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The Conestoga wagon, freight carrier for one hundred years on the trails and turnpikes connecting the colonies on the eastern seaboard to the villages and outposts on the frontier, changed the history of America. Our nation’s early expansion was largely due to the ability to transport goods westward by wagon and to the roads that were built to accommodate them. The first roads and trails were crude pathways hacked from the wooded valleys and along the sides of rocky mountains. The Braddock Trail was not much more than a rough depression where the continental armies had traveled, but the later turnpike to the Ohio River known as the National Road was a well constructed stone road some sixty feet wide with a top layer of gravel. 

The Conestoga emerging from a dusty hollow was a spectacle to behold. First appearing was a fine well groomed team, each of six horses adorned with clinking brass bells attached to the hames of each heavy harness and all driven by a teamster riding the horse on his left closest to the wagon. Then came the bright blue wagon covered by a billowing white canvas top as much as twenty seven feet from front to rear. As graceful as it was huge, the wagon was built with a curved floor and sides to keep boxes and barrels from sliding to the front or back when struggling up the steep mountain roads or down the other side, and it rode on red wheels as much as five and a half feet in diameter. This procession might be accompanied by a guard walking alongside to protect the goods from the ever present bandits or an Indian raiding party. It is claimed that the saying, “I’ll be there with bells on”, meant a successful trip and came from the practice that when the wagon and traveling party met with trouble, the brass bells were used to barter for repairs. Great pride was taken in not giving up their treasured bells. The Conestoga supposedly started our custom of driving on the right side of the road and the term “stogie” came from the wagon’s name and the teamster’s enjoyment of smoking the long slim cigars they rolled themselves. Along with the words and sayings surviving in our present day language, the Eighteenth Century freight haulers have left some historical relics that we might not even notice. Some of the buildings that housed their inns, taverns, and toll booths are abandoned, but still standing for today’s traveler with an eye for history.

Of course there was no photography to record the scenes of the big wagons in use, so I am grateful to two Pennsylvania friends who have enriched the historical records of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with their research and writing about the Conestoga, and have shared their expertise with me. I have known George Shumway of York, Pennsylvania for a number of years due to participating in muzzleloading exhibits and reenactments and he was kind enough to lend me a copy of the now out-of-print book he published titled “Conestoga Wagon 1750 – 1850”. I was able to use his photos of historic artifacts, such as harness and wagon details and reassemble a scene from the past. I showed Art Reist, a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, author of “Conestoga Wagon – Masterpiece of the Blacksmith” and owner of several original wagons, a copy of my painting when it was developed enough to see construction details and he sent me his book and a letter of suggestions and comments about my portrayal. I recently sent both of them a reproduction of the finished artwork as a token of my appreciation for their help with my effort to illustrate something that has been their lifelong interest.