Friday, September 7, 2012

Oregon Trail Food

Oregon Trail Food

by: Peggy L. Henderson

My current WIP is a time travel romance set in the late 1840’s along the Oregon Trail. This book takes me far, far away from my Yellowstone series, but I’m having a fun (if sometimes tedious) time learning what life was like along the Oregon Trail. One thing that fascinated me was all the food the emigrants packed along. The only thing I can relate to is when my family packs for a camping trip. Our car is usually stuffed to bursting. I tend to overpack, living by the motto “better to have it and not need it, that not having it and needing it.” (It drives my husband crazy)  Most emigrants were no different about packing when they first started their journey. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about needing to leave things along the side of the road after realizing some things are more important for survival than others.

For this article, I want to just quickly list the types of foods the emigrants packed with them. There were not very many places along the route for them to buy supplies, so they had to plan to bring most of their staples along with them right from their starting-off points.
This is a list of typical food items as described in a traveller’s guide written for the people headed for Oregon or California:
(This list is the amount suggested to bring for each adult traveller)

two hundred pounds of flour
 thirty pounds of pilot bread
 seventy-five pounds of bacon
ten pound 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 pounds 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

Some emigrants brought along whiskey or brandy, and medicines. Cooking utensils included a cast iron skillet or spider, Dutch oven, reflector oven, coffee pot or tea kettle, and tin plates, cups, and knives, forks, spoons, matches, and crocks, canteens, buckets or water bags for liquids. For most families, 1,600-1,800 pounds of their supplies was food. A wagon should not weigh more than 2000 pounds, so this left very little room for other items.
It was also recommended that each family bring along two milk cows. Next to bread, bacon was the food most often on the menu, usually twice a day. Emigrants also supplemented their diet with buffalo meat or other game that they were able to kill along the way.

(Sorry for the lack of photos. I’d rather not pull pictures off the internet anymore)


Caroline Clemmons said...

Peggy, Supposedly, they also took a crock of pickles to prevent scurvy. Linda Huber's book based on her family's history uses the same packing guide, but included pickles. I hadn't realized pickles would prevent scurvy until I read her books. I thought citrus or fresh greens were required. Interesting reading. Thanks.

Lyn Horner said...

Peggy, I wonder how much it cost to buy all those foodstuffs, how they packed it in their covered wagons, and most of all, how they survived for months on such a tiresome diet. We are so spoiled nowadays. We have so much variety of foods to choose from. Maybe that's why many of us are overweight. Valuable info! Thanks for posting.

Ramona Lockwood said...

This is very interesting Peggy. I'm trying to imagine the meals using those same ingredients over and over. It would be fun to see some recipes of what they cooked with these supplies. I might research for some (if I get a minute).

Ellen O'Connell said...

Interesting info, Peggy, and I understand all about that fear of taking photos from the Internet after the news about the one guy's lawsuit. Anything that provides Vitamin C would work for scurvy, Caroline. I think the Brits used pickled stuff on ships once they figured out what stopped scurvy.

Peggy Henderson said...

About scurvy - a lot of emigrants suffered from that by the end of the trip because they didn't have enough of the fresh fruits and vegetables. Humans can only go so long on a protein only diet. From what I've been reading, beans and bacon was pretty much a nightly fare. Bringing down a buffalo or other game was a welcome treat, but it doesn't solve the vegetable problem.
Hadn't read about the pickles. Thanks for that, Caroline.

Peggy Henderson said...

Supplies, animals, wagons. The total tally was usually between $700-$900 to finance the trip. That didn't cover tolls for ferries at river crossings, or buying supplies at outposts (I think they did a lot of trading there), and buying equipment for farming once they got to where they were going. Couldn't bring along the plows and farm implements.

Peggy Henderson said...

Ramona, there are lots of recipes on the net using those ingredients.

Meg said...

Interesting list, Peggy -- but what is "pilot bread" ? I wonder if that was some kind of pressed cracker. Hmm. Never heard that term before.

Ciara Gold said...

Loved your post, Peggy. Very informative.