Ukraine’s Historic Nomadic Chumaks

Traveling across rugged terrain in heavily laden wagons pulled by two or four oxen, Chumaks are most readily associated with trading in salt, although they transported a variety of goods between Crimea and other regions of Ukraine in the 15th to the late-19th century. This close-knit traveling community is featured in Ukrainian folklore, poetry, songs and works by well-known artists, including Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko and Ukrainian-born artist Ivan Aivazovsky. They also feature in more recent cultural works, such as the song Ukraina by the ‘People’s Artist of Ukraine’ Taras Petrynenko and the 1995 film Moskal, the Wizard.

There are a number of theories regarding the origin of the name ‘Chumak’. Some historians note that it may have been linked to the tatar word meaning ‘the one who rides a cart’, while others say it could have been taken from the word ‘chuma’ meaning ‘plague’ as they may have unwittingly carried disease from place to place as they traveled. Or it could have come from the word ‘chumak’, the name of a whip they used to motivate their oxen to pull the heavy wagons – some of which could quite literally have weighed a ton.

As they traveled from place to place, Chumaks were targeted by Tatars and opportunistic robbers eager to relieve them of the goods they were transporting. In order to protect themselves from attackers, Chumaks were well-armed and generally traveled in groups of up to a hundred wagons, camping together in circle or square formations at night. The Chumaks used a number of routes reaching into all regions of Ukraine and would start their travels in the early spring, working through until late fall until the winter weather made some of their routes impassable.

With the development of railways and shipping routes along Ukraine’s waterways in the mid-19th century, the need for the transportation services of the Chumaks began to dwindle and by the 1880s the way of life they had followed for centuries, which had played a beneficial role in the economic development of Ukraine, came to an end. But thanks to art, poetry and folk stories, the Chumaks live on in Ukrainian culture and are remembered in history.