A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

January 1999

Covered Wagons of the Pioneers

by Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections


Covered Wagon

I started for Oregon April 7th 1850 and
landed in Oregon Oct. 15, 1850.
So you see we was a little over 6 months
sailing with an ox team across the plains.

Alice Porter,
letter to L.J. Burr (1887)

The first pioneers to travel west by wagon train set out from Missouri in the spring of 1841. Each year after that, emigrants streamed west in ever-increasing numbers. Drawn by the dream of new opportunities and the promise of free land, they left their homes, friends and relatives to embark on the arduous trek across the continent.

The covered wagons, drawn by a team of oxen or mules, was the primary means of transportation on the trail. These sturdy but light wagons were designed for hauling heavy loads over long distances, rather than riding comfort or speed. The wagon bed or load area was generally about 4 feet wide and 10 to 12 feet long, large enough to hold supplies for the journey and household necessities, but little else. The lack of springs made for a very uncomfortable and jolting ride. All but the very young or ill walked. The only allowance for comfort was a cloth or canvas covering supported by hickory bows, which shielded the occupants and contents of the wagon from the elements.

Although the covered wagon was practical and affordable transportation, it also had major disadvantages. Mud mired both wagon and teams. River crossings were always hazardous and several methods of fording deep water were used. The wagon bed could be caulked with tar or pitch to prevent leaks, and then floated across using a guideline. Another method was to tie empty airtight water casks to the sides of the wagon to keep it afloat. On steep mountain slopes, the wagons were hoisted up with chains and ropes, and then eased down with their wheels locked. Sometimes chains snapped and a wagon broke loose, careening downhill.

The collection at the WRVM contains a number of items that were brought to this area on the Overland Trail. One of the most interesting of these is the Porter Wagon. In the Spring of 1850, Allen Porter loaded this wagon with supplies and other necessities, and set off across the plains. Six months later he arrived in Marion County, Oregon. In 1852, he came to the Puget Sound area, and in 1853 settled a donation land claim along the White River, about 3 miles southwest of Enumclaw, on what became known as "Porter's Prairie." In September 1855, during the Treaty Wars, his farm was attacked and the house burned. Fortunately, the barn -- in which the wagon was stored -- was untouched. After hostilities ended, the wagon was used to move his remaining possessions to his new home near Roy, and used as a farm wagon until Allen Porter's death in 1908. The wagon was then used to carry his body back to Porter's Prairie for burial. The Porter wagon was then taken to the Ferry Museum, and exhibited at the Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific exposition in Seattle. In 1911 it was donated to the State Historical Museum in Tacoma. In the early 1980s, it was donated to the WRVM, where it now can be seen prominently displayed in the farming area of our new exhibits.

Dr. Tina Brewster Wray