Oxen Fueled the Western Migration

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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.
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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.
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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.
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Ox teams at rest on the main street of Sturgis, Dakota Territory. Photo taken between 1877 and 1982.
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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.

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.       

A practical, economical choice

Oxen were the overwhelming choice for freight wagon trains for a number of reasons. Although Native Americans would steal oxen for food, horses and mules were much more prone to be lifted by a raiding party. Cattle could graze the local prairie grass for sustenance, where horses and mules required additional forage that had to be carried along. Oxen were considerably cheaper than horses or mules and didn’t require an expensive harness that quickly wore out; an ox yoke could be whittled from wood and would last for many years.

In sand or mud, the ox had better traction with his cloven hoof than the mule with his small hoof. At the end of the freighting season, oxen could be turned loose on the prairie and would actually fatten over the winter on the free grass. And finally, at the end of his working life, or in case of emergency, the ox could be butchered and eaten (of course horses and mules could be eaten, and were, but there was a certain taboo against the practice).

The meat from an ox was tough, and people who ate it confessed to “sitting down to dinner hungry and getting up tired,” but it tasted like beef and contained a good supply of protein. A story is told of a Scandinavian settler in western Canada who decided to butcher his oldest ox for winter rations. He tied the beast under the butchering tripod and aimed a mighty swing with the back of his axe at the head to stun the ox so it could be stuck. The ox just looked at him and he swung again. After the fourth blow, the animal got mad and almost pulled loose from his moorings. The old Swede shrugged and said: “He’s a better ox than I realized; think I’ll keep him another year.”

 Replaced by the iron horse

As draft animals, cattle did have disadvantages. Their hoofs sometimes wore down and got tender and they had to be shod. They were prone to several infectious diseases of cattle and they sometimes developed alkali poisoning due to the water in the deserts and eating the alkali dust-covered grass near the trails. Oxen froze to death during severe snowstorms on the prairie and were not able to paw aside the deep snow to get at the grass as well as horses or mules.

Oxen could be stampeded as well, and snakes seem to have been a source of great terror for the beasts. Once, when a bullwhacker swung his whip, the long rawhide whiplash came loose from the stock and flew over the lead oxen’s heads, landing on the road in front of them. Away went the entire team, trying to get away from the “snake.” When several yokes of panicked critters took off, nothing much would stop them for 2 or 3 miles and they usually left wrecked wagons and scattered freight in their wake.

Animals were lost on the trail from various causes. A November 1855 account from the Salt Lake City Deseret News reported that 3,219 oxen were used to bring freight into that city that year. Of that number, 722 (almost one in four) had died.

In the U.S. and Canada, the men who drove oxen were called bullwhackers, teamsters, drovers or ox drivers. Australians usually used the term “bullocky” to describe an ox driver. I’m sure other names were used in other parts of the world.

The end of the war between the states marked the beginning of the end for the big wagon trains. The U.S. government decided to make a transcontinental railroad a priority and ceded huge tracts of land to private companies upon which to build a railroad. As the rails pushed into the western prairies, wagon trains became shorter and the profits smaller. Although wagon transport hung on in some remote areas until the 1920s, motor trucks and the railroads took over for the big wagon trains.  FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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