by Minnie Apolis
Don't whine to me about your holiday cookout getting rained out, or how hard it was to get the right temperature for perfect planked fish. Have been reading from Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lilliam Schlissel, and am amazed that people did not give up the whole idea after the first wave.
Most of us suppose that the pioneers who followed dreams of gold in California, or rich land in Oregon Territory, mainly had to worry about unfriendly American Indians. In truth, far more travelers died from disease along the trail than anything else. A cholera epidemic was scaring people into stampeding to the West to escape it. In addition, the usual diseases like smallpox, dysentery, malaria and typhoid were major killers. So many died that the journals always list how many graves they passed each day – one to fifteen graves, generally every day or so.
But still those who pushed on had to eat. First the women or children walked beside the wagons gathering fuel, in the form of weeds and dried buffalo chips. Not as convenient as picking up a bag of charcoal at the store, but at least it was free for the taking. And renewable!
Cooking out in the open was totally unfamiliar to these pioneer women, some of whom came from cities out East. They were all accustomed to cooking on a stove not over a campfire. Two forked sticks had to be driven into the ground – not easy if the land was baked hard under a summer sun – and a pole laid crosswise. The cooking pot hung from the pole. Often as not, cooking pots fell into the fire and the travelers had to eat charred food.
Not having chairs or proper tables meant that the women did a lot of stooping in preparing the food, so you can imagine it was hard on the back, even more so if the wife was pregnant on this trip. Intepid cooks had to improvise... One journal reports that the writer rolled out her pie crust on the seat of the wagon.
One season was marked by nearly constant rains which turned campsites into a muddy mess. The weeds and buffalo chips got too wet to burn well, so the travelers got by on crackers and raw bacon.
A journal reported that one wife “nursed the fire and held an umbrella over the fire and her skillet with the greatest composure for near 2 hours and baked enough bread to give us a very plentiful supper!” I would have liked a photo of that camp wife – and I bet it would garner many views on Youtube even nowadays!
No gas grill, no gas lighters to ease the task of making a fire.
Breakfast on the road was generally bread or pancakes (flapjacks) with fried meat, beans and tea or coffee. The bread was baked in a large kettle or a Dutch oven with a heavy cover.
The wagons were heavy with provisions for a trip expected to take four months or more. Even so, some groups had men who were designated hunters to provide fresh deer, fowl or fish. Women or children might luck onto some berries or nuts and gather all they could. One woman was very pleased to gather about two quarts of hazelnuts.
Provisions generally included the following: hard sea biscuit, crackers, bacon, beans, rice, dried fruit, teas, coffee and sugar. Meat was usually salted or dried. Some women had put up jars of fruit or other goods, carefully wrapped in fabric to cushion against breakage.
The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, an 1845 book, “recommended that each emigrant supply himself with 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt.” Additional supplies might include chipped beef, rice, tea, coffee, dried beans, dried fruit, baking soda, vinegar, pickles, mustard, and tallow (beef fat). Most also took along earth vegetables that kept a long time, like potatoes and turnips.
Bear in mind that everything had to be well wrapped against rain. Also everything had to be unloaded from the wagon to make the river fordings or get the wagon up mountainsides – and reloaded again.
Some pioneers were even better prepared because they took some livestock along to provide fresh food. A couple bachelors kept dairy cows with them on the journey and wound up giving away much of the milk to the children from other wagons, filling their cups with milk warm from the cow. The morning milk, however, was put into a tin churn and loaded onto their wagons; the shaking and bouncing turned it into butter and buttermilk by the time the group made camp that night.
Some took along chickens to provide fresh eggs, some had sheep or a pig or two for fresh meat. And of course the oxen might be turned to meat when too exhausted to pull the wagons anymore – if they were anything more than skin and bones by that point.
One couple was well stocked with items that were intended to resell once they got to California, at a nice profit. This included many bottles of liquor. But alas, all of it had to be dumped by the side of the trail if they were to get over the mountains.
Experienced campers might have survived a few weeks of this travel. But the hard work of each day of making a fire, cooking something edible, cleaning up, packing, getting the children ready – rinse and repeat each day... This is without the added challenges of heat, of unpacking and repacking the wagons for river crossings and steep uphill climbs. Well, those pioneers must have been made of iron and leather.
A good book. – Makes you appreciate the modern conveniences even more.