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Linguistics

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What Does "Circle the Wagons" Mean?

By Ray Hawk
Updated: May 23, 2024

“Circle the wagons” is an idiom that usually suggests that a group of people have to work together to protect themselves from some kind of external danger. The phrase is one of many English sayings that has origins in the distant past. It is believed to have come from a practice in the migration of immigrants to the Old West in the US from the East Coast, during the 1800s, who traveled in covered, horse-drawn wagons. At night, or when threatened during the day, these wagon trains would stop moving and form into a circle on the frontier prairie as a means of protection against attack by local Native Americans or outlaw gangs.

Like many idiomatic expressions with long histories, “circle the wagons” has taken on new meanings as time has passed. It can also indicate an individual or group of people such as a family who intend to stop communicating with outside society as they deal with their own personal crisis. Other groups have taken on the phrase as well, such as a business which can be said to “circle the wagons” when it is losing its competitive edge and needs to reevaluate its products and advertising strategy. All of these uses share the common theme of providing for defense from circumstances that can seem overwhelming.

The meaning of idioms generally alters as time passes, but sometimes the original meaning is also based on a false premise. The idea that settlers of the west were often threatened by marauding Native American tribes and had to “circle the wagons” for protection is something of a myth. This idea has been perpetuated by many western movies that showed settlers in conflict with native tribes who would attack circled wagon trains in their territory. In fact, however, many Native American tribes were friendly to the settlers, and initially welcomed their presence.

When a wagon train was formed into a circle, the most common reason for this was one that was seldom portrayed in popular cinematic representations of the period. Wagon trains brought cattle along with them as they moved into the American West in search of new land to ranch and farm. At night, these cattle would need to be corralled so that they would not wander off, and the easiest way to do this was to bring the wagons into a circle around the herd to keep them fixed in one place. This would protect them from getting lost or injured in unknown terrain, and from being attacked by wild animals.

Over 500,000 settlers made the trip out West in the United STates in covered wagons before railroads were completed in the late 1800s. Settlers took all of their belongings with them, and could only start the journey in early spring, as it took four to six months to complete and had to be done while grass was growing to feed the livestock taken along. The importance of livestock surviving the trip was essential for the success of settlers once they arrived, so to “circle the wagons” at the time had primarily an economic motivation. As a business today may engage in a “circle the wagons” practice to ensure its own survival, settlers were doing the same thing for themselves when the idiom first originated over 150 years ago.

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Discussion Comments
By anon336462 — On May 28, 2013

It really means circle the wagons to keep livestock in. Has nothing to do with being attacked -- just another bad stereotype.

By anon322671 — On Feb 28, 2013

This is the best explanation of this phrase I've ever seen. Well done.

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