Monday, June 24, 2013


Recently, a friend and I were discussing travel by wagon, by coach, and by horse. Then friends and I discussed an early book on life on the range. These discussions reminded me of a post I did on another blog a couple of years ago. This information fascinates me, so I hope you will enjoy reading or re-reading this. I can’t imagine going through this experience. I’ve moved many times, but always knew I could return or visit whenever I wished. Not so with our ancestors who moved across the country.

Several things in the list included in the following excerpt surprised me. For instance, I shared with my husband that pickles prevent scurvy. I had previously thought greens had to be fresh. He loves pickles and often says he is preventing scurvy before he bites down on a crunch spear.

Linda Hubalek graciously allowed me to quote from her book TRAIL OF THREAD, in which Dorothy Pieratt describes preparing for the trip West from Kentucky to Kansas. If you haven’t read this series, do yourself a favor and acquire a copy of at least the first book, TRAIL OF THREAD. One of the things the book pointed out that is not included in this excerpt is that women often had no say in whether the family moved or not. Men generally decided the family's fate. In this instance, the wife does not want to leave, but defers to her husband.

Here is the excerpt from Linda’s book:

We debated, but finally packed two wagons for each family. We felt it was better for the animals’ sake to limit the weight on each wagon to around 2000 pounds instead of overloading one wagon....Since we need six oxen per wagon, we bought extra animals a few weeks ago. John decided to use oxen instead of mules because the oxen are easily managed, patient, and gentle--even with the children--and not easily driven off or prone to stampeding like mules and horses...After much discussion, John agreed to hitch a cage of chickens on the back of the wagon.

Yesterday we sold everything that wouldn’t fit in the wagons at a public auction on our farm. The strain of the day is still on my mind. This morning I’ve been ready to fetch something and then I stop in midstep, wondering if it’s tucked in the wagon or was sold yesterday. It was hard to see most of the animals and all but a few chickens leave the place. But we can’t take everything along, and we need the money.

New wagon beds were built using seasoned oak boards. Sides were jointed together. No nails were used that could work out along the bumpy road and spell disaster. Along the inside of the three-foot-high sides, John built long boxes running the length of the wagon for storage. These boxes will serve as seats during the day if the children want to ride inside. We just add boards cut to fit across the storage boxes, put bedding on top, and the wagon is outfitted for sleeping. The boards fit in a wooden holder that runs along the outside of the wagon. They can also be used to make a bench or table when laid across stumps, or, heaven forbid, as lumber for a coffin. 

I had a big hand in preparing the wagons, too. The wagon beds were fitted with a framework of hickory bows high enough to give head clearance, and I hand-sewed long pieces of cloth together for coverings. It was quite an undertaking. It had to be tight, strong enough to withstand heavy winds, and rainproof so things inside don’t get soaked. Even though it was extra work, I ended up making them a double thickness to keep out the cold. A dark muslin went over the framework first, then a heavy white linen. The dark cloth cuts down on the brightness of the reflection as we walk beside the wagon. I coated the outside material with a mixture of hot beeswax and linseed oil for waterproofing. It turned the material a sand color, which should help the reflection, too. The covering is drawn together on the ends by a strong cord to form tight circles. End flaps can be buttoned on to completely seal the wagon top. My stitches and buttonholes will be tested by the first storm we run into. I even stitched pockets on the inside covering to hold little things like our comb, sunbonnets, and other personal things I didn’t want out of reach.

John borrowed a guidebook to Oregon and California from a neighbor, which suggested that for each adult going to California, a party should carry 200 pounds of flour, 30 of hardtack, 75 of bacon, 10 of rice, 5 of coffee, 2 of tea, 25 of sugar, 2 of saleratus, 10 of salt, a half-bushel each of cornmeal, parched, and ground corn, and a small keg of vinegar. We’re not going to California (unless the men change their minds), so we shouldn’t need that much per person, but we’ll need supplies until we get crops and garden planted and harvested. Who knows how long it will be until towns with stores get established in the new territory?

I’ll take one barrel of pickled cucumbers along to prevent scurvy...the decision of what kind and quality of item to trade for had to be made...The mill sells different grades of flour. I wish I could have bought the superfine flour, sifted several times...I bought the next grade, middlings, for our cooking. It’s much more coarse and granular, but it serves the purpose...The mill’s shorts, a cross between wheat bran and coarse whole wheat flour, looked clean, so I also bought 125-pound sack of it...

We can’t afford to carry the flour in heavy barrels, so it is mostly stacked in fifty-pound cotton cloth to cut down on weight. Because the flour is not kiln-dried, we double-sacked it in a leather bag. If the flour absorbs too much moisture, I’ll end up with a heavy loaf and will have to add more flour to my baking.

Sorghum molasses, our main sweetener, will make the trip in small wooden kegs...For special occasions, I bought three cones of white sugar. The New Orleans sugar we buy reasonably in the stores her may fo for top dollar on the frontier. The cones resemble pointed hats. They are molded atthe factory, and wrapped in blue paper. Usually I leave the cones whole and use sugar snippers, a cross between scissors and pliers, to break off lumps as I need them. To save space on the trip, I ground up the cones and divided the two types of sugar (the white sugar on the top gradually changes to brown sugar on the bottom), then sifted to remove the impurities. The storekeeper said I should pack it in India rubber sacks to keep it dry, but I decided not to add that extra expense. I tucked the cone papers in the wagon because I can extract the indigo dye from it to color yarn and material blue.

I also bought a small quantity of low grade brown sugar since it is ten cents cheaper than the cones. It’s dark, smelly, sticky, and sometimes dirty, but it still gives sweet taste to cooking.

Parched corn is another sacked commodity in the wagon. The kernels were sun dried last fall and I’ll grind them into meal with the mortar when I need it.

Smoked bacon was double-wrapped in cloth, put in wooden boxes, and covered with bran to prevent the fat from melting during the trip. I cooked the crocks of cut meat I had left into a thick jelly. After it set up in pans and dried, we broke it into pieces and packed it in tins. If I add boiling water to some, we’ll have portable soup on the trail.

Smaller sacks of beans, rice, salt, saleratus, and coffee are wedged around the whiskey jugs underneath the wagon seat. The medicine box, filled with tiny cloth sachets holding dried medicinal herbs and little medicine bottles, is wedged on top, ready for an emergency.

I put the sacks of yeast cakes, dried bread, and hardtack inside one of the long boxes, along with the box of homemade soap bars. I’ll have small sacks of each staple in the back box and refill them from the bigger sacks when I need to.

The back end of the wagon drops down partway on chains and will serve as a preparation table for food or for other jobs. The provision box faces the back so it can be opened up without hauling the box out of the wagon every time. It has my tinware, cooking utensils and small sacks of necessities for cooking everyday.

Campfire cooking with a kettle, although
pioneers would probably have used
far less wood to limit the flames

Wish I could have brought all my kitchen utensils, but I settled for two spider skillets, three Dutch ovens of various sizes, the reflector for baking, the coffee pot, the coffee mill, the mortar and pestle, a few baking pans, knives, and my rolling pin.

Walking out to the wagons for the umpteenth time, it struck me that they are starting to look like a peddler’s caravan. They are overflowing with items attached to the sides. The wooden washtubs and zinc washboard are fastened to one side of the wagon. The walking plow is lashed to the other side. Small kegs of water, vinegar, and molasses fit in where needed to balance the wagon. Everybody can see what we own because it’s hanging in plain sight.

The second wagon is packed even tighter than the first with household and farming tools we’ll need after we get to our new land. All the boxes are packed tight so they won’t slide around, rattle, or spill. I hope we won’t have to unpack it until we reach our destination.

Heading West

Whew, aren't you glad we live today instead of back with our pioneer ancestors? While it would be nice to visit for a day, I am happy to be living with modern conveniences.

You can learn more about Linda Hubalek’s TRAIL OF THREAD at


mesadallas said...

My husband would swear that's how I pack for a one week vacation.

Ginger Simpson said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Made me want to read more. Thanks for sharing.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks for posting this, Caroline. I love all the details and descriptions of the items. It was quite an endeavor just to get ready for the trip. Selling everything you own except what few things fit on the wagon would be wrenching.

Meg Mims said...

WOW - love the details here. Great stuff, CC! Great blog post.

Ciara Gold said...

Incredible and I'm with Meg, the details are wonderful. Will have to look for this book. Thanks for posting.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Thanks, ladies. I enjoyed the book for the details. She tells of cooking, crossing rivers, and other experiences helpful to western writers. Although fiction, the book is based on letters from an ancestor who made this trip.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I was surprised (and pleased) to see that Trail of Thread and the other books in the series are available for Kindle. Went ahead and ordered Trail of Thread for now. Thanks for the info.