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The Conestoga wagon is a heavy, covered wagon that was used extensively during the late 18th century and the 19th century in the United States and Canada. It was large enough to transport loads up to 6 tons (5.4 metric tons), and was drawn by horses, mules or oxen. It was designed to help keep its contents from moving about when in motion and to aid it in crossing rivers and streams, though it sometimes leaked unless caulked.
The term "Conestoga wagon" refers specifically to this type of vehicle; it is not a generic term for "covered wagon". The wagons used in the westward expansion of the United States were, for the most part, ordinary farm wagons fitted with canvas covers.
The first known mention of a "Conestoga wagon" was by James Logan on December 31, 1717 in his accounting log after purchasing it from James Hendricks. It was named after the "Conestoga River" or "Conestoga Township" in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and thought to have been introduced by Mennonite German settlers. The Brethren of Lancaster County, an off-shoot sect of the Mennonites, said that there was a local Native American tribe called the Conestoga.
In colonial times the Conestoga wagon was popular for migration southward through the Great Appalachian Valley along the Great Wagon Road. After the American Revolution it was used to open up commerce to Pittsburgh and Ohio. In 1820 rates charged were roughly one dollar per 100 pounds per 100 miles, with speeds about 15 mi (24 km) per day. The Conestoga, often in long wagon trains, was the primary overland cargo vehicle over the Appalachian Mountains until the development of the railroad. The wagon was pulled by a team of up to eight horses or up to a dozen oxen. For this purpose, the Conestoga horse, a special breed of medium to heavy draft horses, was developed.
In Canada, the Conestoga wagons were used by Pennsylvania German migrants who left the United States for Southern Ontario, settling various communities in Niagara Region, Kitchener-Waterloo area and York Region (mostly in Markham, Ontario and Stouffville, Ontario).
The Conestoga wagon was built with its floor curved upward to prevent the contents from tipping and shifting. The average Conestoga wagon was 18 feet long, 11 feet high, and 4 feet in width. It could carry up to 12,000 pounds (5,400 kg) of cargo. The seams in the body of the wagon were stuffed with tar to protect them from leaking while crossing rivers. Also for protection against bad weather, stretched across the wagon was a tough, white canvas cover. The frame and suspension were made of wood, and the wheels were often iron-rimmed for greater durability. Water barrels built on the side of the wagon held water, and toolboxes held tools needed for repair on the wagon. Also, the feed box on the back of the wagon was used to feed the horses.
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