The living history experiments are the cornerstones of Frontier Resources. We use our living history techniques to learn as well as to teach. Past experiments have included such projects as building homesteads and stations, taking packhorses through the mountains, road building and recreating military campaigns. We have found that the more complete and accurate the experiment, the greater the findings.
From the 4th through the 13th of August 2006, four people and four oxen took part in a living history experiment in Daniel Boone National Forest near Morehead, Kentucky. While there are a number of descriptions of wagons on the roads of eighteenth century America, practically nothing is known of their operation. We do not know the distances traveled, speeds, possible loads, nor the problems and solutions encountered. The purpose of the project was to examine these questions.
The project was strenuous. Some of the trails were no wider than the width of the wagon. Often the wagon had to be unhooked from the oxen and manhandled around a tree or switchback on a trail. Depending on the difficulties encountered, the wagon traveled from four to twelve miles a day. The load was varied from one thousand pounds to a ton to test the capabilities of the wagon and team.
The participants established wagoners' camps next to the trails in locations that would provide water and grazing for the animals. The people slept in the open or under tarps when necessary. The wagoner slept on his load in the wagon twice but found it very cramped and uncomfortable. Sleeping under the wagon never was possible because of the vegetation and terrain.
The foods were limited to those available to travelers in the eighteenth century along the Great Wagon Road. Most meals were based on dried meats, rice and sweet potatoes. Cornmeal was used daily in the form of hoe cakes or Johnny cakes. Beverages were most commonly cider or water, but some experimentation was done with "Liberty Teas" such as coffee, sassafras tea, pine needle tea and sumac tea.
Some of the initial findings of the project were:
- We used every tool taken and did not need any tool we did not have on hand. What wagoners carried was well thought out and well designed for the tasks they were apt to encounter.
- We found the unwaterproofed linen canvas bonnet shed water better than the waterproofed cotton canvas one. Linen canvas is a superior material for wagon covers.
- The wagon was well designed for the task.. Some of the conditions were extremely rough, requiring negotiating ditches, steep creek banks, narrow trails, rocks and fallen trees. The wagon held up to all of these without any damage.
- Four oxen can pull a fully loaded eighteenth century freight wagon without injury efficiently. When turning radius became an issue detaching one yoke (two oxen) and pulling the wagon with a single pair made the wagon more maneuverable and did not exceed the capabilities of the animals. After nine days of steady work, the animals did not lose weight and did not seem appreciably tired.