Wagon Trains – The Pioneer’s Survival Team

Jack Pendergast
Wagon trains made travel across the US old west possible in the early days.

The idea of a survival team is nothing new. Throughout history, people have gathered together both formally and informally for the purpose of surviving. The infantry’s basic combat team, the squad, is really a survival team made up of a number of specialists, each of whom helps the team to survive. Explorers of all types have always traveled in survival teams, bringing with them people such as native linguists and doctors to help them survive the trail.

Speaking of trails, the trails west were filled with survival teams – specifically, the wagon trails that carried pioneer families westwards to settle. While they may have seemed like random gatherings of people moving to new lands, those wagon trains were carefully considered and carefully constructed. They needed to be self-contained not only along the trail but also when they arrived at their destination.

The trails west were filled with survival teams.

In a way, we can look at each of those wagon trains as a bug out team leaving civilization behind to establish a new colony in the wilderness. While some went to join already established communities, others stopped wherever seemed to offer a good chance of survival and established their own communities – often along proposed railway routes.

The various railways encouraged this as they needed communities along their routes to support their services. The communities, in turn, were encouraged by the government to build those railways. To incentivize them, the government gave the railways alternating sections of land along their rights of way. This land could then be sold to settlers to help defray the cost of construction and provide customers for the new railway line. But the wagon trains started decades before the rails were completed.

A wagon pulled by horses was a practical and safe way to travel long distances.

Many people moved westwards via the rails, but that was later as people moved to populate the communities that were often started by wagon trains. Those who came by rail were not the hardiest of settlers but rather the second wave moving into areas that were already secured, which had stores and restaurants already available.

Why Wagon Trains?

Wagon trains are a unique part of American history and have no parallel anywhere in the world. The need for them came from the vastness of the American West. Before the settling of what is now the United States, migration happened in small stages: with groups of people moving out from cities and villages that were already established. Often, these “movers” were looking to own their own piece of land as all the land in the area they lived in was already owned.

Wagon trains made the long journey possible.

What made the need for the wagon trains was the rapid expansion of the United States, especially the Louisiana Purchase. That land had to be settled in order to solidify the fledgling country’s claim on it. Before that time, westward expansion was made in small stages – much like the rest of the world. But the rapidly expanding nation needed a new methodology of settling the land, and the wagon train became that method.

Formation of the Wagon Train

There were actual companies that formed and provisioned wagon trains – mostly established in St. Louis, Missouri, the most important launching point for groups traveling west. These companies would actively seek out people to fill those trains and promote them far and wide. While anyone was accepted, specific trades were encouraged to ensure the wagon trains would have essential skilled people like blacksmiths, doctors, and carpenters.

While anyone was accepted, specific trades were encouraged to ensure the wagon trains would have essential skilled people.

As the trains formed, the organizers would ensure that the key trades were included in each train. They even paid some tradespeople to go on later trains if they already had what they needed in the next one. This only applied to critical skills though as there was no shortage of farmers in any of the trains.

Each man on the train had to own a rifle.

Each man on the train had to own a rifle, be able to use it, and provide himself with sufficient ammunition to participate in the protection of the wagon train. The defense of the train was paramount and they would practice circling the wagons, unhitching their teams, and preparing to ward off attacks by Indians and the occasional outlaw band. During later years, they even had to protect themselves from Confederate soldiers who had no home to go back to and didn’t want to concede the war.

Working as a Team

Each wagon train was led by a competent guide who had not only been across the trail already but who carried a guidebook with them that had been written by the person who had scouted and established the trail. The famous Donner party, which got stuck crossing the Continental Divide in wintertime, demonstrates the importance of these guidebooks. The man who wrote their guidebook, Lansford W. Hastings, hadn’t actually ridden the entire trail – a fact that set the party up for disaster.

The wagon trains would be really long and many many people would depend on them for safety.

But the guide wasn’t just an expert on the trail, they were the team’s survival expert as well. Often recruited from amongst the ranks of the mountain men, each of these guides had already proven himself in the roughest school there is: Mother Nature’s school of hard knocks. They had survived the wilderness on their own and learned the lessons needed to guide a group of tenderfeet through dangerous lands.

The settlers in the team would each be assigned duties to help with survival. Hunting was an important part of that, as well as gathering berries and other edible flora. Feeding a large group of people required a lot of meat and other food. As they could only carry so much with them, it was important to be able to live off the land as they traveled.

Each family was also required to carry certain foods.

Each family was also required to carry certain foods and other provisions with them, following a list provided by the organizers. If they did not already have those items, the companies that organized and outfitted the trains were ready to provide them – for a fee, of course.

The weeks before the train moved out were hectic ones and involved training and organizing the company of travelers as well as giving them time to become accustomed to what life on the trail would be like. People would get to know each other as well as their strengths and abilities. Friendships would form, many of which would last the rest of their lives.

The success or failure of any wagon train depended upon the work of each member. There was no place for slackers, and there was no place for disputes. The Donner Party expelled one member of their team, James Reed, when he killed another member of their party. Severe disciplinary action like this was not uncommon.