Prairie Schooner

The Classic Covered Wagon That Carried Settlers Westward

Illustration of a prairie schooner covered wagon
The Prairie Schooner. Getty Images

The "prairie schooner" was the classic covered wagon that carried settlers westward across the North American plains. The name came from the typical white cloth cover on the wagon, which, from a distance, made it resemble the white cloth of a ship's sails.

The prairie schooner is often confused with the Conestoga wagon, but the horse-drawn vehicles are quite different.The Conestoga wagon was much heavier, was designed to carry large loads, and was often pulled by teams of six horses.

Such wagons required reasonably good roads, such as the National Road, and were simply not practical for moving westward across the plains.

The prairie schooner was a lighter wagon designed to travel great distances on rough prairie trails, and could often be pulled by a single team of horses, or sometimes even one horse. As finding food and water for animals could present a serious problem while traveling, there was an advantage to using light wagons that required fewer horses.

Adapted from light farm wagons, prairie schooners generally had a canvas cover supported on wooden arches. The cover provided some protection from sun and rain. The cloth cover, which was typically supported on bows of wood (or occasionally iron) could be coated with various materials to make it waterproof.

The prairie schooner would typically be packed very carefully, with heavy pieces of furniture, or crates of supplies, placed low in the wagon box.

With the possessions of a typical family stowed aboard the wagon, there generally wasn't much room to ride inside. So many "emigrants" heading westward would walk alongside the wagon, with only children or the elderly riding inside.

And when stopped for the night, families tended to sleep under the stars, or, in bad weather, under the wagon rather than inside it.

Groups of prairie schooners often traveled together in the classic wagon trains along such routes as the Oregon Trail.

When the railroads expanded throughout the American west in the late 1800s there was no longer a need to travel great distances by prairie schooner, and the classic covered wagons fell out of use but became an enduring symbol of the westward migration.

Also Known As: covered wagon

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McNamara, Robert. "Prairie Schooner." ThoughtCo, Aug. 31, 2016, thoughtco.com/prairie-schooner-definition-1773392. McNamara, Robert. (2016, August 31). Prairie Schooner. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/prairie-schooner-definition-1773392 McNamara, Robert. "Prairie Schooner." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/prairie-schooner-definition-1773392 (accessed January 24, 2018).