Oxen Fueled the Western Migration

Fixtures on American and Canadian farms, oxen were also used on wagon trains to carry freight and settlers in the 19th century.

| January 2019

  • A yoke of milking shorthorn cattle from Tillers International, Scotts, Mich., demonstrating a Ugandan-made plow at the 2010 Horse Progress Days in Topeka, Ind.
    Photo by Sam Moore
  • Marco and Polo, a yoke of milking shorthorn oxen also owned by Tillers International. Notice the straight backs and well-muscled bodies on these beautiful cattle.
    Photo by Sam Moore
  • A woman and a small boy help the teamster with this freighting team in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. Photo taken between 1877 and 1892.
    Photo by John C.H. Grabill
  • Ox teams at rest on the main street of Sturgis, Dakota Territory. Photo taken between 1877 and 1982.
    Photo by John C.H. Grabill
  • The photographer noted this as one of the last large ox-drawn freight wagons in the Black Hills, Dakota Territory. Photo taken between 1877 and 1892.
    Photo by John C.H. Grabill

Oxen have been around for a looong time. In Greek mythology, one of the hurdles Jason faced while attempting to retrieve the golden fleece was its proprietor, King Aeëtes. The king told Jason he could have the fleece if he passed three tests, the first of which was to best the king at plowing. The king had two huge bulls that breathed fire and were made of bronze, along with a plow made of iron that never rusted. Aeëtes was confident that the heat of the bulls’ breath would fry Jason and he would fail.

The king plowed a long, deep furrow and then dared Jason to try. However, unbeknown to the king, his daughter Medea had fallen for Jason and was determined to help him. She gave Jason a magical ointment to protect his body and he easily plowed a deeper, longer and straighter furrow. Medea helped Jason pass the other two tests and he gained the golden fleece – and Medea.

The Roman writer Cato, who lived from 234 to 149 B.C., wrote that an ox purchaser should choose animals 3 or 4 years old, with deep chests, heavy quarters and large black horns. The Romans occupied Britain until the fifth century and introduced oxen into that country, where they were used for draft power well into the 20th century.    

Pulling the load west

Naturally, English settlers in the New World brought along oxen to furnish power for the farms they were hacking out of the wilderness. Oxen were fixtures on American and Canadian farms into the 20th century. Oxen were also used extensively on the huge wagon trains used to carry freight and settlers across the west beginning in the 1830s.



On the Cimarron Cutoff on the old Santa Fe Trail, the Arkansas River had to be crossed and at times the animals had to swim for some distance. Wagons were packed with perishable items on top and 10, 20 or even more spans of oxen were hitched to the wagons. It was important to keep the wagon moving once it hit the water and with the long, strung-out teams, some of the animals would always be pulling on dry land while others were swimming.           

Vast numbers of oxen were used in the wagon trains. In an 1860 report, one of the main ports, Kansas City (located at the entrance to the Santa Fe Trail), recorded the passage of 7,084 men, 464 horses, 6,149 mules, 27,920 oxen, 3,033 wagons and 16,439,134 pounds of freight. That year, the total number of oxen leaving six of the main ports (including Kansas City) was 67,950. These cattle, along with 7,574 mules, moved more than 18,000 tons of freight.       



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