The Oregon Trail was an exhausting, sometimes treacherous, 2,000-mile journey that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon and locations in between. Over half a million stalwart souls were brave enough to leave the relative comfort of civilization at that time and venture off into strange and unknown lands.
We know a surprising amount of the Oregon Trail experience because so many travelers wrote journals, sent letters home, and even wrote books and newspaper articles. True Accounts of Life in a Covered Wagon and Ox-Team Days on the Oregon Trail are vivid, first-person accounts of this harrowing journey.
Most of these pioneers traveled by covered wagons, which were pulled by oxen and horses. Those wagons carried not only passengers and a few personal belongings, but over 1000 pounds of food! They were hoping to add to those food stores with hunting, fishing, and foraging, but none of that was guaranteed, so they had to give careful consideration to the most essential food items.
The journey from beginning to end took from 4 to 6 months. When you think about how much food your family consumes in that time frame, it’s a lot of food.
Packing food for the Oregon Trail
From historical documents, the following was the recommended amounts of food per adult
The recommended amount of food to take per adult was 150 pounds of flour, 20 pounds of corn meal, 50 pounds of bacon, 40 pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of coffee, 15 pounds of dried fruit, 5 pounds of salt, half a pound of saleratus (baking soda, baking powder leavening mix), 2 pounds of tea, 5 pounds of rice, and 15 pounds of beans.
These provisions were usually kept in water-tight containers or barrels to minimize spoilage. The usual meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner along the trail was bacon, beans, and coffee, with biscuits or bread. The typical cost of food for four people for six months was about $150. In today’s dollars, that would be about $3000.
The amount of food required was lessened if beef cattle, calves, or sheep were taken for a walking food supply. Prior to the 1870s, there were vast herds of buffalo in Nebraska which provided fresh meat and jerky for the trip. In general, wild game could not be depended on for a regular source of food, but when found it was relished as a welcome change in a monotonous diet. Travelers could hunt antelope, buffalo, sage hens, trout, and occasionally elk, bear, duck, geese, salmon and deer along the trail. Most travelers carried a rifle or shotgun and ammunition for hunting game and for protection against snakes and Indian attacks.
When they got to the Snake River and Columbia River areas they would often trade with the Indians for salmon. The Indians in Oregon traded potatoes and other vegetables they had learned to grow from the missionaries. Some families took along milk cows, goats, and chickens (penned in crates tied to the wagons). Additional food like pickles, canned butter, cheese, or pickled eggs were occasionally carried, but canned goods were expensive and food preservation was primitive, so few items could be safely kept for the four to six month duration of the trip.
Cooking along the trail was done over a campfire. No cookbooks were used, so pioneer cooks used the feel of dough, the look of cooked beans, and the smell of a hot dish to get their cooking just right. I describe it as an art form in this article.
Fuels used were wood, buffalo chips, willow or sagebrush. Flint and steel were used to start fires. Some carried matches in water-tight containers. Fire was borrowed from a neighbor for ease of starting, and who could blame them? Life on the trail was hard enough without having to make a fire from scratch every single time.
Cooking required simple cooking utensils such as butcher knives, large spoons, spatulas, ladles, Dutch ovens, pots and pans, grills, spits, coffee pots and an iron tripod to suspend the pans and pots over the fire. Some brought small stoves, but these were often jettisoned along the way as being too heavy and unnecessary.
Wooden or canvas buckets were brought for carrying water, and most travelers carried canteens or water bags for daily use. A ten gallon water barrel was needed, but it was usually kept nearly empty to minimize weight (some water had to be kept in it to prevent it from drying out and losing its water tightness). It was only filled for long waterless stretches. Some brought a new invention: an India Rubber combination mattress and water carrier.
Clothing and equipment*
Tobacco was popular, both for personal use and for trading with Indians and other pioneers. Each person brought at least two changes of clothes and multiple pairs of boots (two to three pairs often wore out on the trip). About 25 pounds of soap was recommended for a party of four for bathing and washing clothes. A washboard and tub was usually brought for washing clothes. Wash days typically occurred once or twice a month or less, depending on availability of good grass, water and fuel.
Most wagons carried tents for sleeping, though in good weather, most would sleep outside. A thin, fold-up mattress, blankets, pillows, canvas or rubber gutta percha ground covers were used for sleeping. Sometimes an unfolded feather bed mattress was brought for the wagon if there were pregnant women or very young children along. The wagons had no springs, and the ride along the trail was very rough. Despite modern depictions, almost nobody actually rode in the wagons; it was too dusty, too rough, and hard on the livestock.
Travelers brought books, Bibles, trail guides, and writing quills, ink and paper for letters. About one person in 200 kept a diary.
Belts and folding knives were carried by nearly all men and boys. Awls, scissors, pins, needles and thread for mending were required, reminding us that basic sewing skills ar essential for survival. Spare leather was used for repairs to shoes, harnesses, and other equipment. Some used goggles to keep dust out of the eyes. Storage boxes were ideally the same height so they could be arranged to give a flat surface inside the wagon for a sleeping platform.
Saddles, bridles, hobbles, and ropes were needed if the party had a horse or riding mule, and many men did. Extra harnesses and spare wagon parts were often carried. Most carried steel shoes for oxen, mules or horses. Tar was carried to help repair an injured ox’s hoof.
Goods, supplies and equipment were often shared by fellow travelers. Items that were forgotten, broken, or worn out could be bought from a fellow traveler, a post or a fort along the way. New iron shoes for horses, mules, and oxen were put on by blacksmiths found along the way. Equipment repairs and other goods could be procured from blacksmith shops established at some forts and some ferries. Emergency supplies, repairs, and livestock were often provided by local residents in Oregon, California, and Utah for late travelers on the trail who were hurrying to beat the snow.
Non-essential items were often abandoned to lighten the load or in case of emergency. Many travelers would salvage discarded items, picking up essentials, or leaving their behind their lower quality item when a better one was found abandoned along the road. Some profited by collecting discarded items and hauling them back to jumping off places and reselling them.
In the early years Mormons sent scavenging parties back along the trail to salvage as much iron and other supplies as possible and haul it to Salt Lake City, where supplies of all kinds were needed. Others would use discarded wagons, wheels and furniture as firewood. During the 1849 gold rush, Fort Laramie was known as “Camp Sacrifice” because of the large amounts merchandise discarded nearby. Travelers had pushed along the relatively easy path to Fort Laramie with their luxury items but discarded them before the difficult mountain crossing ahead and after discovering that many items could be purchased at the forts or located for free along the way. Some travelers carried their excess goods to Salt Lake City to be sold.
Professional tools used by blacksmiths, carpenters, and farmers were carried by nearly all. Shovels, crow bars, picks, hoes, mattocks, saws, hammers, axes and hatchets were used to clear or make a road through trees or brush, cut down the banks to cross a wash or steep banked stream, build a raft or bridge, or repair the wagon. In general as little road work as possible was done. Travel was often along the top of ridges to avoid the brush and washes common in many valleys.
A different food list was made by the from Joel Palmer’s guide that would include for each adult:
- two hundred pounds of flour
- thirty pounds of pilot bread
- seventy-five pounds of bacon
- ten pounds of rice
- five pounds of coffee
- two pounds of tea
- twenty-five pounds of sugar
- half a bushel of dried beans
- one bushel of dried fruit
- two pound of saleratus [baking soda]
- ten pounds of salt
- half a bushel of corn meal
- half a bushel of corn, parched and ground
- a small keg of vinegar should also be taken