Genealogy Immigration/Migration: On the move—Life on wagon trains

Covered Conestoga WagonBy Barry J. Ewell

Immigration/Migration patterns for the Genealogists: Think like a historian
One of the most important considerations in finding our ancestor is immigration research. Immigration/migration patterns reveal clues to finding the origin of your immigrant ancestors.

Look at immigration from a historian’s point of view and not from the genealogical point of view.  Your trying to understand what you ancestors did and why.  As a genealogist, you wonder why your ancestors migrated. You look for clues that might direct you to the birthplace in country of origin. As genealogists the first thing we do is start searching through deeds, wills, bible records, and other such documents.  Documents can tell you that your ancestor sold his property from one person to another, but it does not tell why he then picked up and moved from Virginia to Tennessee.  When you add seek to understand immigration patterns of the time and people your chances for success expand dramatically because you being to understand what your family was thinking, you see what others individuals where doing, where they were going, and where they came from.

By learning about the immigration patterns for a specific ethnic group to which your ancestor belonged in the time period they lived, we begin to see trends that correlate to our family such as the ports they arrived, the counties and cities from which they came and where they settled, the reasons for decisions that were made, the types of records they left behind and where.

You start by answering the question:

  • What was their ethnic background or group to which you think they belonged?
  • Where they Puritans, Welch, or Germans?

Now you begin to answer the questions:

  • Why did they come?
  • When did they come?
  • Where did the settle?
  • What were their social and work conditions?
  • What was their religious background?

America:  People on the Move
When step back and began looking at my ancestors as part of an ethnic group at a given time and place, you quickly see that America is a land of people on the move.  Our ancestors were part of groups that for specific reasons felt a “push’ to move to escape political or religious oppression, wars and violence, major natural disasters.  The reasons include:

  • War or other armed conflict
  • Famine or drought
  • Disease
  • Poverty
  • Political corruption
  • Disagreement with politics
  • Religious intolerance
  • Natural disasters
  • Discontent with the natives, such as frequent harassment, bullying, and abuse
  • Lack of employment opportunities
  • These factors generally do not affect people in developed countries; even a natural disaster is unlikely to cause out-migration.

When you are pushed, where do you go?  One senses the “pull” America had upon our ancestors.  Economic and professional opportunities were by far the foundation for our ancestors coming to America.  It was the availability of lands for farming, an abundance of jobs, higher salaries.  The reasons include:

  • Higher incomes
  • Lower taxes
  • Better weather
  • Better availability of employment
  • Better medical facilities
  • Better education facilities
  • Better behaviour among people
  • Family reasons
  • Political stability
  • Religious tolerance
  • Relative freedom
  • Weather
  • National prestige

Perhaps the only major group of immigrants who did not respond to push or pull factors was the Africans, who were captured and traded into slavery against their will.

The following immigration/migration profile is provided as an example of the type of information that is valuable of finding the origin of your ancestors as well as helping to better understand your ethnic heritage.  This information is in no way all inclusive, but it will be a good starting point for you to expand upon.

On the move: Life on Wagon Trains

  1. Before the railroads traversed the continent, some people made the trip out West in a stagecoach.
    1. There were numerous independent stagecoach lines, with stops throughout the West. People could book passage and be driven to their destination with other travelers, but this was not as easy as it may sound.
    2. The trips were dusty, crowded, long, and very difficult. The cost to customers for the trip was about seven cents a mile and often severe physical discomfort, as the ride could brutally shake passengers.
    3. In fact, the most popular slang terms for stagecoaches on the western routes were the “shake guts” and “spankers.”
  2. Most pioneerselectedtoobtain their own wagon.
    1. Many set out on their journey to the West with their farm wagon filled with belongings and covered with a canvas tent. Others bought wagons specifically designed for the overland trails.
    2. They often joined a wagon train, which was an organized caravan of wagons with a captain to lead the way across the continent.
  3. People starting from points east in the years between 1843 and 1869 generally started their trip on the Missouri River, which runs from west to east from present-day southern Montana at the far west, through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. The Missouri River then crosses Missouri, where it meets the Mississippi River.
    1. Most migrants boarded their wagon on a steamship somewhere on the eastern part of the river and then got off the ship at a “jumping off point”—usually Independence, St. Joseph, or Westport in Missouri, or Omaha or Council Bluffs in Nebraska.
    2. Each spring in these towns, thousands of wagons would gather to await the departure of the wagon train.
    3. On an agreed-upon day, the journey would begin, but very slowly. The route would become so congested with wagons that the first several days could be spent simply getting all the wagons on the road.
  4. The wagon trains usually had a hired guide, generally a mountain man who knew the route well.
    1. They usually elected leaders and formed a simple government so that decisions could be made throughout the trip. People did not always act in harmony, however. Pioneer diaries reveal that quarreling and hostility were very common among the participants of a wagon train.
  5. Like immigrants from overseas, the migrants pushing west were generallypeopleofmiddle income: neither the wealthiest nor the poorest of Americans.
    1. The wealthy probably did not often go because they were well enough off where they were. The poor simply could not afford to go.
    2. The cost of the wagon, supplies, and setting up in the West would be prohibitive.
    3. It is said that the very least amount of starting money to make the trip would have been about $500, but $1,000 was more reasonable and many spent much more than that. A wagon, if the pioneer was not using his or her own farm wagon, and a team of oxen or mules might cost between $300 and $600.
    4. At the time these were very large amounts of money. In 1850 the average wage for a laborer was about 25 cents per day (this usually included room and board) and for a skilled laborer about 62 cents a day. To spend $1,000 in 1850 would be equivalent to spending more than $22,000 today.
    5. Most people leaving for the West sold their farm or their home and just about everything else they owned. Some people who did not have enough money to pay their own way offered to work for pioneer families and received their passage in that way.
  6. Two types of covered wagons dominated in the overland trips of the pioneers in the mid-nineteenth century: Conestoga wagons and prairie schooners.
    1. Conestoga wagons were developed in the eastern United States to haul heavy cargo. At about twenty-three feet long, they were so big it was impossible for animal teams to pull them over the treacherous roads of the Oregon Trail.
    2. Prairie schooners were about half the size of Conestoga wagons and were useful on the Oregon Trail, where they could be hauled by a smaller team of animals. They featured a hoop frame to hold the bonnet over the wagon bed.
    3. Wagons on the Oregon Trail were almost always pulled by mules or oxen. Horses were not able to travel long enough without grass and water.
    4. The wagons needed to hold an immense amount of supplies for the pioneers to survive the trip.
    5. The wagons had to be as light as possible so they would not overexert the animals on the rugged trip.
  7. Participants inwagontrainswere urged not to carry furniture or anything else they would not need on the trip. Most of the tremendous load in their wagon was in very basic foods.AccordingtoMcLynn, a family of four would need at least:
    1. 800 pounds of flour per person
    2. 400 pounds of bacon per person
    3. 300 pounds of beans, rice, and dried fruit
    4. 75 pounds of coffee
    5. 200 pounds of lard
    6. 25 pounds of salt and pepper
    7. They would also need simple tools to fix their wagon, shoes, clothes, cooking utensils, pots and pans, and dishes.
  8. Once they were on the road, the pioneers settled as best they could into a daily routine, though they were often beset by challenges (river crossings, bad weather). People slept either in their wagons, though these were often too crowded with supplies, or in tents. They woke early in the morning.
    1. Men would herd the cattle that had strayed during the night, break camp, and yoke their teams, while the children gathered buffalo chips (dung, that is, dried manure droppings left by the herds of buffalo on the plains) to burn for fires.
    2. Women cooked the breakfast and by 7:00 A.M. everyone was continuing to travel. Many people walked most of the day.
    3. The trains plodded on at a walking pace, usually covering fifteen to twenty-five miles on a good day. The person who drove the team was often the only one on the wagon, although in the afternoons sometimes others would nap in the back.
    4. The wagon train guide chose the spot for encampment in the evening.
    5. The wagons in the train would form a large circle, with the livestock inside the circle, as protection from Indian raids or wandering off.
    6. Then tents were pitched outside the circle. Children once again gathered the buffalo chips for the evening fires and women began cooking the evening meal.
    7. After dinner, there was talk and even singing and storytelling around the fire, while the women were generally left with the cleanup.
  9. In the division of labor that prevailed, women may have worked the hardest on the trail, according to many historians.
    1. When the caravan stopped at mealtime, the women could not just relax; they were expected to prepare and serve a hearty if simple meal.
    2. They baked bread daily—even pastries were on most families’ menus. All this was done with the difficulties of cooking outside, keeping bugs and dirt out of the food, using a makeshift oven, and dealing with all kinds of weather.
    3. Besides cooking and childcare, women were responsible for laundry—a grueling job that required quite a few hours at the riverside.
    4. Because no one wanted to hold up the day’s travel for laundry, the chore usually had to be done on Sunday, the only day the train did not travel. Thus, while others rested, women were often pounding out the family’s filthy clothes on the rocks of a frigid river.
  10. Itis said that about one in ten pioneers died while crossing the continent in a wagon train. The greatest dangers were drowning and wagon accidents.
    1. Exposed to the weather and each other, there were many outbreaks of infectious disease, especially cholera, an often fatal disease of the intestines.
    2. Although much has been written about the dangers posed by Native Americans, in fact, most tribes were very helpful to the emigrants.
    3. In many cases the wagon trains relied on Native Americans for survival, either for the goods they could trade or for their help in emergencies.