March 13, 2011

The Conestoga Wagons and Wagoners: Thomas Read



Thomas Buchanan Read

Thomas Buchanan Read, the revered 19th century poet and artist whose work forever captured the patriotic fever of his day, was born on March 12, 1822, in Corner Ketch, Pennsylvania… In 1841, Read moved to Boston and befriended famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and painter Washington Allston. The young artist was greatly influenced and encouraged by these two artists’ patriotic style and thematic content.. Throughout the late 1840s and 1850s, spending the bulk of his time in Italy, Read established himself as one of the world’s leading artistic and literary voices… “A New Pastoral,” one of Read’s more notable works, was completed in Florence in 1854. In this series of 37 textual illuminations, Read offers a romantic vision of Pennsylvania’s countryside, writing that “no lovelier landscape meets the traveller’s eye.” He couples his lyrical blank verse with a story of a family’s journey from middle Pennsylvania to the Mississippi river.* His poems, including “The Wagoner of the Alleghenies,” “The Oath,” and “The Defenders” were so popular in the United States that five of them were excerpted in the first volume of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations…**

     My interest in this poem is threefold. First, On High Street in Philadelphia, between 4th and 5th streets, as early as in 1750, there was an inn called “The Conestoga Wagon Inn”, so the words “Conestoga wagon” had become well established by 1750. Much of the time, the setting of the first part of my historic romance novel is Philadelphia, so incorporating the Conestoga wagon and wagoners is reasonable considering the time perioe.

     Second, I’m doing a writing on the Compass Inn, a historic 1799 inn in Laughlintown, Pennsylvania. My characters will travel down Laurel Mountain in a Conestoga wagon.

     Third, Elizabeth Rugh (daughter of Michael and Elizabeth Reamer/Raymer Rugh of Hempfield Township and Black Lick Township in Southwestern Pennsylvania) traveled to Iowa, probably in a Conestoga wagon. Their daughter likely traveled from a vacation trip to San Francisco to Brocton, Massachusetts, in a wagon.

     The wagoners were… very rough. This excerpt from Thomas Buchanan Read’s famous poem, “The Wagoner of the Alleghenies”, gives a description of one of them:

” ‘Twas April, and the evening winds
Were rattling at the open blinds;
The sign, upon its hinge of rust,
Made dreary answer to the gust,
That smote the masts like an ocean squall,
And, whistling, mocked the boatswain’s call.

“The latch went up; the door was thrown
Awide, as by a tempest blown;
While, bold as an embodied storm,
Strode in a dark and stalwart form,
And all the lights in the sudden wind
Flared as he slammed the door behind.

“The noisy revellers ceased their din, And into the corner skulked the cur,
As the startled keeper welcomed in The feared and famous wagoner!
Not long they brooked the keen eye-glance
Who gazed into that countenance;
And even in his mildest mood
His voice was sudden, loud, and rude
As is a swollen mountain-stream.
He spoke as to a restive team.
His team was of the wildest breed That ever tested wagoner’s skill;
Each was a fierce, unbroken steed, Curbed only by his giant will;
And every ostler quaked with fear
What time his loud bells wrangled near.”

     During the summer season most of them worked on farms. The big use for the wagons was for carrying grain after the harvest, in the fall. They were noted for their feats of strength. They were great story tellers; tellers of yarns, lies , or whatever. One of the oldest stories they tell is about a wagoner who would lie on his back and have his six-team of horses and his wagon, just by voice command, run over his body as he laid between the wheels; then turn it around and run it back again. That man was a real wagoner!***








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