Traveling by wagon in the mid-1880s

Diagram of a Prairie Schooner used by many pioneers to travel west. National Oregon/California Trail Center (

Although people equate wagon trains with the conestoga wagons, those were primarily used to haul huge, heavy commercial loads long distances and were generally unaffordable for families trying to relocate in western America. Even prairie schooners were beyond the reach of many pioneers who had to settle for modifying a farm wagon and hope it could make the distance.

Space in the wagon was at a premium.

There was little room to sit or lie down, so most of the family walked beside the wagon and spent their nights underneath it on the ground — often 5 months and 2,000 miles. The space available was used sufficient food, clothing and supplies to last the trip, and only the bare essentials to start a new life in the West. According to an article in the Oregon Trail Center website, “a family of four would need 600 lbs. of flour, 120 lbs. of biscuits, 400 lbs. of bacon, 60 lbs. of coffee, 4 lbs. of tea, 100 lbs. of sugar and 200 lbs. of lard.” That’s nearly 1,500 lbs. just in food supplies. The maximum weight a prairie schooner could haul was about 2,500 lbs. and that required 4 to 6 mules or oxen to haul the load up moderate hills. This didn’t leave much room for other items.

In my historical fiction novel, Cat’s Cafe, Catherine and her husband left the east by train and only had to travel about 2 1/2 weeks and 200 miles from Salt Lake City to Eagle Rock, present day Idaho Falls. But they were carrying enough supplies to set up a cafe and saloon which required two wagons and go over several steep passes.

Although that trip is only mentioned briefly in Cat’s Cafe, Eagle Rock Trilogy Book One, Catherine will reminisce about the hardships of that travel experience in Book Two, so I have been researching what it might have been like. More on that in an upcoming post.

On the Road: Upcoming Events

I will share my experience of writing Cat’s Cafe for a group at the Algoma Public Library Monday, Algoma, Wisconsin, April 10th at 1:00 pm.

I will sign books at the Yardstick Bookstore in Algoma, Wisconsin, Friday, April 14th from 5:30 to 7:00 pm.

Monday, April 17th, I will be at the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois, giving a presentation on the restoration of the Dana-Thomas House stained glass and comparing the efforts of two Central Illinois women Susan Lawrence Dana and Rebecca Mitchell and their progressive efforts with Women’s Suffrage movement.

I will also sign books the following evening, April 18th, from 4:00 to 7:30 pm at the Springfield, Illinois, Barnes and Noble.

And I am giving a presentation of my experiences writing my first novel at the Vachel Lindsay Home in Springfield, Illinois, Thursday evening from 6:00 to 7:30 pm.

Stop in if you’re nearby! ~ Ralls

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