Before there was a railroad in the Laramie Basin, goods were hauled by freighters who owned wagons and draft animals.
These “wagonmasters” delivered supplies to mines, military forts, and settlements from the late 1840s to the late 1860s. Long teams of oxen probably pulled wagons on the Cherokee Trail (later to be called the “Overland Trail”) in the 1850s, though there weren’t many here then to observe.
Native Americans did watch the passing freighters, and some skirmishes and fatalities happened in our area. As time went on, military escorts became necessary for many shipments.
The freight line owners had a tremendous investment in wagons and animals. One of the earliest Wyoming freighters, the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell, had thousands of wagons and oxen in 1858 according to Agnes Wright Spring. Her account is in the first issue of Annals of Wyoming, published in August of 1923.
Mrs. Spring had first-hand knowledge—her father Gordon Wright operated a freighting business from his ranch in Centennial (now the Vee Bar) from 1903-1908. He freighted to Laramie and west to the mines and lumber camps of the Snowy Range.
Much earlier, William Richard “Dick” Williams founded the XX Ranch east of Tie Siding (south of Sherman), starting in 1866. “In addition to ranching, he owned and operated one of the largest freighting companies in the area,” says Dicksie Knight May, who is collecting ranch histories of Albany County. She notes that other pioneer ranchers did freighting on the side, as documented in the 1955 book “Wyoming Pioneer Ranches.”
Many freighters operated out of towns on the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers near the popular trails west. From Omaha in 1861, Ed Creighton loaded up supplies for the new telegraph lines that came through what later became Albany County. (If his name sounds familiar it is because Creighton University in Omaha is named for him.) He bought teams and hired experienced men to drive, some of whom ended up settling here.
Before 1868, Tom Alsop and Charles Hutton began ranches in the Laramie Plains after working as freighters for Creighton.
In the east, for almost 100 years until the late 1840s, freighting was done with Conestoga wagons and a hitch of horses. But in the west, both the Conestoga and the horse proved problematical.
Western freighters often hitched two wagons one after the other, to haul a double load. The outward slope of the ends of Conestoga wagons made that impossible or wasted space, so straight-ended wagons like those made by J. Murphy & Sons of St. Louis and Studebaker of South Bend, Indiana prevailed.
There were several problems with horses. They were expensive, spooked easily, and did best if supplemental feed were brought along. That took up valuable cargo space. Those who favored horses tended to be stage line operators who liked their speed and endurance—provided there could be fresh horses every 12 miles. The stages also carried mail and small freight along with passengers.
No doubt many a wager was made at the end of a run by bullwhackers, muleskinners, and others, debating whether oxen, mule, or horse teams were best. Like buying a motorized vehicle today, it depends on the terrain, how much cash or credit you have, and how fast you want to get where you are going.
Jesse Brown from Tennessee, who freighted military goods in Wyoming Territory for contractor James K. Hinds in 1865, says that “greenhorns” like him were an amusing sight, trying to use the bullwhackers’15-18 foot long whip. “We were more likely to wrap them around our necks than to strike what was aimed at,” he wrote in an Annals of Wyoming issue of January 1947.
Brown writes that once they got the hang of it, the freighters could cover about 100 miles per week with oxen. Although that sounds slow, another observer says an ox hitch was lucky to make 10 miles a day if the oxen were not accustomed to the yoke. Brown worked for the Hinds outfit, which had 26 teams, each with 7-9 pairs of oxen. At their slow pace, drivers could walk in front; sometimes they sat astride the left rear ox. A driver’s seat on a wagon pulled by oxen was uncommon.
Ox and mule teams didn’t have a separate rein for each animal. Instead, a single rope (‘jerk line”) was strung from the wagon brake to the lead—or “wheel”—animal. Describing mule teams, Raymond Welty writes: “One jerk and the pilot animal turned left; two jerks and it went right, pulling his mate accordingly” (May 1938 issue of Kansas History). Apparently horses and oxen learned the command too.
Laramie harness maker Jim Wear says that the oxen’s wooden yokes weren’t as expensive to make as the leather tack needed for mules or horses. Not much training is involved in putting together a team of oxen Wear says, “there’s a reason for the expression ‘dumb as an ox’.”
Fred Brock, writing of his experience as a freighter near Buffalo, Wyoming in the July 1924 issue Annals of Wyoming, states that freighters using oxen in the summer had a different practice than those using mules or horses. “With cattle they would take what they called a breakfast drive, then lay over during the heat of the day and drive until after night for the afternoon drive,” he wrote. He mentioned that horse and mule teams expected each animal to draw fifteen hundred pounds, plus its own feed for the trip. Ox teams could haul more.
Jim Wear says: “all oxen were castrated steers, so calling drivers bullwhackers is a misnomer.” He adds: “an ox can’t stand very well on three legs. If they needed a shoe replaced, it required a real effort to get the animal down, tied and reshod out in the open.” It was thought in the early days that oxen didn’t get much nutrition out of winter grass. Therefore it was a big surprise when oxen turned loose to die in the Laramie Basin in the early 1860s were found next spring to be fat and healthy. It was this discovery, that some credit to pioneer stage station manager Phil Mandel, which led to the settlement of the Laramie Plains for cattle ranching.
Early freighters who held contracts for military forts on the frontier sometimes hitched three wagons together. J.W. Vaughn and L.C. Bishop, writing in the October 1957 issue of Annals of Wyoming, say that military trains had 15,000 pounds of freight in the first wagon, 9,000 pounds in the second, with the third for cooking utensils, tents, and food for the trip. To pull that would require 12-14 pairs of oxen.
Military shipments often needed to get where they were going quickly, so mules replaced oxen. Mules had greater speed, were less expensive than horses, and had good strength. They also were more trainable than oxen and could eat and thrive on native grass as compared to horses.
Military records show that 63 million pounds of freight were delivered to Wyoming military forts in just one pre-railroad year, 1864. The goods transported by freighters were picked up from the “great supply depot” at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, according to Raymond Welty, in the May 1938 issue of Kansas History.
Mules were invaluable for terrain with curves. Jim Wear says that to make a sharp turn it requires the animal on the inside to step over the chain running between the pairs from front to rear. Mules and horses could be trained to do that, oxen could not. When both front animals are on the outside, it naturally turns the next team behind and eventually the wagon. Some streets, such as the 132-foot-wide ones in Salt Lake City, allowed mule teams to reverse directions “without resorting to profanity,” as blog-writer Hank McIntire posted in 2012.
Brothers Augustus and Charles Trabing opened a string of retail stores in Laramie, Crazy Woman Creek (on the Bozeman Trail), Medicine Bow, Rawlins and Buffalo soon after arriving in Laramie in 1868. Trabing’s freighters also hauled goods for the military and other businesses along their routes. Great-granddaughter Nancy Trabing Mickelson says that at one time they employed at least 80 freighters along with the wagons and draft animals needed.
Laramie historian Jerry Hansen says there were two local wagon builders, William Burns and the firm of Borgmeier & Thies Blacksmiths and Wagonmakers. Trabing’s catalog of 1888 lists several Mitchell “spring” wagons at prices ranging from $85 to $115 each. W. H. Holliday’s store sold Fish Brothers wagons.
When the railroad arrived in what would become Albany County in 1867-68, freighters changed their operations to shorter hauls to mines and settlements, especially going north of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. There were major freight stations at Laramie and Rock Creek. Another was at Medicine Bow in Carbon County.
Loads would be taken off the railroad, perhaps stored in warehouses near the tracks, and then picked up by freighters. Long hauls from Albany and Carbon County were still necessary for points far to the north, which included Montana and South Dakota until railroads arrived there.
Hansen explains that freighters were still operating in Albany County in the 1930s despite the advent of the railroad and automobiles. “Remember that the roads weren’t highways in those days, and the early trucks couldn’t haul much, so the freighters continued the work that they had been doing even before there was a Laramie,” he says.
By Judy Knight
Caption: This hand-colored postcard shows a double hitch of freight wagons pulled by six oxen about to leave Laramie around 1905. They are headed south on 3rd St. The Elkhorn Livery (Les’ Auto Repair now) is across Ivinson Ave. from St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the background (without the tower added in 1916). Thees & Foster’s store south of the Elkhorn is about where the building once called Dr. Finfrock’s is located. There must have been something unusual about this load for it to have gathered a crowd of onlookers. Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.