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 nickname 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 they are actually two very different types of wagons. Both were horse-drawn, of course, but the Conestoga wagon was much heavier, and was first used by farmers in Pennsylvania to haul crops to market.

The Conestoga wagon was often pulled by teams of up to 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 the prairie schooner could usually 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. Depending on the circumstances, prairie schooners would also be pulled by oxen, or mules. 

Adapted from light farm wagons, prairie schooners generally had a canvas cover, or bonnet, 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 to keep the wagon from tipping on rough trails. With the possessions of a typical family stowed aboard the wagon, there generally wasn't much room to ride inside. And, the ride was often pretty rough, as the suspension was minimal. So many "emigrants" heading westward would simply walk alongside the wagon, with only children or the elderly riding inside.

When stopped for the night, families tended to sleep under the stars. In rainy weather, families would seek to stay dry by huddling 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. The classic covered wagons fell out of use but became an enduring symbol of the westward migration.