This is the second in a three-part series about food and the Oregon Trail.
What would you take on your Oregon Trail journey?
The long journey on the Oregon Trail usually started in April. Anyone starting later might not make it in time to cross the Rockies, Sierras and Cascades before the winter snows began.
Emigrants traveled in groups of covered wagons for safety and support on the trail. The first days of cooking on the trail were an eye-opening and challenging new experience. Some pioneer women brought their iron ovens from home, but these appliances were heavy and required a lot of wood so they were often abandoned along the trail.
A Dutch oven and a reflector oven were more practical tools. A Dutch oven is a cast iron pot with a lid. A reflector oven, also known as a tin kitchen, was akin to a large can with one side partially open to catch the direct heat from the fire while the other side reflected heat to the cooking surface on the bottom of the can. Learning to use these tools on an open fire took quite a bit of trial and error to master.
Pretend kitchen play with cast iron pots and pans by the hearth at Job Carr Cabin Museum
Finding fresh water was a high daily priority. Although the Oregon Trail tended to follow rivers, sometimes the rivers became slow and dirty flows. Pails of water scooped from water sources often had thick layers of mud or silt. Pioneers used cornmeal to filter out the mud as best they could, but unavoidably, much dirt was consumed. Pioneer Helen Carpenter wrote in her trail diary that the pioneers became “impervious to what would kill ordinary mortals.”5 If water was unavailable, the travelers “drycamped” which meant eating dry food and having nothing to drink. This situation certainly did not help the spirits of the travelers.
Good fuel was critical for cooking over a campfire. If wood was plentiful, it could be gathered during travel breaks, but it was most efficient for the pioneers to gather fuel as they walked throughout the day. Once the great plains of the west were reached, trees were few and Overlanders resorted to collecting dry buffalo dung to use as fuel. Although unappealing to think about, the “chips” lit easily and burned well. The odor was minimal if the chips were very dry.
Anyone who has tried to start a fire in the rough knows that it is not easy. Pioneers tried many methods, such as flint and steel or directing sunlight through a glass. Matches existed, but the earliest versions had to be kept very dry to work and had a tendency to explode, thereby earning them the name of "lucifers."
The Daily Routine
Women rose before dawn and started the day by reviving the prior night’s campfire from the ashes. In a spider (frying pan), they roasted green coffee beans, ground them in a coffee grinder and then brewed them in water over the fire. If the unthinkable happened and the coffee supply ran out, the pioneers would resort to sipping corn or pea brew.6
In addition to coffee or tea, breakfast included something warm, such as cornmeal mush, cornmeal cakes (“Johnny Cakes”) or a bowl of rice. There was usually fresh baked bread or biscuits. To bake the bread, the dough was placed in a dutch oven. The oven was then set on the fire embers and the lid stacked with hot coals for more even cooking. Baked or simmered beans, begun the night before, could be on the menu as well.
Bacon was eaten several times a day. It was such a mainstay that emigrant Helen Carpenter remarked, “…one does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is bacon and bread.”7 Bacon on the journey had to have been previously smoked to preserve it as long as possible and to “get rid of its tendency to walk in insect form.”8 Despite precautions, much bacon spoiled and large lumps of it were dumped along the trail; which likely caused much concern but perhaps the tiniest sense of relief as well.
If a dairy cow traveled with the family, its milk was collected and put in a churn attached to the wagon so that the rocking motion of the wagon would turn it to butter. Breakfast leftovers were packed up and the pioneers were on the trail while it was still early morning.
The goal was to travel 15 to 20 miles per day. About midday, the travelers would stop for their “nooning” rest and meal. Lunch choices could include breakfast leftovers, more beans but now cold and with bacon, bread and crackers, rice and dried beef.
A day’s travel ended in the early evening. The dinner menu was similar to breakfast and lunch (beans again!), but could also include fresh buffalo or antelope meat or prairie hens if hunting had been successful. Using their ingenuity and the materials at hand, pioneer women prepared special foods to relieve the eating monotony. Pumpkin and apple pies, wild strawberry dumplings, molasses pudding, potato pudding, cakes, ginger bread and vinegar lemonade must have delighted the family palates.
Weather had a big impact on the pioneer’s eating habits. For example, if it was raining hard enough that a fire couldn’t be built, hardtack was the meal. Hardtack was one of the least liked foods on the trail.9 Made with flour and water, cut into biscuit form and baked, it would last for years, but was stiff and had little flavor. Dunking the tough biscuit into coffee would add a little flavor and create a softer texture.
Bakken, Gordon Morris and Brenda Farrington. Encyclopedia of Women in the American West. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003.
Crewe, Sabrina and Michael V. Uschan. The Oregon Trail. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2005.
Fanselow, Julie. Traveling the Oregon Trail, 2nd edition. Guilford, CT: Falcon, 2001.
Gunderson, Mary. Oregon Trail Cooking. Mankato, MN: Blue Earth Books, 2000.
Historic Oregon City, End of the Trail Interpretive Center. The Oregon Trail Chronology. http://www.historicoregoncity.org/end-of-the-oregon-trail-history/70-oregon-trail-history/107-oregon-trail-chronology
Ichord, Loretta Frances. Skillet Bread, Sourdough, and Vinegar Pie: Cooking in Pioneer Days. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 2003.
Isaacs, Sally Senzell. The Oregon Trail. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2004.
St. Joseph Missouri Gazette. Letter to the Editor from Kay Conn. March 19, 1847 (as cited in http://personal.my180.net/thesmiths/oregontrailrecipes.html )
Whitman, Narcissa from her letters (as cited in http://oregontrail101.com/00.ar.whitman1.html)
Williams, Jacqueline. Wagon Wheel Kitchens: Food on the Oregon Trail. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas , 1993.
About the Author: Nancy Flagg volunteered with Job Carr Cabin Museum as a freelance writer living in Sacramento, California. After seeing our ad for a volunteer writer, she visited the museum's website and was intrigued by the log cabin, Job Carr's role in Tacoma history and the clear community and staff support for the museum. When not writing, Nancy can be found working as a university financial administrator, playing the euphonium (a tenor tuba) or playing bass guitar in the all-women-over-50 class rock bank that she founded.