Conestoga Wagon: Century Strong Ship of Inland Commerce

One of Lancaster County’s most famous products is the Conestoga wagon, known as “the ship of inland commerce.” It was used for over a century to grow the nation’s business and westward expansion.

Conestoga Wagon on display at Hans Herr House.

Its colors were patriotic—red, white, and blue. The red was on the running gear and sideboards, the white on the woven fabric top, and the blue on the body. It was justly called “the finest wagon the world has ever known.” Hand-made, a vehicle of both utility and beauty. It sprang from native ingenuity and craftsmanship to take on an integral role in the American epic. Ideally suited for hauling freight over bad roads, the Conestoga wagon had a capacity of up to six tons, a floor curved up at each end to prevent the contents from shifting inside, and a white canvas cover to protect against adverse weather; four to six horses pulled it.

Farmer John Shreiner and his Conestoga Wagon, Lancaster County, PA, circa 1910.

The wagon probably first came into use in the valley of the Conestoga River. The first recorded use of the name dates back to December 31, 1717, when James Logan, William Penn’s former secretary, carefully recorded in his account book that he bought a “Conestogoe Waggon” from James Hendricks. Logan needed the special wagon to bring loads of furs from his trading post on the Lancaster frontier to the city and to carry a wide variety of goods back to “Conestogoe.”

James Logan – William Penn’s personal secretary.

The name came from an area along the Conestoga River Valley in Lancaster County. Some sources say at the confluence of the Conestoga River and the Little Conestoga Creek. It was here that Pennsylvania German and Swiss wagon builders created the large sturdy wagons needed to ship farm products the sixty-four-mile journey to market in Philadelphia. A product of several influences, the wagon took shape over time.

The wagons were made throughout Lancaster County, and later in adjacent counties. The century 1740-1840 marked the peak time for the rolling of these massive wagons, first mainly between Lancaster County and Philadelphia, then on to Pittsburgh, and then eventually to the Pacific. The wagon’s design was later adapted for the longer journeys, but the Conestoga was the daddy of them all.

Conestoga wagon hooked up to a six-horse team, Lancaster County, PA, circa 1910.