Colorado Wagon Trains:
Westward Ho!

Colorado wagon trains staging area along Missouri River courtesy of Time Life Books

Wagon trains, in the mid 1800's, meandered through the western part of the United States carrying pioneers to their destinations.  This was a dangerous trek.

Excitement filled the air as hundreds were preparing for their journey. 

No one knew of the hardships, disease and danger that they would encounter.

Dime novelists of the time, most who had never been west of the Mississippi, touted the romance and plenty of a land unknown to all who began their journey.

first ever travel guide courtesy of Time Life Books

Many would purchase the predecessor to our present day travel guides, The Wagon Road Guide.

This also was written by someone who had no idea about western travel and the Colorado settlers that followed it on their own wound up in dire straits in the mountains or desert.

For protection, the Colorado settlers would sign up with a wagon train and travel in numbers.

The captain or wagon master and his staff had to be well acquainted with the trails, water holes, climate and dangers of the journey.

The wagons would start from either St. Louis or St. Joseph Missouri in the spring, say sometime in April.

This allowed plenty of time to climb the Rocky Mountains before the snows set in.  Then on to California, or places in between to settle.

Many on the train would set up in Colorado.  There was the gold rush to the territory, plenty of grass and water on the plains for farming or ranching.

So what was it like for a day or months on the trail?  Wagon masters kept logs and diaries, so did many travelers.

First arriving in St. Joseph, the excited new Colorado settlers to the west would contact a wagon master and pay to join his train.

Colorado Wagon Trains: Hardship and Danger For All

Then they would purchase their wagon, animals and supplies.  Usually the crew of the wagon train would start collecting people and their wagons on the outskirts of town.

There was a cutoff date when new people could join the train, because time was of the essence.  The wagon master had to remain on schedule.

Meetings were held between the wagon train crew, the master and the new Colorado settlers. Not exactly a pep talk, but what can and could be expected on their journey.

Questions would be answered and those who changed their mind could do so before traveling hundreds of miles into the middle of nowhere.

The train sets off at dawn, a long line of covered wagons with happy people hoping to make their fortune in the unknown, one way or the other.

wagons on the trail courtesy of Time Life Books

The first few days are exciting.  Colorado wagon trains traveled about 10-15 miles a day and after a long day on the trail, the wagons would circle for the protection of people and livestock.

Scouts would ride ahead at night and check out the trail, seeing whether the water holes ahead hadn't dried out or if possibly trouble was nearby.

Strangers would meet and invite each other for dinner.  A typical menu on the trail might be buffalo or beef steak and fried cakes.

The prep for this meal comes from a diary of an unknown Colorado wagon train member.

Buffalo or Beef Steak

Start a fire, render fat in a skillet. Sear steak on both sides, move directly off fire to the side to lower cooking temperature, cook until done. For gravy, add a tablespoon of flour to drippings, cook til brown.  Stir constantly, add a cup of milk and salt to taste.

Fried Cakes

Combine 1 1/2 cups of flour with 1 cup water. Mix well. Using flour on hands, roll out dough on a bread board to 1/4 inch thick.  Cut in 2 inch squares.
Add fat to skillet, add dough, move off direct fire, cook til brown on both sides.  Salt to taste.

That was usually the meal Colorado settlers ate day after day, unless the men of the train went hunting and brought back quail, pheasant, wild turkey, rabbit, etc.

After a few weeks on the trail, excitement turned to bone weary daily hardships. Dried up water holes, spring storms that made the trail a quagmire of mud, bogging down wagons that had to be physically pushed out of the muck.

As the months wore on, the wagon train would pass the remains of wagons before them. Wrecks of abandoned wagons, skeletons of livestock and, sometimes, graves of other would be Colorado settlers along the trail.  These people either met their fate by Indian attacks or by outlaws.

This was sobering for everyone.  Now the hardship and dangers they had read about were real to them.  They were experiencing it.  Many gave up and traveled back east to sell their wagons and supplies to others heading west.

As the summer sun blasted them, heat was the enemy.  Water had to be conserved, shade sought at day stops and at the end of the day, cooling night air.

Trudging along day after day through the Kansas territory, many kept looking west.  The more miles behind them, the closer to their goal.

Imagine one day looking up and seeing what you thought were clouds banked on the horizon.

The train stops for the night and the wagon master tells you that tomorrow you will be arriving in the Colorado territory.

Many are relieved, others, gold prospectors for instance, are jumping for joy.  There's a dance and all the ladies of the train put their baking skills together and they have a party.

The next morning, the sun dazzles them as they push on.  Suddenly, they realize the cloud bank they thought they saw really was the Rocky Mountains. 14,000 feet in height, directly in front of them!  Well not exactly in front of them, a hundred miles or so away.

The Rockies were treacherous to climb.  Passes could be covered in snow.  It was now coming into fall/winter and blizzards and avalanches were a constant threat.

Knowing these mountains had to be crossed to reach the west coast, many pioneers decided to stay in the Colorado territory and homestead.

Other brave souls decided to continue on with the Colorado wagon trains and take their chances on what lay on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

And so the Colorado wagon trains continued west, leaving many behind to become the first settlers in the new territory and the creators of the state of Colorado.

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