“HE HAD A NOTION TO GO WEST,
HE WAS THE RESTLESS SORT
AND LORD KNOWS, LAND WAS SCARCE,
AND OUR MONEY ALWAYS SHORT.
STILL I CRIED THE DAY HE TOLD ME,
AND I BEGGED FOR US TO STAY
HE ONLY SAID WE’RE GOIN’–
IT’S BEST WE DON’T DELAY” (From Overland 1852)
COME ALONG, COME ALONG, DON’T BE ALARMED,
UNCLE SAM IS RICH ENOUGH TO GIVE US ALL A FARM” - (From a popular camp song)
”You can’t pass a park without seeing a statue of some old codger on a horse. It must be his bravery; you can tell it isn’t his horsemanship. Women are twice as brave as men, yet they never seem to have reached the statue stage” – Will Rogers
(Actually, Will might have been interested in seeing a statue of a pioneer woman with two young children clinging to her, that I saw in South Dakota).
“The longing for Some Place Else grabbed the men again, and pulled them clear across half a continent toward the unsettled and unknown land in the fabled place of Oregon…” (From WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL).
“It’s natural for a body to think if you could begin over, your life would be better. You would do it different from any of the people or places where you’d already failed or proved to be just ordinary. Every girl has a dream of being carried off to some better place, by a big handsome feller.
It’s the appeal of being saved, of being born again, as the preachers say. To start a new life and shed the rags of this old one…that’s why the old don’t like to pick up and move on. Some of them come across the water when they was young, and cleared up a new place, and even learned a new tongue. You could say they don’t have the will anymore, or you could say they know better…
The women standing by the wagons had tears of joy, some of them, and others tears of grief. I’ve heard it said men like to up and move on and women want to nest and stay. But I’ve never noticed it was so. I’ve seen just as many women with a hanker to move on, to light out and try a new place. Couldn’t have been so many people settled here if the women didn’t want to come too….” (from THE HINTERLANDS, by Robert, Morgan, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994)
While I was elbow deep in researching material for this article, I came across a copy of THE HINTERLANDS at a discount book store one day. It sounded like “my kind of book” so I bought it, not expecting that some of the story, which is a tale of fiction, would provide me with a bit of enlightenment. For, as the first character, Petel, telling the story to her grandchildren, in the beginning of the book, explains, “…Couldn’t have been so many people settled here if the women didn’t want to come too”. From the HINTERLANDS by Robert Morgan.
Are you looking at this picture from the wrong end of the telescope? I wondered. Maybe some women wanted to travel west, to start anew. Maybe the prospect of new land for themselves–and their children–was too great a lure to pass up. Haven’t we all, generation after generation, wanted something more, and better, for our children?
Many historians writing about the Oregon Trail have made the observation that the United States had been mired in deep depression for a number of years prior to the great migration west, beginning in 1837.
Writes Lillian Schlisel in WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY “By the year’s end, banks across the nation had closed, and by 1839 wages fell 30 to 50 percent. Twenty thousand unemployed laborers demonstrated in Philadelphia and in New York two hundred thousand people were wondering how they would survive the winter…”
During those years,” writes Mary Barmeyer O’Brien in HEART OF THE TRAIL “the West seemed like a land of promise. Potential emigrants had been told that free land, gold, and a new beginning awaited them…”
Why go West? Asks the Oregon Trail Cookbook. “The hope of promise and undeniable curiosity led many settlers across a wilderness trail that was originally traveled by Indians and later followed by fur traders, trappers and missionaries. The West promised something better–richer soil, bluer skies, a brighter future and a challenge to be met. The American quest for better opportunities and more room could not be squelched by reports of a bleak prairie desert or perilous mountains…the financial collapse in 1837, which caused New York banks to close their doors and agriculture prices to drop, provided farmers with enough reason to look for better opportunities. Visions of blue skies and clean air moved city dwellers plagued by epidemics such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera to see a healthier life out West…”
“For most of the women who made the westward journey in the 1840s and early ’50s, home was a farm in a Midwestern state–Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri. They were family people. Rural people, Farm people. They were neither rich nor poor. The rich had no need to go and the poor couldn’t raise the money…” (from WOMENS’ VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL)
Between 250,000 and 500,000 people traveled west on the Oregon and California trails between 1843 and 1860, with more than half heading for California. Ninety percent of those who started out made it. However, no one knows how many failed, turned back, or died on the trail, although it is believed that tens of thousands died on the trail itself. Most of the families heading west on the Oregon Trail hoped to start new with free land, promised by the government.
Mary Barmeyer O’Brien, author of HEART OF THE TRAIL also notes that, “Immediately they found the stunning western landscape could be as harsh as it was spectacular. Hundreds of miles of rugged routes stretched to the horizon crossing rushing rivers and treacherous mountain passes, as well as long barren stretches without life-giving water or food . The pioneers worked themselves to the bone carving trails through the almost impassible wilderness. But to reach the West, it seemed worth the intense struggle…”
THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK notes that “The Oregon Trail remained in use from the early 1830s until the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869. Some pioneers and freighters continued to use the trail into the 1880s but by then, the days of mass migration by wagon train were over…..Originally called ‘The Emigrant Road’ by the early pioneers, the route commonly became known as ‘The Oregon Trail’ and later as ‘The Overland Trail’. Regardless of its name, emigrants always referred to it as ‘the road’ and not ‘a trail’”.
Hundreds, – if not thousands – of books have been written about the settling of the West. Some of the books are truly wonderful and some are mediocre, but you can learn something from all of them.
People often ask me how I write – how I manage the research (while keeping up with a full time job and a huge house and yard). I can only explain it by telling you that I immerse myself in the subject. If I am writing about cowboys and Indians, I am reading about them. There was a unique store in Burbank, close to my office, called Geographica, which sold maps and travel books. They had a map of the western United States and territories, as it was in 1849. (They did have to dig deep into their stock but were piqued with interest over my request). It now hangs above my computer. If I could take off work for a couple of months, I would travel the Oregon trail, from Missouri to Oregon. No, it wouldn’t be the same as the trip taken by the Emigrants, but I would see much of what they saw, for the famous landmark–Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Emigrant’s Wash Tub–are all still there. As I read, I often traced the emigrants route on my map. I tried to picture what these people endured. I don’t think anyone, today, really can.
Imagine my surprise when I found a book written by someone who has done just that! Susan G. Butruille is the author of WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL, published by Tamarack Books in 1993 as well as WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE WESTERN FRONTIER, also by Tamarack Books, published in 1995. Susan with her mother as her companion, did exactly what I have longed to do—she drove first to Independence, met up with her mother and then drove west along the nearest proximity of the Oregon Trail. Susan, a 15-year teacher, student, writer and speaker on women’s history, thought it would be fun to trace the trail, learn moiré about it and track down and write about places of interest. (Recently, I discovered there are groups and organizations also devoted to the Oregon Trail. Susan Butruille notes they are “rut nuts” and that there is even an organization called Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) located at the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence, Missouri. I also learned that through ELDERHOSTEL, an organization for people 55 and over, you can sign up to take a day trek offered by the University of Wyoming along the Oregon Trail—mind you, travel is on a bus and meals are in college cafeterias and restaurants but it gives you some idea of what our emigrant forefathers and foremothers saw and endured.
WOMENS VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL, published by Tamarack Books, is filled with excerpts from real women’s diaries and is one of the finest books I have discovered on this subject.
“The National Frontier Trails Center,” Susan writes, “is a low-key corner of Independence, a few blocks away from Harry Truman’s place. Here you can take an intriguing journey–three in fact. A huge map on the wall in front of you shows the three westward trails that took off from Independence and changed our history…from the map you can choose from among the three paths through the center that trace the major trails west. Poignant diary excerpts, photographs and paintings tell the traveler’s stories…”
“At the National Frontier Trails Center” Susan explains, “You learn an important distinction. While the people were traveling to their destination to settle, they were emigrants or immigrants, depending on whether they thought of themselves as going or coming). (Once they settled, they were pioneers. That’s why you hardly ever see the word “pioneer” as you travel the Oregon Trail).
The Oregon Trail became known as “the family trail”. The reason for this is that single men, unencumbered by family, were likely to go to California in hopes of striking it rich in the gold fields.
Another clarification was made by a guide at the National Frontier Trails Center The Oregon Trail wasn’t really a trail at all as it crossed the prairie. Emigrants often spread out as much as four or five miles across to stay out of each other’s dust and one would imagine, to better be able to find grass for their livestock. (Some shrewd travelers would cut and dry grass, when it was available, to have feed for their livestock when grass would not be available—without, presumably, any consideration for emigrants who would follow them). They would come together at night at a river or narrow hill or at mountain crossings. This is why you aren’t likely to see trail nuts when you are traveling in prairie country.
(Also – the Indians blazed many trails across the United States, one of which became the Oregon Trail. They called it Big Medicine Trail. The trail climbed from the Great Plains through a break in the Rockies in south Wyoming, which the pioneers called South Pass.)
The trail then followed the North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers across the Great Divide, passed through the Green River Valley, around the Wasatch Mountains and traced the Bear and Snake Rivers into Hell’s Canyon. There it turned northwest over the plateaus and valleys into the Columbia River, which descended into the Pacific. (From the Oregon Trail Cookbook).
“The overland journey was twenty four hundred miles long from the Missouri River” write Lillian Schlissel in WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY. “The first stops along the road were at Fort Kearney and Scotts Bluff in Nebraska Territory. Emigrants could stop for water, rest and provisions. When the travelers reached Fort Laramie in Wyoming, they had traveled about six hundred and thirty five miles. It was summer. The days were hot and the nights cool as the road climbed to higher altitudes. Inevitably there were hailstorms and virtually no diary omits mention of a fierce pelting with ice the size of snowballs. The road then traveled through Sioux territory and although the emigrants were anxious, they most likely met with no Indians at all save those who wished to barter or be paid for guiding them across the rivers…”
The Oregon Trail Cookbook notes that it was Joe Meek, a mountain man from Virginia, who in 1840 first proved that wagons could be driven across the prairie grass, sand and mountains into the Columbia River Valley.
Susan Butruille describes an exhibit at the Center–a most fascinating collection of artifacts collected by Irene D. Paden, who traveled the trails during the 1930s and wrote THE WAKE OF THE PRAIRIE SCHOONER.
It should be noted—a covered wagon might be called “a covered wagon” or a “Conestoga Wagon” – or a “Prairie Schooner”.
Ms. Paden found tools and utensils–nearly a century later!–of things emigrants had packed to take with them on their journey and later had to discard. What is particularly tragic about the emigrants on the Oregon Trail is that they often packed foolishly, sometimes relying on guidebooks that had been written for men and sometimes by authors who hadn’t even been over the routes they recommended. In packing for their long journey, they often left behind the very things they would need for survival, in order to take along a favorite piece of furniture, tools, or items that could be replaced.
Notes Jacqueline Williams, in WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS, “If the emigrants did not begin discarding goods shortly after their departures, they usually did so by the time they reached Fort Laramie, where they had to prepare for crossing the Rocky Mountains. Worn out animals and tired people needed all the relief they could get….Forty-niners often dubbed Fort Laramie as ‘Camp Sacrifice’ because of the massive unloading that took place there by the many wagon trails …”
According to WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL “…The guidebooks neglected such topics as women’s and children’s clothing, cooking with buffalo chips, personal needs and medicines…” In the end, treasured pieces of furniture and utensils were discarded on the trail, as the trail became more and more rugged and the beasts of burden laid down and died from exhaustion. (One of the most heart-wrenching stories you will ever read about these beasts of burden is that of Mary Rockwood Powers, in a chapter titled “Chilling Journey”, in O’Brien’s HEART OF THE TRAIL.)
Writes Butruille, “Basic outfitting costs ran close to $1,000 (equivalent to roughly $20,000 in today’s dollars), including the wagon draft animals, food, whiskey, firearms and gear…”
”They called it Oregon fever,” Susan writes, and it must have been. It was the lure of the land, land described as rich and fertile beyond anyone’s imagination. Imagine, if you can, a country that had been mired in a deep depression that swept across the country, closing banks. And there was the great adventure of it all.
To really appreciate the lives and the lot of the emigrants, you should read their diaries and journals. There is a wonderful series of books titled COVERED WAGON WOMEN (subtitled Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails) edited and compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes, (subtitled Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails) published by Bison Books in 1995, told in volumes which begin with 1840-1849 in volume one. There appear to be eleven volumes all together, available through Amazon.Com on the Internet. I bought my copies some years ago at the Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles.
Kenneth Holmes, professor of history at Western Oregon State College, edited and compiled the Covered Wagon Women series, drawing on archives and private sources. As Kenneth Holmes’s acquisition makes clear, new diaries are being discovered today, almost 150 years after their recording.
As one reviewer so succinctly put it, “the entries from these pioneer women are alternately rich with optimism, stark with tragedy and always laced with the mind-numbing details and foot-blistering discipline required to keep to that inexorable march toward the western horizon”.
Another reviewer observed, “Until about 20 years ago, the Overland Trail story was generally understood as a male adventure epic. The vast majority of known diaries were by men “rushing” to California after gold was discovered in 1848. Because of the preponderance of these Gold Rush accounts, the smaller Oregon migration was neglected, and so was the family nature of it. In contrast to the temporary intent of California-bound travelers, families went to Oregon to settle, to farm, and to stay…”
As Mary Barmeyer O’Brien points out, “Women played an extraordinary role in the westward movement, but sometimes their contributions and sacrifices were overlooked. As their covered wagons jolted them over the two-thousand mile long trails, they had to summon every bit of their strength and courage just to survive. They knew they had left friends and family behind, in many cases forever. For most women, it was not their decision to travel off into an unknown land far from the schools and churches they cherished. But of necessity they toiled on, bearing children and raising families on the unrelenting trail…”
From WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL comes this song, from “Overland, 1852”, by songwriter Linda Allen:
“My name is Emma Logan and I come from Tennessee,
and there I spent my childhood with my friends and family,
I married young John Logan, back in 1844 that day he promised Pa we’d never go far from his door.
The children came so quickly, but my ma was so close by,
she’d help out with the births, and then she’d hold them when they’d cry,
I thought my life was settled ‘til the day John said to me,
Pack the wagon, woman, we are leaving Tennessee.” (from Overland 1852)
In the introduction to the Bison Books series (published by the University of Nebraska University Press), Anne M. Butler writes, “Happily, the concept of a women’s west no longer surprises us. Women were shaped by the West, but they did their own share of shaping, leaving a female signature on land and lives. It took America several decades to acknowledge this historical reality. The recognition came slowly, but we have moved beyond an earlier perception of the West as an arena reserved for male exploits…Noted historians have turned out revealing and important works about women in the West…(yet)…the more we know, the harder it seems to be to pinpoint the meaning of life for pioneer women in the American West. Did migrant women look to the West with quivering fear or joyful anticipation?”
As explained in the Covered Wagon Women series, “…the woman in the sunbonnet has told her own story. She has painted word pictures of the road she traveled with her family. The words were written right in the wagon on the way west. Sometimes it was in the form of a letter written to the folks back home and sent off from Fort Laramie or Fort Boise, or from the end of the trail in Oregon or California or Utah or some other western locale….”
And throughout it all, danger lurked everywhere. Would most of those women have agreed to go, or would they have fought harder against it, had they known of the dangers of children getting lost, drowning, falling under wagon wheels, getting sick, starving to death and, in some cases, being taken captive by Indians, (as in the case of the Oatman sisters, recounted in a book called CAPTIVITY OF THE OATMAN GIRLS, by R.B. Stratton, published by the University of Nebraska Press).
Or would it have made no difference to women in the 1800s, who had no rights of their own? (Can any of us, from the perspective of 2012, truly understand what that must have been like? You have no right to vote. You have no equal say in decisions being made that will affect the lives of you and your children). Another important factor, explained by Lillian Schlissel in her book “WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY”, is the women’s all-consuming intent to keep their families intact. Their husbands were bound and determined to go. To keep the family unit together, there was nothing to do but go.
In spite of all the mishaps that took lives, both animal and human, disease was the greatest killer on the Oregon Trail. At least 20,000 emigrants–1 out of every 17 that started–were buried along the Oregon Trail: most succumbed to the very illnesses the pioneers were trying to escape. Fatalities on the trail were so numerous, notes THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, that the emigrants averaged one grave every 80 yards between the Missouri River and the Willamette Valley. Most of the writers of diaries and journals, says Kenneth Holmes, were housewives and mothers. About ten percent were teen age girls, fulfilling a mandate of friends back home who at a going away party presented them with a blank diary as a gift in which to record the great adventure. Most of the writers had the care of children, often large families with as many as six or eight of them.
But–let’s get back to basics!!
What we really want to know is what people cooked and ate, what recipes they used, and how they managed, whether traveling the Oregon Trail or homesteading on a western prairie.
How did families, limited to about 2400 pounds maximum–manage to pack everything they would need for a journey that might take as little as four months, but more likely as many as six or even eight months to complete?
Susan Butruille writes, “The men packed firearms for protection and for killing animals to supplement the food supply, along they would actually provide little of the food on the trail…Now picture putting everything you will need for six months on the road and setting up housekeeping at the road’s end into a wooden box that measures four by ten feet. It’s a delicate balance. Too little food and supplies and you risk starvation or freezing, or breaking down for lack of adequate equipment for repairs. Too much and you risk breaking down, wearing out the oxen or the wagon, or getting behind schedule and getting caught in winter storms…so how would you know how much to pack? The staple diet would be bread, bacon, and coffee. Lansford Hastings (author of one of the guidebooks) recommended for each emigrant 200 lbs of flour, 150 lbs of bacon, 10 lbs of coffee, 20 lbs of sugar, and 10 lbs of salt. Women made linen sacks for these staples. Some goods would be packed in barrels that would hold water when empty of food. Add rice, chipped beef, dried beans, dried fruit, pickles, herbs and spices…”
“The emigrants found ingenious ways to pack their wagons,” writes Butruille. “They sewed pockets in the canvas slides to tuck treasures in, kept eggs inside flour and corn meal, and bacon inside bran to keep the meat from turning rancid…”
According to THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, published in 1993 by Morris Publishing, “Cured pork was also packed in this manner, but did not usually keep as long and had to be eaten up more quickly. Flour was packed in hundred pound sacks. To keep sugar from dissolving, it was packed in India-rubber sacks. Butter could be taken along by boiling it thoroughly and skimming off the scum as it rose to the top. It was then placed in canisters and soldered shut. This method of preservation kept it sweet for quite a long time…”
As for preparing meals, THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK explains “Twice a day, in the morning and evening, pioneer cooks built cook fires and prepared their meals. Cooking conditions were primitive. Pioneer kitchens had the sky for a roof and prairie grass for the floor. Since there was little wood to be found, dried buffalo chips were gathered from the prairie and used to build fires. It is said the chips burned like peat and produced no unpleasant taste. Since the heat from such a fire was quite unreliable, a cook never knew if her bread would come out burnt on the bottom or uncooked in the middle….”
One emigrant wrote, “Although there is not much to cook, the difficulty and inconvenience in doing it, amounts to a great deal–so by the time one has squatted around the fire and cooked bread and bacon, and made several dozen trips to and from the wagon–washed the dishes (with no place to drain them)…and gotten things ready for an early breakfast, some of the others already have their night caps on….”
Just as they did back on the farm,” writes Butruille, “the women would prepare, store and preserve most of the food eaten on the Oregon Trail. Food at supply stops would be scarce and expensive. Meat from wild animals would be a treat but not to be counted on…for some, chickens would provide fresh eggs, and ‘milch’ cows might accompany emigrant parties clear to Oregon, giving milk daily. Kept in a churn in the wagon during the day’s bumpy trek, extra cream would turn to butter by evening…”
“Breakfast,” states THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK usually consisted of bread with fried pork, bacon or buffalo meat, and coffee. The noonday meal had to be eaten quickly, and there usually was no time to build a fire. Typically, the menu consisted of a sandwich and coffee. The evening meal was usually hot, though not elaborate, and varied from day to day by adding pickles, baked beans, biscuits, or as a special treat, dessert…”
One emigrant wryly commented, “One does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is to bacon and bread”.
“Baking on the trail,” according to THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, “could be accomplished in a variety of ways. A sheet of tin arranged around the fire reflected the heat back onto the bread or pies, browning the top crusts while the fire baked the bottom. A better option was a portable metal box with an open side turned toward the fire and two or three shelves, so that several layers of bread, biscuits or pies could be baked at one time. When fitted with a domed top, which intensified the temperature inside, meat could be successfully roasted. If this option were not available, the meat was simply placed on the end of a long, sturdy fork, and held over the coals…”
Virtually all of the books I have read asserted that the most useful cooking utensil to the emigrants was the Dutch oven. THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK was no exception. “Virtually anything could be baked or roasted in this round, cast iron pot by placing the base on top of the hot coals and then placing more on the lid to provide heat from both the top and bottom. Its versatility allowed pioneer cooks to experiment with different recipes that would normally be baked in an oven….”
But, as Susan Butruille explains, “Cooking would become more difficult as the emigrants would confront hostile country, little water, and exhaustion of body, soul, and supplies. Some would abandon their prized stoves and some, their Dutch ovens. Most would dig trenches for cooking, often with air tunnels to keep the fire going. Pots would be suspended from improvised scaffolds, placed on rocks over the fire, or on iron bars placed over the trenches….”
When there was no wood or buffalo chips, emigrants used anything that would burn, including sage. For some, not only food became scarce, but good water as well.
“Even when available,” writes Butruille, “the water could carry deadly poison or disease. Women were finicky about drinking water, and according to author Irene Paden, refused to drink water with ‘wiggle-tails’ in it. So, they would kill the critters by boiling the water for coffee or tea, unknowingly killing deadly germs as well….” (Imagine drinking coffee or tea made with dirty river water, with creepy-crawlers swimming around in it! ew, ew!)
According to HISTORICAL COOKERY OF THE BLACK HILLS, by Alex Adamson, published by the Mountain Company in Keystone, South Dakota, Hay Box Cooking was practiced extensively by the pioneer women in their covered wagons, as well as by ranch books on the trail.
”A suitable wooden box was prepared by lining it with straw–the pioneer women used flannel–and shavings. A nest was left for the receptacle, which was usually an earthenware pot. A stew was partially cooked at breakfast, and as soon as the wagons began to move, the stew was poured into the earthenware pot, and put into the hay box, and covered with the remainder of hay or flannel. The meat continued to cook in the insulated box, and at the end of the day a hot meal was ready for immediate serving…”
This was no doubt another early version of the fireless cooker. Yet another detailed description of preparing meals without fuel can be found in other cookbooks. One writer comments, “Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers used a the hay box in the old country and in the armies of the continent this same method of fireless cookery has been used with success for many years..” They go on to say that the primitive hay box evolved into the “asbestos box” and the “copper double-tank cooker” but go on to explain in detail how a hay box was created.
Dutch oven recipes provide directions for making a Dutch Oven roast and also suggests that “burying” your Dutch oven is a great way to slow cook a dish and will tenderize the toughest game or beans. Tongue in cheek, the authors tell us never soak or scour your Dutch oven as it will rust (true) and “never blame anyone but yourself if you can’t remember where you buried dinner”. (One time, a friend gave me all of her cast iron skillets, complaining that they rusted too easily–mine have never had any rust on them—but we are always careful how we clean them!).
THE HISTORICAL COOKERY OF THE BLACK HILLS by Alex Adamson (published by the Donning Company in 1982), also provides a nice assortment of “Hay Box” recipes.
There are two fairly-recently published cookbooks devoted to cooking and food on the Oregon Trail. One is a nice spiral bound cookbook appropriately titled THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, published by Morris Publishing Company in 1993. This cookbook is a collection of nearly 400 recipes and remedies, some dating back to the era of the Oregon Trail. The other, by Jacqueline Williams, is titled WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS, subtitled “Food on the Oregon Trail. Also published in 1993, the latter is a University Press of Kansas Publication.
Ms. Williams certainly did her homework – she researched diaries and journals, even old newspapers of the era, finding proof, for instance, that many of the immigrants knew how to dry fruits and vegetables and carried these items with them on the Oregon Trail. She found an intriguing advertisement in the St. Louis Missouri Republican for people crossing the plains; it was called Meat Biscuit and was patented by Gail Borden, (the same Gail Borden who would make condensed milk popular). The ad claimed “…one pound of it contains the nutriment of five pounds of the best beef; one ounce will make a nutritious soup…”
Ms. Williams notes that the meat biscuit was apparently similar to “portable soup”, which was made by boiling meat or fowl with the bones in to make a rich broth until the soup was thick, like jelly. This substance was then set in pans and allowed to dry until it was hard and could be broken easily. By adding the dry substance to boiling water, the traveler had instant soup!
American women often made portable soup, popularly called ‘soup in his pocket’ at home,” writes Williams. “E Smith in THE COMPLETE HOUSEWIFE (1742) had written that the tablets were good for woodsmen against the influxes which they are very liable to from lying too near the moist ground and guzzling too much cold water. Eliza Leslie, who reportedly adopted her work for the period’ provided instructions for making portable soup for the pioneers settling out for the West…”
Meat biscuit was similarly made, with the addition of flour–instead of drying out the gelatin, large amounts of flour were mixed in and the product was baked. (Portable soup had received endorsements from some early explorers, including Lewis and Clark, who purchased 193 pounds of portable soup in Philadelphia).
Williams notes, however, that “we cannot infer that either portable soup or meat biscuit was popular with the ordinary emigrant. Few diarists and letter writers mention either product. Was it because the biscuits were so ordinary, too expensive, not tasty?…”
Most emigrants followed the advice given by guidebooks, such as the one written by Hastings. Bill Bullard of the National Frontier Trails Center considers Hastings one of the great villains of the westward movement, writing about routes without having traveled them. He wrote about what would become known as the Hastings cutoff, which resulted in the tragedy of the Donner party. (There are a number of books written about this most famous and tragic Wagon Trains, but perhaps one of the most captivating I’ve ever read, years ago, was a book called THE MOTHERS. (*I don’t recall who wrote the book and have been unable to locate a copy—I think it may have been Vardis Fisher).
The women who wrote letters home, or penned lines in diaries, often wrote little about what they ate or how it was cooked, unless they happened to find–as some did–wild berries or currants and were able to make them into pies, surely a special treat.
Williams notes that “Scarcely any diary of a western crossing fails to mention the bonanza of finding luscious berries, such as wild grapes, currants, gooseberries, and strawberries. Like fresh greens, they were a culinary delight and a luxurious substitute for dried fruit…the women served them for tea where ‘they relished well and turned the succulent berries into jams and pies’. When the overlanders found strawberries and if the cows were still producing milk, a special treat of strawberries and cream was served. The surplus berries were dried for later use…”
Williams also notes that gathering berries not only added to the larder, but served as a social event for the young people. (Accounts of berry-picking can be found in some of the COVERED WAGON WOMEN” series…for many young people on the trail, the journey, and foraging for berries, was a lark until they experienced the harsher realities of crossing the Great Divide, the desert and the final exhausting climb over the Columbia mountain range).
The journalists and diary-keepers never wrote about unmentionable subjects, such as how they dealt with bodily functions–indeed, some women were pregnant as they toiled across the plains, sometimes giving birth on the trail or shortly after they reached their destination. The problems of sanitation must have been enormous…but those writing diaries or penning letters back home commented more frequently on the number of graves they counted as they traveled west.
Lillian Schlissel, author of WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY says that over 800 diaries and day journals kept by those who made the overland journey have been published or catalogued in archives and many more are still in family collections, as proven by Kenneth Holmes when he set out to compile and publish the “COVERED WAGON WOMEN” series.
Schlissel writes, “No one who reads the diaries on the Overland Trail can escape feeling the intensity with which the women regarded loss of life. Cholera, illness, accident–these were central facts in the minds of the women who were the ritual caretakers of the dying and the dead. In the diaries of such women there is an unmistakable tension and sense of resistance to the journey. These were the women who seemed to judge the overland adventure to be an extravagant expense of human life…”
Susan Butruille notes, “We have few accounts of pregnancy and childbirth from the women who traveled the trail. A woman might write that she feels ‘sick’ and then suddenly a baby will appear. Some historians who have contrasted original diaries with those transcribed by families have discovered that the families have censored out references to pregnancy and sex! So between censorship of self and family, such matters often have been left to the imagination….” (From WOMENS VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL).
“Salting and pickling were the primary means of preserving fresh meat and produce in the mid-nineteenth century” writes Jacqueline Williams in WAGON WHEEL KITCHENS. ”The canning industry was just getting started and not until after the Civil War would it be equipped to supply large amounts of canned goods through the country. At any rate, cans were too heavy to carry in the prairie schooner…” (not to mention that the earliest versions of canned food weren’t always safe to eat, either).
Says Williams, “Various types of pickles took up room in almost every prairie schooner…pickles and pickled foods were popular because these foods did not spoil, they added salt and spice to a meal of plain bread and crackers, and most important, many emigrants believe that pickled foods prevented scurvy…”
She says that the emigrants knew that fresh fruits and vegetables prevented scurvy but they did not know why (Vitamin C was not identified as a necessary ingredient in the prevention of scurvy until 1935). And although the emigrants worried about scurvy, no one knows whether this was a disease that actually presented a problem for the travelers, since there are so few accounts of the disease. But then, as Williams points out, emigrants never mentioned pregnancies either, yet many babies were born on the trail or soon after emigrants reached their destinations.
And sickness WAS referred to; diaries were filled with references to people having diarrhea, stomachaches and toothaches, while deaths from cholera are recorded, as Williams notes, “As if the writers were making a statistical survey”.
”The basic list of provisions” writes Williams, “was supplemented by culinary extras that the overlanders brought from home, purchased in the jumping-off places, or found at trading posts along the way. As best they could, families made every effort to have good food on their long journey, at least in the beginning. By the time the emigrants reached Fort Hall and made the last push to their new homes, the emphasis was more on quantity than on quality…”
What is incredible, as noted by all the authors of books about the Oregon Trail, was the enormous amount of baking that was done. “Incredulous as it may seem,” writes Jacqueline Williams, “during the myriad of daily chores, the cooks found time to prepare apple pies, mince pies, peach pies, pot pies, pumpkin pies, apple and strawberry dumplings, gingersnaps, fruit cakes, nut cakes, doughnuts, light bread (salt rising) and sourdough bread…”
One diarist who knew nothing about baking bread visited a neighbor one night to ask for information. The neighbor not only gave her bread making instructions but lent her a Dutch oven as well. “I did just as my kind neighbor directed and in the morning had two loaves of elegant bread,” wrote the emigrant. She was surprised that “making fires of sage twigs on the lid and under the oven” did any good but noted that the bread came out a beautiful brown. (Proving once again the value of the versatile Dutch oven).
Pies, says Williams, placed a close second in the baking department after bread, with apple pie heading the list. The fruit used was usually dried, except for those occasions when fresh fruit was found. “A spider or Dutch oven” writes Williams, “made an excellent pie pan; pies could be fried or baked…”
Knowing that they always had to plan ahead, emigrants preserved buffalo meat by ‘jerking it’. The emigrants sometimes strung the meat on ropes and hung it on the outside of the wagon cover to dry until it was cured, when it could then be stored for future use. One diarist wrote that the wagons looked as if they were decorated with coarse red fringe. Another method of drying the meat, borrowed from Native Americans, was to build a scaffold and smoke the strips over a slow fire.
In addition to buffalo meat, notes Jacqueline Williams in WAGON WHEELS KITCHENS, the emigrants dined on antelope, sage hens, geese, ducks, rabbits and fish. Antelope meat was often compared to veal and considered juicier and sweeter than venison or buffalo. Everyone in camp rejoiced and feasted when the men were able to come back with fresh game. A meal of fish ranked as high as antelope, says Williams; fish were avidly consumed by emigrants whenever they were lucky enough to purchase or catch them. Although fried fish was the usual way to prepare it, at least one journalist writes about making a fish stew. When the emigrants got nearer to the Oregon territory, they were able to catch or purchase salmon from the Indians. Most emigrants considered the salmon a fine feast but at least one group of emigrants declined buying the salmon, because of its color–they thought it was spoiled! They wrote that the Indians tried to convince them it was good but that they were as ignorant of the language as they were of the salmon.
Sage hens, if caught, might be roasted or even made into a soup. Ducks and geese might also be made into soup, sometimes with dumplings. Occasionally prairie dogs were eaten and some emigrants found them to be delicious.
Williams observes that “most meal preparations were probably both tedious and difficult”. One emigrant wrote that she baked until 12 0 clock at night–the women on the trail sometimes commented on the enormous energy spent cooking, baking, even washing and ironing.
“Yet in the first months,” writes Williams, “when supplies were still adequate, many emigrants welcomed mealtimes as a break from the hours spent riding or walking. The aroma from the stewing pot of dried apples and simmering meat and beans surely prompted a sense of camaraderie and encouraged the overlanders to press on and make a new home…”
Emigrants often wrote in their journals or in letters back home about their experiences of dining around campfires, this sometimes being a novel experience for many of them. Writes Williams, “A food writer observing the cooking that occurred during the journey across the prairies and plains easily could have written about the typical travelers’ cuisine replete with foods that would not spoil and dishes that could be prepared by cooks unaccustomed to cooking outdoors. Indeed, if that writer compared the foods used on the Overland Trail with those that might appear in a camper’s pack today, more than a few similarities would turn up.Jerky, crackers, dried fruit, bouillon cubes, lemonade mixes, and flour and baking powder mixes for making bread could be found in the emigrants provision box and in the campers pack.
The emigrants, of course, had to cook outdoors for four to six months; the typical camper might be in the wilderness for only a few days or at most a couple of week. And the camper knows his mixture of flour and baking powder will work; the hardworking emigrant never knew for certain if the flour would be too wet for baking, the crackers a crumbly mix, or the dried fruit soft enough for putting into a piecrust. The emigrant cooks, working under adverse conditions, converted the standard traveler’s cuisine into unimpressive array of crowd-pleasing meals, and the success of these cooks attests to their culinary ingenuity…”
In spite of all the hardships endured, most of the physically and mentally exhausted travelers made it to the Columbia River Valley” states THE OREGON TRAIL COOKBOOK, “finding it was every bit as beautiful as they had heard. Emigrants soon became settlers and claimed the rewards of their paradise. They quickly settled and began building homes. Before long, the pioneers covered 250,000 miles of land with wheat fields, dairy farms, sawmills and towns…”
Lillian Schlissel is Director of American Studies at Brooklyn College and the author of several other books. She holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale
University and is the author of WOMENS DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY, first published in 1982 and reprinted in 1992.
“In the end”, notes Professor Schlissel in DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY, a woman who came through the journey felt she had won her own victory. The test of the journey was whether or not she had been equal to the task of holding her family together against the sheer physical forces that threatened to spin them to the four winds of chance. It was against the continual threat of dissolution that the women had striven. If ever there was a time when men and women turned their psychic energies toward opposite visions, the overland journey was that time…”
Schlissel adds, “In the very commonplace of their observations, the women bring us a new vision of the overland experience; they bring it closer to our own lives. They do not write of trailblazing or of adventure but of those facets of living that are unchanging. In reading their diaries we come closer to understanding how historical drama translates into human experience. Through the eyes of the women we begin to see history as the stuff of daily struggle…”
And, in the preface of Schlissel’s book, Carl N. Degler writes, “…in the end, the sharpest difference between men and women on the Trail was that the great majority of the women did not want to make the trip in the first place. No clearer measure of the power of the nineteenth century patriarchy need be sought. We do not know, of course, how many wives refused to leave their settled homes to create one on the move and in the West, and by doing so prevented their husbands from going. But we do know that of those women who agreed to head into the New Country, few did so with enthusiasm. Yet, most of these women survived–many more men died on the trail than women, despite the dangers of childbirth. But they also managed to sustain their families during the ordeal and then went on to create homes in the West.”
–Sandra Lee Smith