Hard Work & Horse Power

Within the new nation, travel on land was difficult.  The infant United States contained some 4 million people spread out over almost 800,000 square miles.  Contact and communication between citizens and officials was essential if the new nation was to survive.  Overland travel was a serious problem, but was not adequately addressed until 20 years after the United States had been created.  The answer was a type of road called a turnpike.  These roads were wide enough for even the largest horse-drawn vehicles. By 1820, turnpikes were being constructed throughout the new nation.

These new roads became filled with travelers who marveled at the conditions and were particularly delighted with the reduction in travel time.  As tens of thousands of horses transported people and goods over the turnpikes, observers remarked on the incredible turnaround in overland transportation. As American roads continued to grow in number and to improve, horse-drawn vehicles dominated the thoroughfares.  Two particular types of vehicles, however, were the most important in moving people and goods across the nation.  One was the Conestoga wagon; the other was the stagecoach. 

The way in which its bottom curved upward both in the front and the rear distinguished the Conestoga from other wagons.  This innovation permitted a heavy load to be carried without danger of it shifting or spilling out, even when traveling along the bumpiest of roads. A team of Conestoga horses was an impressive sight.  Carefully matched, the animals marched ahead almost as one.  Those who owned them took pride in the animals, which were groomed meticulously.  Their reins were brightly colored.  Clusters of large bells adorned wide, shiny harnesses made of the finest leather. 

The Conestoga wagon was created to move goods, not passengers, and it served this purpose better than any other horse-drawn vehicle of its time.  Before its days were over, however, it would become even more celebrated for taking thousands of pioneers on the long journey deep into the American West. The stagecoach, on the other hand, was built specifically to carry passengers and transport them with as much speed as possible.  Due to the bad road conditions and the primitive nature of the coaches themselves, journeys on these lines were uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous.  

From the 1830s on, a typical stagecoach contained three long seats, each accommodating three travelers.  The people who sat on the front seat faced the back of the coach.  Those who sat on the other seats faced the spirited team of four or six horses pulling the vehicle. By the 1840s, stagecoach lines were running on regular schedules throughout the East.  The U.S. Post Office had begun paying subsidies to many of the lines in return for their carrying mail along with passengers. The stagecoach had brought the people of the East closer together, but its role in helping to build and unify a nation was far from over.  Both the stagecoach and the Conestoga wagon would play a part in the challenges and adventures that lay ahead in the West.

Learn about the expansion to the west.