Book Review: The Wagonmasters

The Wagonmasters:  High Plains Freighting From The Earliest Days Of The Santa Fe Trail To 1880, by Henry Pickering Walker

This sort of book recognizes that logistics is not a particularly sexy subject and aims its attention at those who are willing to pay attention to the importance of freighting in the settlement of the American West.  As the author correctly notes, without high plains freighting, the settlement of the West would have been heavily delayed, because aside from freighting, only railroads were capable of bringing the supplies to towns that was necessary, given that many of them were not self-sufficient when it came to manufacturing or food for a long time after being founded, if ever.  And while freighting certainly did not last very long, it filled a very important and necessary niche in the early development of the Far West, and this book goes into a great deal of detail into how this was the case.  Indeed, that was perhaps the most impressive part of this book, the level of detail that one could go into about freghting, what supplies were brought, the issues of profitability as well as the limits of supply and the importance of various factors in providing for the development (or lack thereof) of cities in the West.

This book is around 300 pages and is divided into fourteen chapters.  The author begins with a discussion of the limitations of river transport in the West as pointing to the need for land-based transportation (1).  After that the author talks about the early trails of the West and the trials that were faced by the people traveling on them (2).  There are then discussions on various ports of the prairie sea (3), especially small towns and forts where supplies could be found.  The author talks about the diversity of creatures that could be found in the West (4) as well as the horns, hoofs and wheels in the wagon trains that allowed land-trade to go on (5).  The author discussed what was necessary to keep the trains rolling (6), and then looks at specific cities and the way that land transportation developed in those cities over time, beginning with Santa Fe (7), moving on to Salt Lake City (8), discussing the rise of Denver (9), and finishing the tour with a discussion of the difficulties of transportation to Montana (10).  After that the author discusses the government as a customer of wagon trains (11), the attacks Indians made on the trains (12), the shortening of the trail (13), and the end of the trail with the rise of railroads (14).

There were some aspects of this book that were deeply interesting when it came to the competition between various cities to receive the benefits of trade with new cities that were being started in the West.  For example, the competition over various towns on the Missouri River for the Western overland trade was very intriguing to read about, as were the tradeoffs between the risk of attack from tribes and the certainty of having a harrowing mountain crossing in the Santa Fe Trail.  The massive gains in trade capacity for the railroad over the wagon trade as well as the competition between the riverine trade with Oregon and California and Colorado over who would supply Montana’s growing cities was also interesting to read about.  The book makes it plain that the sort of populations that lived in the growing Western territories could not have been sustained without some sort of reliable overland trade, made all the more problematic by the way in which uncertainties about the law and violence sometimes made it difficult for wagon trains to know where money could be made and what supplies were needed, wanted, or even legal to bring in some cases.  If you love the old west and logistics, this is a great book to read.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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