“My most vivid recollection of that first winter in Oregon is of the weeping skies and of Mother and me also weeping” (written by Marilla R. Washburn Bailey, age 13 in 1852),
FROM TRIUMPH TO TRAGEDY, WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL.
In my personal collection of fiction and non-fiction, you will find a preponderance of books devoted to the subject of pioneer life in the United States. This from a woman who nearly failed American History in high school! (I found high school text to be incredibly boring–it was only after marriage when I began to discover fascinating books about American pioneers, the White House, First Ladies and our American Presidents, that I really began to delve deeply into This subject). Years ago, I discovered an author by the name of Janice Holt Giles. I loved her books and characters, so much that I collected all of her books and then began collecting sets for all of my friends and some of my penpals. One time I wrote to Ms. Giles, who lived in a “holler” in Kentucky, and was delighted to receive a response from her, which I still treasure.
Ms. Giles was a city girl who married a country boy and went to rural Kentucky to live with him. There she wrote, and wrote and wrote – The Kentuckians, Hannah Fowler, The Believers, The Land Beyond the Mountains, Johnny Osage, Savanna, Voyage to Santa Fe, The Great Adventure, Six Horse Hitch – and quite a few others. All fine books, Janice Holt Giles made history come alive. I was hooked.
And, I discovered—this great country of ours was settled by emigrants, pioneers and settlers all the way from the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast, to the Pacific Ocean on the west—and they all had stories to tell!
Another set of books which I found to be particularly enlightening were THE WEDDING DRESS/Stories from the Dakota Plains, and NOTHING TO DO BUT STAY/My Pioneer Mother by Carrie Young. Ms. Young writes about the life experiences of her parents, particularly her mother. Carrie was the sixth child of Norwegian-American homesteaders, writing of her childhood on a farm in western North Dakota. (Published by HarperPerennial, a Division of HarperCollins, these books are available in paperback, ranging from about $10.00 Amazon.com has NOTHING TO DO BUT STAY for $8.49 new or $2.26 pre-owned. They also have THE WEDDING DRESS for $10.58 new or starting at eleven cents for pre-owned.Carrie is also the author of PRAIRIE COOKS/Glorified Rice, Three-Day-Buns and Other Reminiscences.
What made Carrie’s mother particularly unique for the times in which she lived, is that she was an unmarried female homesteader. If that were not enough, it was her mother’s ambition–which was realized–to have all of her children, including the girls, go to college.
You might also re-discover Willa Cather’s O PIONEERS! and MY ANTONIA. Cather’s greatest success as a writer came, I think, when she began writing stories based on her Nebraska background. Although Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, her family moved to Nebraska in 1883. Considered classics, these are available in most bookstores as well as internet book sites. Re-discover the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
There are a wealth of cookbooks with “Pioneer” in the title. One of my favorite cookbooks about pioneer cooking–sans pioneer in the title–is a book called FOOD ON THE FRONTIER. One tidbit of information I had been searching for was found in FOOD ON THE FRONTIER. Marjorie Kreidberg writes “…it was the availability of land that attracted many.(newcomers)…The Homestead Act passed by Congress in 1862 generated a powerful impetus to settlement in Minnesota and elsewhere. The act granted a settler title to 160 acres of land in exchange for five years of continuous residence and the payment of nominal registration fees”
They arrived at their destination-whether pioneers or settlers taming the wilderness of the eastern shores or the Midwest, or emigrants traveling the Overland Trail to Oregon or California..the most important business at hand was to find shelter and food.
Minnesota, in the 1860s, attracted many European immigrants–Germans and Norwegians, Swedes, Irish, English, Scots, Welsh, Swiss and Czechs, Danes, Bohemians and Hollanders…along with migrating Americans, primarily from New England, the Middle Atlantic states and parts of the middle west.
Emigrants journeying on the Overland Trail, to Oregon or California, were often farmers from the Midwest. Lillian Schlissel, author of WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY explains it like this, “..In a fashion that men and women of the twentieth century will never fully understand, farmers of the Mississippi valley and the Plains states had begun to feel ‘crowded’…” Thus it was, driven by a great depression and the failure of banks in 1837, and the desire for great open spaces that people continued to make the trek westward.
But, along with knowing how to farm–the homesteaders had to know, too, how to preserve, salt, pickle, smoke, dry and can foods–housewives had to know how to adapt, by substituting and making do with what they had on hand. Necessity surely is the mother of invention, for just as the emigrants gathered alkali on the plains, calling it “saleratus” (an old term for baking soda) and using it for baking, they had to become acquainted with a variety of different fish (such as salmon)and foods, and learn how to prepare them for meals. (At least one group of emigrants refused to eat salmon offered to them by Indians, thinking it was bad because of its pink color).
“After traveling those thousands of miles in their portable canvas homes,” writes Susan Butruille in WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL “those women must have been grateful for some place–any place–to call home…”
“Some of the women had overcome their revulsion towards guns,” says Susan, “and learned how to use them on the trail or soon after their arrival”. She goes on to describe how one such pioneer lady shot bears, deer, grouse and pheasant, and became so expert with a revolver that at 50 to 100 feet she could beat most men. Cookbooks of pioneer days abound with recipes for preparing pigeons, quail, turtle, doves, duck, rabbit, squirrel and even – snake! One cookbook provides recipes for Sioux Jellied Snake, Sand hills Fried Rattler and Velvet Tail Rattlesnake…a little disconcerting, perhaps, because the latter recipe instructs the reader that, “Due to reflex action, the snake will squirm and wiggle for some time after the head is removed, and may crawl out of the pan if left unattended…” (ew, ew. No, please don’t tell me it tastes just like fried chicken).
If it were not enough that these emigrants had survived and after tremendous ordeal had reached their destination—many newcomers to Oregon didn’t stay; according to Lillian Schlissel, two out of three settlers had moved again within ten years of their arrival. They “hankered” for some place else–many of the men went to the gold fields, leaving their women and children behind to fend for themselves. “After bringing their mostly-reluctant women across that God-forsaken land,” writes Butruille, “to a place with no home, no plowed field, no crops, the men left…” (Some of the men died of disease. Most returned home. A FEW struck it rich).
“That first winter” says Butruille, “the families survived on whatever food they could get: salmon and potatoes, boiled wheat and peas, milk, butter and deer meat, coffee from dried wheat, barley or peas, ground in coffee mills…”
Although many of the cookbooks devoted to this period don’t always say so, we can assume that soup was an important part of pioneer diets. Gertrude Harris in FOODS OF THE FRONTIER writes that soup and meat or fish were simmered all together with whatever vegetables, dried or fresh, wild or domestic, were on hand. “During the long winters,” writes Harris, “great soups were made from old hens, beef, sheep or ox parts, or game such as wild hare, rabbit and venison—even bear’s food which was, however, much preferred roasted. As to the vegetables, in winter one had only stored or dried vegetables; in spring, one used what was ‘up’. Spices were, naturally, very hard to come by and very expensive when available but wild and domestic herbs were used with a generous hand…”
Seeds were especially precious to the homesteading women. Butruille recounts the story of one pioneer woman whose rooster, Dominic, made the trip all the way to Oregon, only to tempt fate one day in the garden patch. He helped himself some “cowcumber” seeds ready to be planted. The lady of the house had her daughters hold down the thieving rooster while she took her husband’s razor, slit open Dominic’s craw, retrieved her seeds, and sewed the rooster back up with needle and thread. Dominic, we’re told, went on to live a long and happy life. (I confess I laughed out loud reading this. I bet Dominic never again strayed near the cowcumber.)
Telling of the early days of Nebraska–one of the plains states that the Overlanders crossed–Kay Graber writes, in NEBRASKA PIONEER COOKBOOK “Like the Indians, early white explorers, traders, and missionaries lived largely off the land, carrying only as much of the basic items like flour, sugar, and coffee as their packs could accommodate. Even these were not in their present convenient form. Until the last decades of the 19th century, refined white sugar was scarce and expensive on the frontier; and when it was available, it was supplied in the form of loaves, or cubes. Brown sugar, much coarser than that we see today, was used extensively, as well as molasses. The flour, unbleached and perhaps unbolted, was subject to an unpleasant rawness (some recipes of the period instruct the cook to dry the flour in front of the fire before using it).
Flour was generally purchased by the barrel, says Marjorie Kreidberg in FOOD ON THE FRONTIER. “Ideal conditions dictated that the barrel have a close fitting cover to ‘keep out mice and vermin,’ and that it be placed in a cool room where it would not be subjected to freezing temperatures or to intense summer heat. Sometimes the flour arrived less than fresh–one family found their purchase of flour so ‘musty’ that they had to chop it from the container with an ax. Housewives were generally advised to sift the flour and warm it before using it for baking.
Only green coffee was sold, and it had to be roasted and ground before brewing. Salt pork was a frontier staple because it kept almost indefinitely and was easily prepared: after soaking a few hours or overnight in fresh water to remove the salt, it was generally fried…”
Dried apples, says Kay Graber, were a common item of frontier food. Most likely, pioneers dried any kind of fruit and vegetable that could be dried, but many found dried apples dirty and tough. “Their sentiments were expressed in a ditty,” writes Graber, “SPIT IN MY EARS AND TELL ME LIES, BUT GIVE ME NO DRIED APPLE PIES”.
Peaches, corn, pumpkins, squash, string beans and even rhubarb were preserved by drying, writes Graber. When sugar was available, fruit leathers (enjoying new popularity in the 1980s and 1990s) were a favorite way of preserving peaches and other fruits.
Carrie Young, author of PRAIRIE COOKS writes that her mother could never stand to see anything go to waste, especially food. “She preserved everything in her garden” Carrie recalls, “The potatoes and onions went directly on the earth in the root cellar. The carrots were placed in a box of fine sand. The beets and cucumbers were pickled. In the unlikely event there were any surplus peas, my mother canned them, boiling jars for hours in her wash boiler”. In a chapter titled “ENTIRE COUNTY SAVED BY RHUBARB” Carrie humorously recounts how her mother’s rhubarb patch produced–even in Dust Bowl years. Apparently, the rhubarb patch produced prodigiously; Carrie’s mother would cut up the rhubarb and boil it with sugar, seal it in quart jars and store the jars in the cellar, where there were already dozens of jars on the shelves from previous years. The rhubarb “sauce” was served as a dessert and when it didn’t all get eaten, Carrie’s mother would surreptitiously feed it to the pigs. (I have to confess—I can relate to Carrie’s mother. I can and pickled everything I have a surplus of or fruit and vegetables given to me, even though there is just one person—myself—and none of my children are crazy about my various pickled foods. I think I was a squirrel in a former life).
PRAIRIE COOKS and Carrie Young’s THE WEDDING DRESS and NOTHING TO DO BUT STAY are entertaining slices of life (with recipes) – that you really need to read all of her books and see for yourself. Carrie’s parents were Norwegian American homesteaders in western North Dakota.
Until the settlers could plant a garden and acquire livestock, they often had to do without eggs, milk butter or any kind of shortening, such as lard. (The planting of vegetable and herb gardens was surely second only to building a shelter).
This didn’t deter most homesteading women. One young homemaker, entertaining unexpected guests, described how she gathered wild gooseberries, rendered out some grease from meat to make a pie crust, and managed to bake a pie. Then she made a cake using her shortening, vinegar and salteratus, prepared fried bread and coffee and made a dish of stewedgooseberries.
On the plains, pioneers grew corn, which in turn produced corn meal–a major staple in Nebraska–while the cobs were used for fuel.
Nebraska homesteaders made imitation sweeteners with corn cobs, which they boiled down, and boiled down watermelon juice. “Homesteaders” writes Graber, “acquired chickens, cows, and hogs as soon as possible, not only for their own food supply but for produce to exchange for other goods…”
[Corn Cobs could also be boiled to make a foundation for making a light delicate jelly. I wanted to see what it tasted like, so a few summers ago when my youngest son had a bountiful crop of corn, I removed the corn—blanched and froze it—and then used the cobs to make corn cob jelly. It was delicious!]
Hogs provided an important source of food–everything from ham to bacon. Scrapple was made with fresh organ meats and was a kind of breakfast dish. Scraps of pork–the head, heart or other pieces–were boiled. Then the fat, gristle and bones were removed and the meat chopped fine. The liquid in which the pork was cooked was heated with the meat and cornmeal slowly poured in as it all cooked. When this was done, it could be poured into pans and chilled. Scrapple was cut into slices and fried as one would mush. (Scrapple is a very old Pennsylvania-Dutch recipe—my sister in Tennessee often made it for her family). Enterprising pioneer housewives even made fruit cake using pork (ew, ew!). They pickled the pigs feet, (or skinned them to cook with beans, cabbage or sauerkraut) and used the pig’s intestines (and pig blood) to make sausages. (Cleaning the pig’s intestines was an unpleasant job generally left for women to do). The lard from the pig had to be cut into cubes and rendered (cooked, over a low flame, until the fat melted). Directions for making lard can be found in some of the old pioneer cookbooks. The finished product could be poured into pans, covered with muslin and kept in a cool place, or it might be kept in wooden kegs with close-fitting covers. What remained were “cracklings”, the rind that’s left after the lard is rendered, used to flavor corn bread or even eaten like a snack. Sometimes, pioneer women packed sausage down into a crock and baked it slowly in an oven for several hours; the grease would rise to the top and then a plate or cover of some kind would be placed over the crock and the whole thing stored in a root cellar or some other cool place. (Potted meat is a centuries-old technique, described in British cookbooks describing medieval foods and recipes).
Ribs, back bones, liver and heart of the pig were kept in a cool place and eaten fresh. Nothing was ever wasted. (There is an old joke that the only thing that got thrown away was the squeal). Sometimes the pig’s bladder was cleaned and blown up for children to play with! A pig’s stomach might be cleaned out and then scraps of meat–head, ears, feet, liver–would be cooked or ground up, with vinegar and onions added to it and then the whole mess pressed into the pig’s stomach and smoked. This was usually sliced and eaten cold. Even pigs tails could be roasted until they were crisp. (Rumor has it, these are delicious with sauerkraut).
If the homesteaders were fortunate and had the know-how, they might make a smoke house. A smoke house could even be improvised from an inverted barrel with holes bored in the sides for the insertion of sticks, on which the ham was hung. The barrel was placed over a smoky fire in a small trench. Once the hams had been smoked, they would be wrapped in gunny sacks coated with a flour paste to provide an airtight covering.
According to Kate B. Carter, long-time president of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers and author of numerous historical works, including Pioneer Recipes, Our Pioneer Heritage and The Pioneer Cookbook wrote, “the owner of a smoke house–someone who not only knew how to build one but how to use it as well–smoked meat for his neighbors as well. People might come from miles around and then would leave a part of the meat as pay for having the rest of it smoked. Bartering appears to have been a vital part of life on the frontier–when a homemaker was able to raise chickens or was fortunate to have a milk cow, she could trade eggs and butter for other badly needed household items, such as sugar, salt, or flour…”
A recipe booklet compiled by Volunteers of the State Historical Society of Colorado, (published in 1963), provides interesting glimpses in pioneer life in Colorado. Included is a recipe for preparing beaver tail, which I will forego sharing with you, and another for pioneer vinegar. In covered wagon days, every family carried two or three five gallon kegs of molasses. When the family finally settled somewhere and a keg was emptied, vinegar was started by filling the container with water, leaving in about a pint of molasses and adding a softened yeast cake. A piece of brown paper 8″ square was smeared with molasses and added. The keg was covered with cloth and set in the sun where it soon soured and “made good vinegar”. [I’m unable to figure out what the piece of brown paper smeared with molasses had to do with this recipe considering that a pint of molasses was left in the bottom of the keg to begin with….but ours not to wonder why….]
Another pioneer recipe booklet provides a recipe for curing pork; the contributor says meat cured in this brine, following their instructions, is never rancid. After six weeks the meat would be removed from the brine and hung up in the smoke house. [I thought I’d mention at this point—my grandparents, city folk in Cincinnati, butchered a pig once a year when I was a child. All of the adult members of the family were involved in this production, which my sister Becky recalled watching from the cellar steps as the men made sausages. My grandparents had three garage spaces with their 3-storied house, and one of those garages was converted into Grandpa’s smoke house. Grandpa also made his own wine from grapes grown in their backyard. He had a wine cellar in the basement, under the front of the house.]
The Dodge City Centennial Receipt Book also provides directions for curing hams which starts out with “…To every one hundred pounds (i.e. pork) take best coarse salt eight pounds….”
Perhaps you didn’t have any pigs running around the farmyard (or wild boar in the woods–directions for roasting wild boar can be found in FOODS OF THE FRONTIER by Gertrude Harris). Perhaps you lived in an area where there were bears. You might find many good uses for the bear, including its pelt, which was as valuable to pioneers as the food it provided. (One half-expects these recipes to start out with “first catch your bear”). The bear meat was cut up and carried home in the pelt. The fat was rendered and could be clarified with shavings of slippery elm bark which was considered a preservative as well. The tongue, sides and ribs were treated like pork, salt-cured and smoked. The pelt, when treated properly, provided a warm blanket or a rug and could be used as legal tender at many trading posts.
Many early pioneers swore by bear fat; they said the lard was especially good for pastry or whatever called for shortening. One pioneer contributor said that it was excellent for leather and great for gun oil or for making soap. Soap making, says Gertrude Harris in FOODS OF THE FRONTIER was done by every frontier household, “and continued to do so in many parts of this country until well into the last quarter of the 19th century…Like many other frontier tasks, soapmaking was a continuing activity. All year round the huge lye barrel, with its perforated bottom, stood outside the kitchen door to catch the good clean ashes from stoves and fireplaces. Underneath it was the lye basin, used to catch the lye drippings as rainwater strained through the ashes. To get the lye good and strong, the basin was often emptied back into the barrel…the best time to make soap was immediately after the annual slaughtering; large quantities of animal fat was then available…”
The lives of homesteaders, where ever they were – whether they were pioneers on the plains states or emigrants who wound their way across the Oregon Trail to the Western States, were surely complex and challenging. What I have attempted to demonstrate here is simple a glimpse of what life was like ‘way back then. Generally, it’s a life we can’t begin to fathom. Despite the dangers and the hard life, many Oregon pioneer women lived to a ripe old age – well into their 80s and 90s! Many of these women pioneered in yet another way – they built schools and churches, they became suffragettes for equality and the right to vote. Because of their efforts, Wyoming has the distinction of being the first government in the world to grant women equal rights.
One example is the story of Nellie Cashman, a native of Cork, Ireland who came to the United States and eventually became known as The Angel of Tombstone (Arizona), first opened a restaurant in Tucson, then a hotel and another restaurant. Through wise investments she acquired a grocery store and a saloon. However, she was best known and remembered for her personal kindness and generosity. Because of her efforts, St. Mary’s Hospital was opened in Tucson; it was the first non-military hospital in the territory. Often her own hotel doubled as a charity hospital. Because of her efforts, the first Catholic church was built…not only all that, she raised three nieces and two nephews as well.
Susan Butruille writes, “For many pioneer women, chores in their new home must have seemed like ‘deja vu all over again”. The work was a lot like it had been back on the farm, with added dangers and fewer friends and family to rely on for help and support.
It’s sweeping at six and
it’s dusting at seven.
It’s victuals at eight and
it’s dishes at nine.
It’s potting and panning
from ten to eleven
We scarce break our fast
till we plan how to dine
–from Housewife’s Lament”
WOMEN’S VOICES FROM THE OREGON TRAIL).
“The new frontier” Butruille concludes, “is one the women moving westward couldn’t imagine: women and men working together as equals to build home and community in a world here masses of people still have no home, still seek a better Some Place Else.
Kate B. Carter provided the following poetic glimpse of homesteading life, written by Eunice B. Trumbo,
When the last green tomato was pickled,
And the last blushing peach had been peeled;
When the last luscious pears had been quartered,
And the last can of plums had been sealed;
When the last yellow quince had been honeyed,
And the last drop of chili sauce jugged;
When the last stalk of cane had been sorghumed,
And the last barrel of vinegar plugged;
When the grape juice was all corked and bottled,
Corn made into salad or dried;
When the beets and the apples were buried,
And the side-meat and sausages fried;
When the catsup was made and the sauerkraut,
And potatoes were stored in the bin;
When the peppers were stuffed full of cabbage,
And the pumpkins were all carried in;
When the flower seeds were gathered and packaged,
And the house-plants were potted and in;
When the fruit cakes were baked for Thanksgiving,
And the mincemeat was canned up in tin,
The celery blanched and nuts gathered,
And the beans had been shelled out and hulled;
Sweet potatoes dry-kilned in the oven,
And the onions were pulled up and culled;
When the honey had all been extracted
Comb melted and beeswax in molds;
When the jellies were all glassed and labeled,
And the horehound juice syruped for colds;
When the tallow was made into candles,
And the ashes were leached into lye;
When the rushes were bundled for scouring ,
And the walnut hulls gathered for dye;
When the cheeses were unhooped and ripened,
Beef corned in the brine to be dried;
Ham and shoulders well browned in the smoke-house,
Lard rendered from cracklings and tried;
When the popcorn was tied to the rafters,
And the wood was piled high in the shed;
When the feathers from goose and from gander
Were picked for the warm feather bed;
Women folks were most ready for winter,
To rest as they knitted and sewed;
spun flax, carded wool, and pieced quilt blocks;
Is it strange grandma’s shoulders are bowed?
Doesn’t this say it all?
THE END! (even though, for many, it was just a beginning)
–Sandra Lee Smith