Memoirs of Old McLeod County


There may be no greater portrayal of the early settler experience than that of the covered wagon.  With a wild landscape sprawled before it, people and livestock walking alongside it, and moving stalwartly toward the western horizon – the covered wagon carried sturdy men and women down the winding prairie trails to a new life filled with hope and dreams of a better future.  Today, with highways and air travel bringing us to and fro, it’s sometimes hard to even imagine what it was like for our ancestral counterparts to travel across the country.  In 1930, Carlos Avery, who grew up on a Hutchinson farm in the 1870s, jotted down his boyhood recollections of traveling across the countryside at a time when cars, trucks, and airplanes were nothing more than a fantasy.  The following are excerpts from his recollection.

“It should be remembered that at that time, though some 30 railroad companies had been incorporated and proposed lines had been projected, there was not a highway worthy of the name.  The navigable rivers, the Mississippi, and the Minnesota, and even a number of lesser streams, were the only real highways.  Eager hosts of home seekers, land speculators, traders, and the usual complement of camp followers and adventurers poured into St. Paul, but the greater number (of people) pushed into and through the “Big Woods” to stake their claims.

During those years of early settlement travel from the head of navigation was often by hastily assembled, and improvised equipment, usually by ox-team.  The trails, by courtesy called roads, led through quagmire in the forest and skirted the margins of marsh and slough on the prairie.  A graded road was unknown.  Bridges were unheard of.  Streams were forded. Sometimes with disastrous results to passengers and cargo.  The difficulties of travel under such conditions were all but insurmountable.  Tales are told of loading and unloading time and again as the outfits became bogged down, carrying bags of potatoes, or grain, farm implements, food, furniture, or what have you, that might constitute the cargo, through swampy places where even the empty wagon made a load the tired oxen could scarcely budge unless the owner added his own burly shoulder to the motive power.  The wagons were heavy, springless, and seldom equipped with a spring seat.  The driver and other passengers sat on boards laid across the top of the wagon box or on the floor behind if they rode at all.  They usually had to work their passage.

The wagon box was piled full of the family possessions, of which there was no great variety, with odds and ends tied on the outside.  Bows of bent wood were fastened to the box on each side over which was stretched a canvas cover forming a water and wind proof shelter.  The rear end of the cover was drawn together with a puckering string which could on occasion be loosened so as to admit access to the inside of the wagon from the rear.  In the front the flap was tied back to permit the driver to have an unobstructed view.

As I recall it, tents were seldom if ever used in camping at night.  The people slept on the ground under the wagon, or sometimes in the wagon, if there was room.  Smudge from the campfire was the only protection from mosquitoes, and mosquitoes in those days seemed to be a thousand times more numerous and more fierce than they are today.

When on the way, the family or passengers usually walked beside or behind the wagon, where also trailed the family livestock consisting in the case of more opulent, usually of one lone, emancipated cow.  A dog or two made up the sum total of the animal possessions of the majority.  Of children there were few, as most of these adventurers were young, and even if in a family group, there had not been time to accumulate a flock.  Babes in arms there were, and sturdy young women who came to strive shoulder to shoulder with their husbands, brothers, or sweethearts.

Those pioneers who blazed the way for hordes who were to follower were our first emigrants, the first to introduce the prairie schooner or covered wagon, the emigrant wagon as we called it, which was for many years to mark the migration of America across the continent.”