If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I would have thought that a Conestoga wagon was what the settlers took out West.
Well, now I know that I would have been wrong.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History had a Conestoga wagon on display in the big downstairs hall for several months last year.
Conestoga wagons were used for one thing: carrying freight back and forth between the Ohio River valley and some big East Coast cities. There were no passengers. The wagoner either walked alongside, rode one of the horses, or sat on the “lazy board” that stuck out from one side of the wagon. It was curved so freight would slide toward the middle–and wouldn’t fall out on the hills.
The blue and red color scheme was standard for Conestoga wagons; they came out of a German-American folk art tradition near the Conestoga river in southeastern Pennsylvania. The wagons were put out of business by railroads in the 1850s.
The covered wagons that headed west in the 19th century are called “prairie schooners” and had a different design, made to carry passengers and the contents of a household.
Here’s a blog post from the wagon’s curator, which includes a link to a nifty time-lapse video of museum staff putting the wagon together.