Hard Work & Horse Power

Almost from the moment the colonies won their independence from England, many Americans believed that it was only a matter of time before the vast western lands would be settled and the United States would stretch from coast to coast. Politicians, convinced that the restless citizens of a new nation were bound to seek opportunities in the West, even gave this belief a name.  They called it “Manifest Destiny.”

The men, women and children who were among the first to settle the West were a special breed.  They possessed the courage and daring required to endure the hardships of a long, difficult journey, to conquer a wilderness and to build new lives far away from those they left behind. Fortunately, most of them also possessed horses.  These animals were indispensable both in getting the pioneers to the new territories and, once there, in helping them survive and prosper.

Between 1840 and 1870, thousands of families made the long, dangerous journey to unfamiliar destinations.  Many wanted to escape eastern cities that were becoming overcrowded.  Others were fleeing from the low wages and horrible conditions they encountered working in factories. Some of these pioneers journeyed by stagecoach and railroad train.  The vast majority, however, were determined to take as many possessions as possible in order to set up homes and farm their new land; so they journeyed the entire distance in wagons. These covered wagons were of every size and shape.  Thousands were Conestogas, which had already proved to be effective freight-hauling vehicles.  Teams of six to eight horses drew some of the wagons.  Others were hitched to a simple team of two horses. 

Almost none of the families dared to make the journey alone.  Instead, they traveled in caravans, or wagon trains, ranging from a few vehicles to several hundred.   The families hired an experienced leader, the wagon boss, to lead the caravan along its route. Caravans of covered wagons continually crossed the vast, open plains.  In 1864, more than 8,000 wagon trains passed through Omaha, Nebraska, in a single week.  From a distance, the swaying wagons, their canvas tops billowing in the wind, looked like ships.  Observers referred to them as “prairie schooners.”

A pioneers home in 1880.

By May of 1862, the U.S. government, intent on encouraging settlement of the West, had succeeded in passing the Homestead Act.  It stated that any man or woman at least 21 years old, a citizen of the United States, and the head of a family could get 160 acres of federal land for a nominal fee of $10. The horse was vital in helping families farm their new land, which was different from any they had encountered.  The prairie was covered with thick, deep-rooted grass that required a real effort to plow under.  But the soil under the grass was among the richest in the world.  

As early as the 1840s, western pioneers had begun to till the land with crops.  New farm machinery made their labor easier and more productive.  One of these was the mechanical reaper, drawn by teams of as many as 20 horses.  The mechanical reaper cut the cost and labor by more than a third. Other machinery, such as mechanical plows, planters, and threshers, rapidly increased both farm productivity and the demand for horses.  By 1890, the produce of America’s western farmland was feeding most of the nation and a considerable part of the world. Eventually, steam-driven tractors would take over the task of hauling the farm machinery.  But the horse had led the way. And many western farmers continued to use horses to work the fields until the late 1920s and early 1930s.

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