Who’s Your Wagon Master?

ALT="The Wagon Master by CM Russell"

By Davalynn Spencer @davalynnspencer

“The Wagon Master,” a 1909 oil by CM Russell, is one of my favorite paintings. A print of it hangs in my living room, and every time I consider the story Charles Russell is portraying, I’m reminded of two important choices we make in life: leadership and community.

  1. Trusted leadership

The painting depicts the Westward expansion of the 1800s, in which a wagon train was much more likely to make the cross-continent trip than a single wagon.

Every wagon train had a leader – they weren’t conglomerates run by committees. The wagon master had to know where the train was going and the safest route there. Stories have been told of wagon masters that did not fit that criteria, and peril—sometimes death—was the result. But if the man was any good, he’d been to the desired destination and back at least once before. He knew the dangers and risks of the trip, as well as vital sources of forage and water.

Russell’s wagon master is prepared with an attentive horse, rifle and rounds, knife, spurs, a bull whip looped loosely around his neck, and what looks like a Union uniform jacket tied behind his saddle. His neckerchief, wide-brim hat, and leggings aren’t for show. Each serves a purpose as does everything he’s packing on his horse, including his horse.

In this picture, he watches the wagons, looking back over a river town where the train may have crossed via ferry. A rattler watches him from the scrub brush, and deep ruts in the prairie bear witness to trains that have traveled this way before. He carries tremendous responsibility for the lives of those in his train and must be bold enough to make unpopular decisions.

  1. Community

Members of a wagon train helped each other, contributing comradery, support, and encouragement, sharing food and supplies when necessary.

Today, “circle the wagons” is a metaphorical way of saying, “get ready for attack.” The phrase originated with the circle formation of large, canvas-covered farm or freight wagons that created a barrier between the people and animals inside the ring and invaders and scavengers outside of it. Members of the wagon train relied heavily upon the premise that there is safety in numbers.

The train was a temporary setup comprised of people with a common goal, and it provided community for the several months required to make the arduous and dangerous trek. Not every sojourner made it to their destination alive, and many were buried along the trail, including infants. But those who grieved loss did not grieve alone.

Often in the evening, I look at this print and hear it ask, “Do you have community? Do you have leadership?”

I need both, and thank God, by His grace I have them.

If you can’t identify community and leadership in your life, I encourage you to find a group of believers who share your faith and life vision. Become a part of that group, nurture friendships there, and measure the leadership against the written words of God.

Our ultimate leader is Christ himself, “Jesus, who went before us” (Hebrews 6:20). 

Like the Westward journey, our lives often present danger and discouragement. May you draw comfort and comradery from a community of believers and trusted leadership.

“In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered” (Hebrews 2:10 NIV).



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ALT="eight book covers"


For all my historical novels, as well as a couple of contemporary stories, check out my book pages listing a variety of retailers for each book. May all that you read be uplifting.




For an interesting, though lengthy, post about the life of Charles M. Russell and his love of the West, click on this American Heritage link.

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2 thoughts on “Who’s Your Wagon Master?

  1. Kathleen Lautaret

    Yes, I have night lights. Also, my 1963 Highschool girl classmates get together for luncheons and at Christmas there is a gift exchange. This last holiday, Kathy one of the members suggested we exchange night lights. This was a good party and there were many different types of night lights.

    1. davalynn

      Great idea on the nightlights from last week’s post, Kathleen. Thanks for sharing!


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