The Conestoga

When I was in junior high school, I began researching my family heritage to complete a project for the local history day competition.  I lucked out.  Two of my very distant relatives had already done much of the legwork and had compiled it in a book.  Even better, they documented all of their findings.  I was able to read copies of U.S. pension records, copies of deeds, and wills, and even read an authorization from the English Royal Governor of North Carolina for the building of  a road.  I learned that my six-generation ago grandfather was originally named Adolphus Riebenmacher.  He arrived in Philadelphia from Hesse, Germany  in 1732 and settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where he became a land owner.  Later, he moved to North Carolina.  The family named went through a number of spellings and changes, and the community which he helped found became known as Reepsville, though it was named for his son, not him.  One things always gnawed at me.  What made him decide to leave the Pennsylvania where other people of German ancestry lived?  Why did he decide to go North Carolina?  And, of course, I started dreaming of going to Reepsville.

Eight years later, I took a twelve-day summer journey to retrace his move.  I traveled to Philadelphia and to Lancaster.  I enjoyed seeing the German influence in the region.  As I made my way southward, I thought about how difficult the travel must have been for Adolphus back then.  Did travel light, by horseback?  Maybe he traveled in a wagon with his belongings across the difficult Appalachian terrain.  Seeing the geography of the region added to my questions.

When I arrived in Reepsville, it was not much more than a sign beside the road.  There was one store, but it was out of business.  However, I discovered the church from which some of the records in the book had been retrieved and that he had helped build.  Beside it was the cemetery where, according to the book, Adolphus was buried.  I immediately began to read every tombstone.  Some were so old that all hope of reading them was to no avail.  I can not describe the feeling I had, the connection I felt when I read the name Adolphus Riebenmacher.  All around him were names of early ancestors listed in the book.  I was among family…standing in the middle of my heritage.

As I walked about I noticed that most of the names had German spellings like Ruessell.  There was a large, tall marker in the middle of the cemetery.  Little did I know that this marker would fill in the gaps and answer my questions about what drew Adolphus to North Carolina.  The marker commemorated the southern movement of a group of German descent people who had obtained land grants in North Carolina.  Adolphus had not come alone.  He did not ride a hoers.  He had been a part of a wagon train southern migration.  Even now as I write about this, it remains one of those Wow moments in my life.  To travel by wagon through the Appalachian Mountains must have been quite a task.  For a while, I assumed they traveled in everyday farm wagons.  And then I discovered some interesting facts.  They could have traveled in Conestoga wagons.  I thought those were first used in westward expansion to Oregon and California.

The first recorded mention known at this time of a Conestoga wagon was written by James Logan on December 13 1717.  Mr. Logan was recording the purchase of one of these wagons which he called a “Conestogoe Waggon” from a man named James Hendricks.  It is believed that the first of these wagons was crafted in Pennsylvania by the Deutsch people who were possibly Mennonite German settlers.  The craftsmanship was sturdy, and the design was unique.  You might say it was the all-terrain vehicle of the day.

The Conestoga must have been an awesome structure.  It averaged 18 feet in length  and was 11 feet high with a white canvas covering.  The base of the wagon was four feet wide.  In order to keep items from shifting and tipping over during the journey, the floor of the wagon was curved upward.  With wheels were broad and were often surrounded with an iron band.  The wagon was so well built that it could carry up to 12,000 pounds of cargo.  The frame and suspension were crafted of wood.  It was drawn by horses, mules, and sometimes oxen.  It usually took a team of eight horses to pull the wagon.  Eventually, a special breed of horse was developed to pull these wagons.  These medium and small draft horses became known as conestoga horses.

The design of the wagon was concerned greatly for space.   Travelers needed to have as much room as possible in the wagon for transporting their possessions.  Every inch had to be designed for efficiency.  On the outside, barrels were built to haul water, and a tool box held the instruments needed to make repairs to the wagon.  A feedbox for livestock was on the back of the wagon.

During colonial times, the Conestoga was a popular mode of transportation for migration southward through the Great Appalachian Valley along the Great Wagon Road.  I wonder if this was the type of wagon in which my ancestor made his way to North Carolina.

Travelers would have caulked the cracks in the wagon with tar.  This served more than one purpose.  First, the tar would keep the elements of weather out of the wagon:  rain and wind.  Second, the caulking would help the travelers to keep their goods dry as they forded streams.  On occasion, the migrants would find it necessary to float the wagons across rivers.  Caulking made them boyant.  The wagon was smaller on the bottom.   The sides were built to veer slightly wider at the top than the bottom.  This made the shape much more like a boat and made navigating the rivers easier.

After the American Revolution, the Conestoga wagons were often the choice of commercial shippers making runs from Pittsburg and Ohio.  The rates for such a journey was about one dollar for every 100 pounds.  The wagons weren’t the fastest, traveling at speeds that averaged about 15 miles per day.

The great westward migration to California and Oregon conjures up images of long trains of wagons.  Many refer to all covered wagons as conestogas.  This simply is not true.  A “Conestoga Wagon” was a Cadillac of its day.  They were expensive.  Most of the wagon trains heading westward were nothing more than converted farm wagons.  The name “Conestoga” comes from the Conestoga River which is located in the region where it was believed to have first been built.

I still wonder, how my ancestor traveled.  But, the idea that he might have journeyed on a Conestoga adds to my adventurous imagination.

Photo 1: October 19, 2011 Fossil HD Cover

Photo 2: Conestoga

Photo 3: Conestoga Wagon(Photo by Ad Meskens)

Photo 4: Conestoga Wagon

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