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Although covered wagons were commonly used for transporting goods within the United States, in the mid-nineteenth century thousands of Americans took them across the Great Plains from developed parts of the Midwest to places in the West such as California, Oregon, Colorado, and Montana. Overland immigrants typically used farm wagons, fitting them with five or six wooden bows that arched from side to side across the wagon bed, then stretching canvas or some other sturdy cloth over the bows, creating the cylindrical cover. Sometimes, these wagons would be as long as 15 ft (4.6 m).
Covered wagons were primarily used to transport goods. Small children, the elderly, and the sick or injured rode in them, but since the wagons had no suspension and the roads were rough, many people preferred to walk, unless they had horses to ride.
While covered wagons traveling short distances on good roads could be drawn by horses, those crossing the plains were usually drawn by a team of two or more pairs of oxen. These were driven by a teamster or drover, who walked at the left side of the team and directed the oxen with verbal commands and whipcracks. Mules were also used; they were harnessed and driven by someone sitting in the wagon seat holding the reins.
One covered wagon generally represented five people. A well-to-do family might have two or three wagons, or a group of single men traveling together might share a wagon. While crossing the plains, emigrants banded together to form wagon trains for mutual assistance and occasionally defense. The covered wagons and wagon trains were only the first to come in what would be a westward expansion driven by airplanes, rail trains, and automobiles.
Prairie schooner is a fanciful name for the covered wagon; the white canvas covers of the wagons crossing the prairies reminded some writers of the sails of a ship at sea.
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