Before the First Transcontinental Railroad was finished in America in 1869, pioneers in the 1840s and ’60s who wanted to travel from the east to the newly developed territory of California had to do so on a “wagon train.” The wagon trains were led by experienced frontiersmen and military veterans who knew the rugged west and often had some familiarity with the numerous Indian tribes and their languages.
If you wanted to take your family out to California, Utah, Oregon, or the southwest, the first thing you had to do was to get the supplies. You needed to buy a wagon, cooking supplies, guns for protection and hunting, and any tools you would need to fix your wagon. Some pioneers also brought along farming equipment or prospecting equipment, but those items were often available once they arrived at their destinations.
You would also need to buy some horses to pull your wagon, right?
In the mid-to-late 1800s, a horse or mule could cost ninety dollars, but an ox was about half that price. Oxen were tougher and more durable as well. So, most pioneers used these animals to pull their wagons and they would have their one family horse tied to the back. Or they would just buy a horse when they arrived at their destination. The entire cost (around one thousand dollars) was quite expensive for the time and represented life savings for most people.
After you bought your wagon, oxen, and supplies, you made your way to the Kansas City area to find a wagon master and a train. You paid the wagon master to lead you through the plains and mountains and also received his protection, as well as the protection of the rest of the train.
The organization and the numbers of the wagon trains meant that Indian attacks were rare, unlike what is shown in countless movies and TV shows.
Your biggest enemy would have been disease and the elements. If you or one of your family members got sick, you’d have to pray it would pass. If there was a major illness or injury, your only chance for survival was if there was a doctor on the train or you were near a town with a doctor. The elements were the real problem, though. If your train got caught in a blizzard in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you might not make it out—at least not without eating some of the other people in your train, which is what happened with the Donner Party.
Once your train made it to the western edges of the Great Plains, you had a few options. You could go southwest on the Santa Fe Trail, into Utah on the Mormon Trail, northwest on the Oregon Trail, or continue west on the California Trail as most pioneers did. The entire trip could take up to six months one way.
So, the next time you hear about how horses helped tame the American west, remember that behind every graceful steed were a few slow, but reliable oxen.