A look at Conestoga style bells, the horses that wore them, and the wagons

Updated: Sep 13

No one really knows the exact date when people began to put bells on horses. The use of bells on draft animals it seems is as old as transportation itself. Bells of all types have been used to adorn horses for a very long amount of time. Historians have discovered horse bells that date back to Roman times. Their purpose wasn't strictly just decorative although they certainly helped to enhance the beauty of the horse. Bells were a symbol of status and a way for the horse's owner to flaunt their wealth and social status. It was believed by some that bells brought good fortune and that they protected against evil spirits. They served a very practical purpose too though. They gave notice to the pedestrians or other vehicles on the road that a horse or a wagon was approaching. The bell was the equivalent to what a car horn is today. They were used to gain the attention of the other people on the roadway. I'm sure they helped to keep a great many folks safe as they traveled the roadways. The bells in the cover photo pictured above were all dug by Dave Wise.

During the 18th and 19th centuries the roads folks traveled on were not exactly the best constructed. The roads were basically just dirt paths with two ruts that were worn by wagons and a grassy strip down the middle. Have you ever driven down an old dirt road in a pick-up truck? A dirt road doesn't exactly make for the most comfortable of rides. Now picture traveling down that same rode in a wagon. During the 18th and 19th century roads in America were rough. They were narrow, rocky, bumpy, and hard to travel on with a wagon. Some had steep inclines that you had to contend with. Several months out of the year the dirt roads were really very wet and muddy. During the winter months the roads were covered in snow and ice which often rendered many of them impassable. Traveling on the land was difficult to say the least. These primitive roads really held back wheeled travel. The awful road conditions presented the potential for multiple problems. Wagons frequently would get stuck, collapse, break down, or fall apart while en route to their destination.

The Conestoga wagon was a wagon like no other. It really was a masterpiece of engineering for its time. It was an invention that was born out of necessity. It was built strong to withhold the abuse of the treacherous road conditions. The Conestoga wagon was designed to travel long distances and pull heavy loads of cargo. The first Conestoga wagon was built sometime during the beginning of the 18th Century and was made by German master wagon builders in the Conestoga Valley of Pennsylvania. The earliest known reference of the Conestoga wagon that can be found was in an Account Book dating from 1712-1719 that was owned by James Logan. Logan was the Secretary to William Penn. The Conestoga wagon featured great curved bows that arched over the top of the wagon. These early freight wagons were not intended to carry passengers. They were designed with the intention to transport cargo and their design was quite ideal when it came to moving heavy loads. The design of the Conestoga wagon helped to prevent the contents that were inside the wagon from shifting around or falling out on the bumpy roads. Conestoga wagons were covered wagons. The heavy canvas cover protected the contents and the wagon itself from the elements.

The wagon master would walk alongside the wagon or ride on one of the horses that pulled the wagon. These magnificent wagons were pulled by a special breed of draft horses. These large, sleek and powerful horses became known as Conestoga horses. They were highly intelligent animals, so very well cared for, and perfectly broken. These extremely well mannered horses were also super strong. They had enormous pulling strength and incredible endurance. Conestoga wagons were typically pulled by a set of 6 horses. Sometimes however there might be 4 horses. At other times there might be 8 horses. A set of 6 Conestoga horses pulled on average 6,000 pound loads of cargo from destination to destination. It wasn't unheard of though for a set of 6 Conestoga horses to successfully transport loads weighing close to 10,000 pounds over long distances. These Conestoga horses and wagons enabled nationwide migration for close to 150 years. Sadly the breed died out around the year 1850. It really is quite a shame too. Conestoga horses were just as magnificent as the wagons they pulled. Their beauty, strength, and usefulness was a real treasure, a most valuable treasure that is now forever lost. Conestoga horses shall forever hold the title as the first outstanding American horse.

Conestoga horses were finely dressed to impress. Their harnesses were extremely fancy. And their appearance was topped off by the bells. Conestoga bells were truly the hallmark of the wagons. Each Conestoga horse pulling the wagon wore a set of bells that hung from an arch, above them, which attached to their collar. Open mouthed brass bells that were generally between about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and up to about 3 inches in diameter were typically what were selected. The key element of what makes a Conestoga bell a Conestoga bell is that the bell itself is attached to the metal bracket piece that would have arched above the collar of the horse. The loose open mouthed bells that we dig up metal detecting, the ones we frequently refer to as Conestoga bells, are technically just loose open mouthed bells. This style bell was used for many different purposes. Many were used on horses or wagons. Some of the ones we find very well could have indeed been Conestoga bells.

The super small sized open mouth bells that are about 3/4 inch to 1 inch in diameter at their base were frequently used on harness drops. Harness drops are small harness decorations. They come in a variety of different shapes and are often decorated with metal studs or small open mouth style bells. Small open mouth bells can also be found on swingers or flyers. A swinger is a delicate, arched bracket typically made of brass that attached to the top of a horses bridle or the top of the harness saddle. These small sized open mouth bells weren't typically selected to be Conestoga bells due to their size.

Open mouth bells with bases between the size of 1 1/2 inches in diameter and up to about 3 inches in diameter were often selected as Conestoga bells. They also were used on neck and body straps, saddles, and on the shafts and poles of the wagons. If you find an open mouth style bell in this size range it might have been a Conestoga bell, but it's impossible to say with absolute certainty that it was unless you happened to dig it up still attached to the bracket piece it hung from that is.

The open mouth bells with bases larger than 3 inches in diameter were usually attached to the neck strap of a draft horse. Draft horses typically wore one single open mouth bell on their neck straps. Their neck straps might have other bells such as crotal bells attached to it as well. Open mouth bells with bases larger than 5 inches in diameter generally were not used on horses at all. Also, if your open mouth bell does not have a holed attachment piece on its top well then it most likely was not used to adorn a horse at all. It's possible the attachment piece broke off; if that's the case it may not be apparently obvious what type of attachment it originally had and whether it would have been used on a horse or wagon. You may notice that some of the open mouth style bells pictured in this blog have handles or holes where a handle would have been. If your open mouth bell has a handle or a hole where the handle would have been well then it's definitely not a Conestoga bell.

An open mouth bell is sounded when the clapper hanging inside it strikes against the surface of the bell. When the Conestoga horses moved about their bells created a musical jangle. Conestoga bells were carefully attuned and graduated in size. The lead horses or first pair typically wore five Conestoga bells. The bells they wore were the smallest in size and the highest pitched. The second pair of horses typically wore four Conestoga bells each. There bells were a little larger in size than the bells worn by the lead horses. The third pair of horses, the pole horses, or the ones closest to wagon typically wore 3 Conestoga bells each. The Conestoga bells they wore were the largest in size. The different sized bells not only warned travelers on the road that a wagon was coming but it made harmonizing music along the way. The sound of the bells was an important element in the wagons glam. A great variety of Conestoga bells adorned the horses. Not every wagon sounded exactly the same. The type of metal (brass or bronze), size of the bells, and the number of the bells selected all had an impact on the sound that was produced. They say that other travelers on the road could of often differentiate between the drivers by the sound of the bells.

The Conestoga wagon was different from other wagons. It was a work of art that served a useful and functional purpose. I'd go as far as saying that it was the greatest of all the American wagons ever built. It was sturdy, durable, and reliable and with such fine horses pulling its way it was practically unstoppable. It superseded all the wagons that came before it. None of the original Conestoga wagons seem to have survived. Sadly, they are extinct like the horses that pulled them. Very little is left. There are detailed drawings and descriptions as well as excellent accounts of the memories. Some of the Conestoga toolboxes from the original wagons are still around. And there are the bells! The Conestoga wagon was described as a sight to behold that quickened the pulse and excited the mind. It had a picturesque quality to it right down to the very last detail and it is sort of sad that very little of it is left today. If you have ever found an open mouth (Conestoga style) bell I would love to see a picture of it. You can share photos in the comments section below. Have a great week!!

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