"Prairie Schooner"

Sun Dec 18 01:24:27 UTC 2005

        The meaning seems to have changed over time.  This may be the
earliest, from 1841:  "Our afternoon drive from the Au Sable to Ottowa
was through a treeless prairie, looking very much like a vast lake or
ocean.  So much is this appearance acknowledged by the country people
that they call the stage coach, a prairie schooner."  Eliza Steele,
Summer Journey in the West 134 (1841) (via Google Print).

        By 1848 it seems to have referred to a freight wagon.  From the
Apr. 15, 1848 issue of Scientific American (via Making of America
(Cornell)), under the heading "New Mode of Navigation":  "The Milwaukie
(Wisconsin) Sentinel, of the 17th inst., has the following:--A Prairie
schooner loaded with forty barrels of flour, drawn by six horses,
arrived in town yesterday, and went into store here."

        The "covered wagon" meaning does not yet seem to have emerged in
this memoir from 1860, published in 1869:  "On the nineteenth of May,
Knox and myself left Atchison in the two-horse wagon of a pioneer, who
had contracted to board us on the way and deliver us in Denver for forty
dollars each.  The swift mail coach was the aristocratic mode; the horse
wagon the respectable; and the ox-wagon, known as the 'ox telegraph' or
'prairie-schooner,' the plebian.  Oxen traveled about fifteen miles per
day; horses twenty to thirty; footmen twenty-five."  Albert D.
Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi:  From the Great River to the Great
Ocean 287 (1869) (via Making of America).

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of jim wolf
Sent: Friday, December 16, 2005 10:45 PM
Subject: "Prairie Schooner"

The new issue (Fall 2005)of Overland Journal, published by the
Oregon-California Trails Association, includes an article entitled "Out
to Sea on a Prairie Schooner" by Margaret F. Walker.

The essay reviews diaries of emigrants in the mid-Nineteenth Century and
concludes that the term "prairie schooner" was not then used to refer to
typical emigrant wagons. The closest expression was Richard Burton's
allusion to a "prairie ship" -- in quotes in the original as if an
original or unusual construction. The term "prairie schooner"
was occasionally used in reference to a type of immense freight wagon.
(William Dennison Bickham mentioned a "prairie schooner" in a letter of
1850, but Ms. Walker considers it ambigous -- "possibly a commercial
vehicle used in the gold diggings."

Apparently, mention of covered wagons as "prairie schooners" commonly
begain to appear in pioneer recollections written during the 1870s and

Are there other early references that may shed light on the topic?

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