In Praise of Oxen
Gentle giants yoked in American history.
If patience is a virtue, oxen are saints. They are known for their hard work, strength, pliancy, and capacity to endure punishing conditions. The journals of many a pioneer who plodded alongside them for 2,000 hard miles on the Oregon Trail and other westering paths are testament to their fortitude.
To be sure, oxen are slow—pulling the one-ton-plus wagons across the frontier, they walked about two miles per hour on average. Including rest breaks and often rough terrain, the average rate of travel across a ten-hour day was about one and one-half miles per hour. Under adverse conditions such as severe weather, deep mud, loose sand, or steep hills, the going was slower and the days longer. A Prairie Schooner wagon weighed about 1,300 pounds and was filled with more than 700 pounds of cargo.
Oxen, horses and mules were the primary beasts of burden that pulled wagon trains west to the American frontier. Oxen were strongest, most pliant, required the least forage, but were slowest. Horses were not as strong and required more feed but were faster. Mules were in between but required less forage than horses. Oxen traveled about 15 miles per day, horses and mules about 20 miles daily. (Travel by horse and mule could cut a full month off travel time for a 2,000-mile journey, but oxen had other advantages that could mean the difference between life and death.)
According to the Oregon Trail Center, historians say about a half to three-quarters of wagons were pulled by oxen. The cost of a pair of oxen in the late 1840s was about $2, but the 1849 Gold Rush depleted the supply of oxen and the cost rose to as high as $65. Horses and mules were often twice the cost of oxen. In addition, oxen required less forage and could subsist on very rough grazing, they required less sleep, and their yokes were much cheaper than harness. So, oxen were far more economical for pioneers.
However, with the drastic shortage of oxen—especially well-trained animals—after the 1849 Gold Rush, pioneers had to take what they could get. Oftentimes, if they did find available oxen, they were not properly trained or, worse, Texas longhorn range cattle that had never been yoked!
Hannah Cornaby, an emigrant starting overland from Keokuk, Iowa, in 1853, watched newly arrived Danish immigrants trying to yoke untrained cattle for the drive to faraway Utah. She wrote: “The oxen were wild, and getting them yoked was the most laughable sight I had ever witnessed; [A man] who, after having labored an hour or more to get ‘Bright’ secured to one end of the yoke, would hold the other end aloft, trying to persuade ‘Buck’ to come under, only to see ‘Bright’ careering across the country, the yoke lashing the air, not even giving a hint as to when he intended to stop.”
Oxen are essentially educated bovines of nearly any breed, trained to wear a yoke, pull a wagon, and respond to voice and hand signals. Males were usually castrated, as bulls could be troublesome. Ironically, castrated males grew much larger than bulls, so their size and power were more advantageous. But, because of the shortage of oxen, bulls and female cows were commonly used on the trail as well.
Although many different breeds of oxen were used on the trail, there were certain breeds that were preferred for their strength, intelligence, and bravery. The Red Durham (also known as the Shorthorn) and the Devon were the first to be brought by the Pilgrims and were the breed of choice on farms east of the Mississippi, so they were readily available. They were large, strong and the cows gave copious milk, which was an added benefit on the trail.
Another breed, however, was available to the emigrants in the mid-1800s. This was the long- horn, descended from livestock brought to North America by the Spanish some five-hundred years ago. This variety ran feral on the Southern Plains for centuries and were regarded as “native,” even though bison were the only bovines native to the Americas. Longhorns’ hardiness, intelligence and bravery were prized on the trail.
The line-up of an oxen team was critical, something that novice pioneers often did not understand. A pair of powerful steers worked best as the wheel yoke pair closest to the wagon. Oxen always had horns and for good reason: they used them to break a wagon against their yoke going downhill. The wheel pair had to be especially strong to hold the wagon back. Often heavily-muscled Durham and Devon steers were used for this position.
The lead yoke team needed to be well-trained, intelligent, calm and responsive to the drover’s commands. Longhorns were suited to this position—once their horns were trimmed so they would not accidentally stab the drover or a yokemate. They were bold, tough, wouldn’t shy at noises, or balk at crossing rivers, rocky terrain, or mud.
Smaller, younger, or untrained animals could be yoked in the middle between the wheel and the lead teams. There, they learned on the job because they had no other choice.
But, placing the wrong animals in the wrong positions could have disastrous consequences. Stampedes were common among untrained animals or gorings by troublesome bulls, who challenged drovers by tilting their horns and bellowing. Sometimes whole wagon trains could turn into a stampede from thunder or lightning, marauding buffalo, dogs, rearing horses, pots and pans, or rugs being flapped.
J. Henry Brown, an 1847 emigrant to Oregon, wrote of an ox stampede that was triggered when a horse spooked. The startled oxen “started on the run, bellowing as they went,” which panicked the other teams in the column. Within moments, “the whole train was dashing over the plains,” crashing wagons and plowing into each other. “It is astonishing with what speed a yoke of four oxen can run,” Brown wrote.
Many emigrants wrote in their journals of losing oxen when their wagon train was caught in a buffalo stampede, smashing wagons and sweeping up loose life stock. Sometimes emigrants would spot such cattle grazing serenely among the buffalo on the prairie.
Oxen tolerated lack of water fairly well because their third stomach, the rumen, stores extra water. But dust killed more oxen than lack of water or forage. Cattle do not sweat like horses or mules. They are air cooled and if they overheat, they begin to pant. When dust coated oxens' nostrils and lungs, they couldn’t cool down. Furthermore, dust triggered mucus build-up which further impaired their ability to cool. Pioneers had to clear out the nostrils of the oxen to help them breath. If the oxen were not adequately rested and their air passages cleared, their internal organs over-heated and they often died in the yoke.
The trails were littered with oxen that had collapsed on the trail. Forty-niner H. B. Scharmann of Germany upon crossing Nevada’s killing Black Rock Desert, wrote: “I covered seventeen miles [in one day] and counted eighty-one shattered wagons, and 1,663 oxen, either dead or dying, but no mules.” That night Scharmann’s own lead oxen collapsed on the trail. Only one of his eight oxen would survive the trip to California.
Pioneers grew to love their oxen. Mary Medley Ackerly emigrated to California in 1852. She wrote in her diary: “Our wheel oxen, Dick and Berry, drew the family wagon all the way across the plains. They were gentle, kind, patient, and reliable. I loved them and my heart often ached for them when they tried to hold back the wagon on a steep hill...I knew they suffered.”
B. F. Nichols traveled overland to Oregon in 1844 and later published his journal. He wrote appreciatively of the bovine beasts: “[They] should have been decently buried at death and a monument erected over their graves.”
Early immigrant Peter Burnett, who would become California’s first governor in 1849, wrote of his oxen: “He is a most noble animal, patient, thrifty, durable, gentle and does not run off. The ox will plunge through mud, swim over streams, dive into thickets and he will eat almost anything. Those who come to this country will love their oxen.”
Nine-year-old Joseph F. Smith, who had lost his father and traveled alone with his widowed mother in 1848 to Utah, yoked and drove his oxen as a small boy and came to love them as family. Later he wrote: “My lead team were Thom and Joe— we raised them from calves, and they were both white. Thom was more intelligent than many a man. Many times, while traveling rough roads, on long, thirsty drives, my oxen lowed with the heat and fatigue. I would put my arms around Thom’s neck and cry bitter tears! That was all I could do. Thom was my favorite and best and most willing servant and friend.”
PHOTOS: (1) Oxen-hitched wagons lining up to cross the Arkansas River at Great Bend, Kansas. Date unknown. Riverbanks on wagon train trails were often bogs of deep mud, which made river crossings especially difficult. Oxen were better in mud or on rough terrain than horses or mules because their larger, cloven hooves expanded and could gain more traction. Oxen were used for 50-75% of pioneer wagons on The Oregon Trail, according to the Oregon Trail Center. But after the 1849 Gold Rush, oxen were in short supply and pioneers had to rely more on horses and mules. (2) A fourteen-oxen-hitch pulling an 11-ton steam locomotive. Date and place unknown. (3) A sixteen-oxen-hitch pulling a redwood in the Pacific Northwest around 1880. Cut tree segments could weigh 15-20 tons and required large teams of oxen to pull. An ox can generally pull about twice its own weight. (4) An 1887 main street in Sturgis, South Dakota, shows oxen teams resting, unhitched from their covered wagons. (A far cry from the “hogs” that line Sturgis streets today!) Oxen required less rest (a minimum of four hours of sleep per day) and less forage than horses and mules. (5) The life-size sculpture of a pioneer caravan with oxen-drawn covered wagon in downtown Omaha’s Pioneer Courage Park. The sculptors, Blair Buswell and Edward Fraughton, both of Utah, were commissioned to install the massive, life-size sculptures in 2005 and 2006 depicting four pioneer families in wagons hitched with oxen, horses and mules. Each wagon stands about 12’ high. The sculptures pay tribute not only to the raw courage of the pioneers, but the beasts of burden who transported them across the frontier to their dreams.
You may also enjoy this related post:
-For the Love of Horses (& Mules!)
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"In Praise of Oxen" was first posted July 9, 2019 on Facebook
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