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The Swearingen Conestoga Wagon
By Marie McElhaney
Milestones Vol 22 No 4 Winter 1997

The Conestoga Wagon which is on exhibit in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Carnegie Museum states on the side of the wagon that the Sweaingens came across the mountains from Virginia and Maryland in the wagon. This statement is not true and I wish to tell the story of the wagon as I heard it from my father-in-law, Joseph A. McElhaney.

First of all, the Swearingens came to western Pennsylvania long before there were any roads across the mountains which a team of horses and wagon could navigate. They most likely came on horseback and walked most of the way with their few possessions. John Swearingen's land grant on a Virginia certificate was dated 1785.

My father-in-law Joseph McElhaney came to work for John Swearingen on his farm in Findlay Township when he was about 18 years old (1885). Mr. John Swearingen was old and frail at the time and needed help with the farm work and also to have someone there to look after him. This wagon was on the farm at that time and was used for the farm work and also Mr. Swearingen had a contract to haul store goods from the railroad station in Imperial to Bingham's store in Clinton, and one of Mr. McElhaney's jobs was to make this delivery. The wagon was so big and heavy it took four horses to pull it in the summer and six horses were used in the winter when the roads were in poor condition.

Joseph wondered where the wagon had come from and asked Mr. Swearingen about it. Mr. Swearingen told him the story about obtaining the wagon. Many years earlier, about 1850, Mr. Swearingen was having a sled built at the Shousetown boat yard as it was necessary to use a sled instead of a wagon in the winter time when it was snowy or muddy. The wheels of a wagon could not negotiate the rough terrain and would get stuck often so a sled was much better to use in the winter time.

At the boat yard they had the facilities to steam the timber to bend the runners for a sled and Mr. Swearingen had ordered a sled to be made for him. Sometime later he received word that the sled was made and ready to be picked up. When he went to the Shousetown board yard to pick up the sled there was much excitement about a wagon bed that had floated down the river and came ashore at the boatyard. It is assumed that someone had been fording the Ohio River further up stream in the Conestoga wagon and either did not cross at the best place or the horses stumbled and the current of the river overturned the wagon.

There was much discussion about what to do with this wagon bed and Mr. Swearingen said he would take it home with him on the sled and have a chassis made for it. The Groom family had a wagon making shop in the small village of Turtle Town near where Mr. Swearingen lived and they built a chassis to fit the wagon bed. This village is shown on an 1860 map of Findlay Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

This wagon was used for many years by Mr. Swearingen on his farm and after he died the wagon sat below the barn for a number of years and my husband, Claire McElhaney, played in it as a child. Joseph McElhaney stayed on the farm and rented the property from Mr. Swearingen's daughter, Mrs. Mary Shillito, giving her a share of the crops for a period of time and later paid money for the rent of the property, remaining on the farm for a number of years. Mr. McElhaney bought a Kramer wagon as soon as he had the money to do so since hitching up so many horses all the time was too much work for him.

In 1916 Mr. McElhaney purchased the land on the east side of the Swearingen farm and in 1936 purchased the Swearingen farm from Mrs. Shillito's granddaughter. This land is now part of the Pittsburgh International Airport property. Mrs. Shillito had given the wagon to the museum before this conveyance of property. John Swearingen was a descendant of Garrett VanSwearingen who came to Maryland and was one of its earliest settlers. He later came from Virginia to Pennsylvania. His wife was Barbara DeBarrett, a Huguenot (French Protestant), and they have many descendants. All of the Swearingens are descendants from that one early family who came to New Amsterdam, New York in the early 1600's.


These wagons were used in the colonies since 1750 by the Pennsylvania Germans, but it wasn't until 1804 that a regularly scheduled route was operated between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The wagon was usually drawn by six horses decorated with bells which warned approaching traffic to move to one side. It was the custom to give these bells to anyone with a distressed wagon, thus originating the expression "I'll be there with bells", or nothing will prevent my arrival. The horses were matched pairs with decorated harnesses including pompoms, rosettes, ribbons and tassels. The wagon box was usually painted a bright blue, the undercarriage a brilliant red, and the canvass cover was white, making a patriotic picture. Conestoga drivers were colorful, outdoor young men, spectacularly strong and scorning physical comforts. They wore no stockings or underwear, and the soles of their high boots were attached with square wooden pegs into round holes made with an awl - literally "putting square pegs into round holes".

They drove from the left side and probably originated the American custom of driving to the right of the road. Another popular expression came from their habit of stopping frequently at taverns along the way for a pint or a quart. On a slate behind the bar was kept a chalk record of the customer's expenditures, which called forth, "mind your P's and Q's". Tobacco also was enjoyed by the drivers. In 1833 George Black, a cigar manufacturer, made a cheap "roll up" which sold at a cost of four for a penny. He named them Conestoga cigars which was shortened by the smokers to "Stogies".

For the 300 mile journey from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, which took about a month, the drivers received $10. In 1804, passenger trips were reduced to six or seven days at a cost of $20. Passengers were often asked to get out and walk up steep grades or even help push the wagon. Carrying textiles, hardware and manufactured goods to Pittsburgh and returning east with furs, skins and farm products, we can picture the joy of seeing a Conestoga roll into town.