Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

Life On The Trail

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Draft animals

The pioneers used a variety of draft animals, especially horses, mules, and oxen. They often preferred the latter when they were available, for oxen had great strength and patience and were easy to keep; they did not balk at mud or quicksand, they required no expensive and complicated harness, and Indians did not care to eat them, so seldom stole them. (They could, however, be eaten by the pioneers in an emergency.) The science of "oxteamology" consisted of little more than walking along the left side of the lead oxen with a whip, prod, or goad, urging them on and guiding them, and was considerably simpler than handling the reins of horses or mules. With gentle oxen, widows with children could and did (with a little help, especially during the morning yoking up) transport themselves and their possessions successfully all the way to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Along the trail, under normal conditions, the Mormons averaged 2 miles an hour, the usual speed of an ox pulling a heavy wagon all day long?

Oxen were simply bulls of various breeds, such as Hereford, Longhorn, line-back, or shorthorn crossbreeds developed for muscle and strength. They could have been reddish or brown or spttted. They were castrated young to make them more manageable and were at their best between 5 and 8 years of age, but could be useful for twice that long. Young and/or untrained oxen presented plenty of problems to the teamsters. They grew to about 2,000 pounds. [Beef cattle are slaughtered at about half that weight.] Oxen were yoked in pairs, with two to four pair per wagon. The teamster would walk on the left and often carried a shoulder-length staff called a "Moses Stick" by which he or she could use to help guide, encourage, or punish an ox. The commands were "gee" (head or turn right), "haw" (head or turn left), and "whoa" (stand still or stop). European emigrants, with their accents and lack of experience, had a hard time controlling oxen, especially at first.

Oxen were slower than mules or horses but were cheaper, survived on prairie grass better, and had better stamina. Their normal speed of two mile per hour was a comfortable speed for the thousands who walked along with the wagons. They suffered exhaustion, starvation, thirst, poisonous water, and sore feet. Many died in the yoke. Others during the night. Sometimes booties were made to wrap an ox's sore feet. Campsites were chosen with the animals in mind.

Horses and mules were better at plowing. Except for a hobby or for living history sites, there is no market for oxen, as the pioneers knew them, to be bred. This means that seeing one is a relatively rare experience.

The U.S. 1850 Census reported 1.17 million oxen in the nation. That number dropped more than a half million to 1.17 million by 1890 (with 720,767 in the West).

DRAFT ANIMALS - Statistics (1849-50)
Using statistics from the Oregon-Calif. Trail Association COED (Census of Overland Emigrant Documents) database, an interesting comparison of the kinds of draft animals used to pull wagons during the gold rush years of 1849 and 1850. The database has diaries from approximately 100 wagon trains each year. The following is not an absolute amount. It only reflects what was reported in the diaries. The St. Joseph Gazette, May 3, 1850, reported: "More than half ...who crossed [here], are going across the plains with horse teams. This, we presume, is owing to the scarcity of mules and oxen in Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, where a large majority of the emigrants are from."

Draft animals used by percent:

  1849 1850
Oxen 55 38
Mules 30 20
Horses 15 42

George Shepard took 4 1/2 months to get to California in 1850. In that time, he traversed Illinois, Iowa, spent two weeks in the Council Bluffs (Iowa) area. His company made the trip from Council Bluffs to Hangtown (now Placerville), Calif. in 99 days. By comparison, Brigham Young's Pioneer Company spent 111 days on the trail to the Salt Lake Valley. Mormon handcart companies took between 64 and 90 days.