American Chuck Wagons: The Life, Lore, & Learning

Published by: David E. Sneed
Published on:
All Text and Imagery Copyright © David E. Sneed, All Rights Reserved
Share This Blog:

From trimming and shoeing to breaking, training, and showing, I’ve rubbed shoulders with horseflesh for over sixty years. The older I’ve grown, the more interested I’ve become in those who were immersed in that culture when it ‘was’ the culture. It’s an intriguing part of America’s past.Yet, in many cases, there’s still a vacuum of information when looking at some parts of the Old West. We may know a lot about the saddles, guns, spurs, people, places, clothing, and trails but the vehicles have, generally, gotten less attention. That discrepancy always struck me as odd since the wagons and stages played such a strong role in America’s westward expansion. That’s why, for the past thirty years, I’ve intensely collected and daily researched these rolling works of art. Many are aware of the considerable size of our early catalog collection. Even so, our period image vault is actually the most substantial part of the Wheels That Won The West® collection. The vast majority of that pictorial history has never been published or seen by modern audiences. Most of it is reserved for our presentations and that exclusivity reinforces the depth and value of the information we’re able to share. I’ve learned the hard way to limit what is shown within our articles and blog posts because, unfortunately, there are too many who take and re-use the images for their own benefit without permission. Adding insult to injury in those situations, proper credit is rarely supplied. It’s a sad truth that applies only to a few. Regrettably, that’s all it takes.


 Image title

This Newton brand chuck wagon carries on the traditions of the Old West.


With this post, I’m going to ‘bend’ my rule a bit and share a little more from our historic collection of chuck wagon photos. Since none of us were likely around a century or more ago, these types of visual assets are important when evaluating the realities of the day, particularly those details related to trail and ranch-style chuck wagons. Complicating matters for all early vehicle researchers, there was a tremendous amount of evolution taking place in wagon design from the 1860’s through the early 1900’s. Knowing what happened where and when can be challenging without firsthand details.

To that point, I’ve heard a lot of ‘they-did-or-didn’t-do-it-that-way’ type statements over the years. Over time, I’ve come across example after example of exceptions to a perceived rule. It’s a good reason to be cautious and avoid using hard-and-fast terms. After all, those types of phrases almost beg for correction and make it hard for the truth to be heard. Non-biased research is dependent on as much documentation from the era as can be gathered. Having a deep thirst for learning and understanding is crucial when looking into how anything was done before our time.

That same type of commitment has helped us locate some incredibly rare materials for study. As the ‘Wheels’ collection has grown, I’ve noticed things in primary sources that are sometimes overlooked. For example, when it comes to early chuck wagons, I’ve seen period photos with brake ratchet designs some have said were never used. I’ve come across chuck boxes that were unconventional, trail pup configurations that might be questioned, full sets of bows employed, bow staples on top boards, even milk cans used as water barrels, and numerous other designs that well-meaning individuals have told me didn’t exist. Admittedly, these variances are often not the predominant examples we see. Nonetheless, there are known exceptions to some previous understandings of chuck wagon designs. To anyone who might be tempted to feel that these discoveries are tantamount to ‘anything goes,’ well, those thoughts are equally flawed. Primary sources are where the proof exists and we applaud all who are willing to dig for more answers, more clarity, and greater understanding. Those are the directions that help expose myths and misconceptions. After all, without solid proof that something did or didn’t occur, it will always be tough to insist that anything happened in a particular way. As an example, the showcasing of a particular brand as a trail wagon might seem innocuous enough. But, if that brand or brand design didn’t exist during the trail drive era, how historically accurate is it? The questions can be endless but suffice it to say, we all benefit when continuous research and sustainable documentation is the focus.

Image title

 This ultra-light pup was likely used predominantly on an early ranch.


In recognition of the increasing popularity of the American West and early chuck wagons – both trail and ranch designs – below is a bit of my copyrighted prose that celebrates surviving imagery while recognizing there is still more to learn.



Look Close

Image title

Early chuck wagon images are rich with history.

Drawn to the muted shades of yesterday, I found myself entranced by the old image. Staring back were secret lives full of dreams and destiny. Haunting eyes, forever fixed, invited insight. This is the only record of that day, a fleeting and forgotten sepia-toned saga.

Immortalized by an unknown artist, these riders for the brand carry hardened faces and the fortitude of friends. Stained bedrolls border the frame. Buffalo chips smolder. A canvas fly flaps lazily overhead and the scent of coffee and campfire waft over the grassy plains. Steeped in lore, a roving chuck wagon anchors the evocative scene. It’s a drifter immersed in tales of wrecks, refuge, and resolve.

The only known survivor of the moment is the hardback card in my hands. Silvering from age, it’s worn and tattered, teasing imagination. Even so, I can come no closer. The chasm is too wide and the bridge back, too frail. More than a century has passed. Today, the horses are steel, trails are broken, and the old voices are faint. So, drink deep from the waning parts of your past. Peer into the souls trapped in time. Dig, seek, ask, and explore; for questions are constant when history is hostage.

Somewhere, another group of nameless cowboys is gathered in a fading photo. Who was the last to ride nighthawk, drag, point, or scout? What were the gains and losses? How many stories did each life hold? Where are the things held dear? Did anything beyond a pale likeness survive?  Lost in time with so many unknowns, the life of an early cowboy beckons with wonder and bristles with soul.

Perhaps there’s an Augustus McCrae, Gil Favor, Pea Eye Parker, Wil Anderson, Jebediah Nightlinger, or even a Charley Waite inside the withering, yet graphic reminders. No matter the old trail, the world of the West still calls. From the first ride to the last roundup, every drive is full of discovery. All we need to do is Look Close.

David Sneed

Wheels That Won TheWest® Archives


Go Top