Along the westward-moving frontier, innovation and invention were requirements for survival and the early American settler was indeed a resourceful individual. It is not surprising that in the latter half of the 19th century ways were sought and found to utilize the energy provided by that great natural resource of the prairie—the wind.
A novel device of the Kansas territorial period was the wind wagon, sometimes called a sailing wagon. Several were built and in 1860 the press gave them considerable attention. They were similar to an ordinary light wagon; weighed about 350 pounds; had a bed about three feet wide, eight feet long, and six inches deep; and were propelled by a sail or sails raised over the center of the front axle. When the breezes blew in the right direction the wagons were reported to skim over the prairies at about 15 miles per hour, with speeds at up to 40 miles per hour. At least one wagon was reported to have traveled from Kansas City to Denver in a little more than 20 days. Upon the arrival of a wind wagon from Westport, Missouri, a Council Grove newspaper asked of its readers: "Who says now that the Santa Fe Trail is not a navigable stream." The few wind wagons that were built undoubtedly traveled further in the press than they did on the prairie and horses and oxen remained the basic mode of power for a good many years.
One of the more interesting sagas of Kansas wind wagoning came in 1860. Samuel Peppard, who owned a sawmill on the Grasshopper River near Oskaloosa completed his contraption. Built with assistance from John Hinton, it was dubbed by his neighbors, "Peppard's Folly." Later it was suggested that because 1860 was a year of extensive drought and business was slack, Peppard built his frigate as a means of whittling away idle time. Peppard, undoubtedly, had a more ulterior motive in mind as on completion of the craft, he and his companions set out immediately for the Colorado goldfields.
A fairly detailed and entertaining account of Peppard's journey over the prairie sea can be found at the Kansas Historical Society. Although, not identified by name Peppard received some national notoriety when a correspondent of Leslie's Illustrated Magazine reported the arrival of the wind-schooner at Fort Kearney. In the grand literary style of the day, the correspondent wrote:
The ship hove in sight about 8 o'clock in the morning with a fresh breeze from east, northeast. It was running down in a westerly direction for the fort, under full sail, across the green prairie. The guard, astonished at such a sight, reported the matter to the officer on duty, and we all turned out to view the phenomenon. Gallantly she sailed, and at a distance ...not unlike a ship at sea In front is & large coach lamp to travel by night when the wind is favorable ... A crank and band wheels allow it to be propelled by hand when wind and tide are against them.
For some strange reason, no mention was made of the wind wagon episode in Peppard's obituary. While alive, however, he took pride in relating his experiences with the wind-wagon.
Peppard's wind wagon was neither the first nor the last to traverse the Kansas prairie. From time to time there were other reports of wagons equipped to utilize the state's greatest natural resource as a propellant. In 1877 the Kansas Pacific used sails on handcars. As late as 1887 John B. Wornall of Westport carried a small group to a camp meeting. In 1910 it was reported that a sailing schooner had been invented in Louisville, Kentucky.
Entry: Wind Wagons
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 2004
Date Modified: April 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.