bursting under load. Three pairs of chains, fastened in the middle by hooks, acted to stop the sides from being pushed out by the load. The front and rear overhang not only increased the carrying capacity without increasing the distance between the front and rear wheels, but also kept out the dust and rain and brought the load closer to the horses. The wheels were 12 feet apart - any wider and the wagons would have been very hard to turn. Smaller front wheels also made for easier turning.