Kings of the Road
The next time you’re tempted to complain about traffic, stop and think about traveling to Texas in the early to mid-1800s when the rush was on! Compared to today, travel was certainly slower and more difficult at best. Train travel wasn’t available yet on the routes to Texas. So, unless you were a single person coming on horseback, you needed a covered wagon.
Wagons of the time had to be strong, solid, and made of seasoned hardwood. Smaller than the old Conestoga wagons, they were straight sided with a flat bed measuring about ten feet wide and with sides about two feet high. The slats had to be well caulked to handle water crossings and the double canvas cover needed to be well oiled to be waterproof.
You could plan on packing about 2,500 pounds, evenly balanced. With a full load you’d need four ox teams—that’s eight oxen. Plus you’d need good luck to deal with rough roads and river crossings. Add water barrels, an extra wheel, a couple of tar buckets for greasing wheels, some tools and spare parts and you’d be reasonably well equipped.
Wondering why oxen instead of horses were needed to pull the wagons? The weight of the wagon, the terrain to be traveled, plus the fact that oxen could forage for their food—while it was necessary to carry supplementary food for horses—all that combined to made oxen a necessary choice. But you had to take care of your oxen. Most likely you’d pass through a few towns on your trip and having your oxen’s cloven hooves re-shod would probably be necessary. Damaged hooves could bring infection and death. If you lost an ox, you were in trouble. Some travelers even carried small leather bags which could be tied to a damaged hoof to help protect it, hopefully until a blacksmith could be found.
Once your wagon and oxen were purchased, it would be time to load up the wagon with most every thing needed for the trip—from clothing to food to pots and pans. Not to mention the things you’d need upon arrival in Texas.
Travelers generally walked beside their wagons rather than riding to avoid adding extra weight to the wagons. Men walked leading the first yoke of oxen and the women and children walked behind—often gathering dry kindling and tossing it into a cowhide sling under the rear of the wagon.
Every wagon train needed a captain who could lead the way and be responsible for the wagon train and its travelers. Ideally, you’d find a captain who’d made the trip before. Decisions would need to be made by the group before starting. One common question was whether or not the train would travel on Sundays. Travelers in some trains voted to make Sunday a day of worship and rest, other trains chose to travel on Sundays, perhaps taking an extra hour at midday for hymn singing and bible reading.
Key to the trip were the roads. . .or, rather the TRAILS. Travel was on dirt trails which generally had been cleared by the military. A class one road was 30 feet wide when cleared and had tree stumps no higher than six inches. A class two road (more common) had stumps no higher than twelve inches. As you might guess, it was important to check the clearance on your wagon!
Many travelers to Texas from the Southern states and other nearby states, traveled the “Trail of Tears,” which consisted of the dirt trails and waterways used during the official “Indian Removal” from the southeastern U.S. to a new “Indian Territory,” which had been established by the US government in the early 1830s (in what is now Oklahoma). Although these trails were pretty well traveled, one still had to deal with fallen trees, washed-out areas, water crossings, and in some cases, heavy wagon train traffic—especially at the ferry crossings where there were actually wagon train traffic jams!
As to travel time, while wagon trains might aim for twenty miles a day for the first day or two to settle the oxen into a routine, the travel goal would drop to fifteen or so miles daily (if the roads were good) to keep from wearing out the oxen. Healthy oxen were key to a successful trip. Travel days would be lost due to problems with the trail, sickness, weather, break downs, deaths, and long waits at water crossings.
If you traveled through Indian Territory along the Texas Road to the Red River’s ferry crossings into Texas, you’d pass Choctaw and Chickasaw farms, where the people lived much like the settlers in Texas, and you’d have the opportunity to buy food and other items from farmers and from an occasional small village store.
Life on the road developed a pattern. Up before dawn to dress, cook and eat breakfast, gather and yoke the oxen, and begin the day’s travel. Eat a cold midday meal during a short break, then back on the trail. Circle the wagons at the end of the day, unyoke your oxen, build your campfire, cook and eat supper and also prepare a meal which could be eaten cold at midday the next day. Refilling water barrels, bathing and laundry could be done if camps were made by creeks, rivers, or lakes. Hunting and fishing were occasional activities to supplement the food pantry. If berries, grapes, wild onions and other edibles were spotted along the trail, the women would stop to harvest, then hurry to catch up with the wagons.
The final stage of travel to Texas was crossing the Red River and moving down the Preston Road which went from Denison to Dallas to Waco and on to Austin. There were several ferry crossings on the Red River. In the 1840s, the Coffee Crossing at Preston was a busy ferry across the river. Later, the Colbert Crossing, just seven miles away, attracted huge numbers of wagons. In 1853, Benjamin Franklin Colbert, a Chickasaw, had been granted a ferry license by the Chickasaw Nation. His ferry was a flat bottomed boat poled across the river by his slaves. Colbert also had a large plantation on the river and his river crossing became a station stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail stage coach trail in September of 1858 when stage coach travel started in Texas.
It’s true that traveling to Texas was easier than taking the Oregon Trail to the West Coast. Settlers heading to the far West had a longer distance to travel. In addition they had to traverse the prairie, where the fierce Comanche and other tribes roamed and attacked wagon trains. They also faced the desert, mountains, and the challenges of those terrains. Nonetheless travel to Texas was no picnic as wagons dealt with lake, river, and deep creek crossings, traversed the mountains of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma and faced endless miles of the dark green tunnel created by the Cross Timbers forest—a tangle of stunted, interwoven trees dense with under growth and twisted vines. What Washington Irving (who traveled there) described as the Cast Iron forest. Travel to Texas wasn’t easy. Graves marked the route.
The decade of the 1850s was a mad rush to Texas and the state’s population doubled and almost doubled again in this decade. Individuals and families in search of land and opportunity poured into the new state and entire plantations were moved to Texas as the Civil War loomed and planters feared invasion of the South by the Northern army—rightly so as it turned out.
While many new residents of Texas traveled by ship to Gulf Coast ports, especially Galveston, wagon trains were the kings of the road!
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Remember to check out my novel, Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper 1856-1861 on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads and other popular book-buying sites. Thanks for listening! This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with the Texas Brave and Strong Podcast, the best little podcast in Texas. Ya’ll come back.