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Oregon Trail Foods: Preparing for the Journey

Written by Nancy Flagg

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2009 Fall issue

This is the first in a three-part series about food and the Oregon Trail.

The second post is available here. The third post is available here.

The dining table at Job Carr Cabin Museum.
Photo credit: Emily Sight Photography

Imagine sitting down to make your grocery list. It might take ten minutes to write the list and another hour to pick up the items at the store. Now imagine making your provision list for a four to six month journey on the Oregon Trail in the 1800’s. Your wagon has to be stocked with everything you will need because the opportunities for re-stocking on the trail are limited. The task is a daunting one and miscalculations could be life-threatening.

What were the eating habits of the pioneers on the Oregon Trail? Understanding their culinary practices provides an intimate glimpse into everyday life on the travelers’ westward path.

The Oregon Trail was a 2,000-mile wagon trail that emigrants took from points east (such as St. Joseph or Independence, Missouri) to Oregon and other western destinations. An estimated 250,000 to 650,000 people migrated on the trial between 1841 and 1866.1 Use of the trail declined after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

Preparing for the Journey

When planning for the trip, the travelers, also called “Overlanders”, were not completely on their own. Letters from relatives and friends who had already blazed the trail could be helpful sources of information. In addition, there were written guidebooks, not unlike today’s Rick Steves or Fodor travel guides. “The Prairie Traveler. A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions” written by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy in 1859 was an all-in-one guide that not only listed recommended rations but also gave pointers on purifying water, crossing water, preventing stampedes, repairing broken wagons, herding mules, jerking meat, making lariats and selecting routes.

The various reference sources provided fairly comparable lists of essential provisions. Generally, the following minimum rations were recommended for each adult person:

  • 120-200 pounds of flour in canvas sacks
  • 30 pounds of hardtack or crackers
  • 25-75 pounds of bacon
  • 15 pounds ground corn
  • ½ bushel cornmeal
  • 10-50 pounds of rice
  • 2 pounds of saleratus (an early form of baking soda)
  • 10 pounds of salt
  • 25 pounds of sugar
  • 5-15 pounds of coffee
  • 2 pounds of tea
  • 1-2 bushels of dried fruit (often apples)
  • ½ - 2 bushels of dried beans
  • Vinegar, butter preserved in tin canisters, salt, pepper, spices, lemon extract
  • Whiskey or brandy for medicinal purposes

Basic cooking gear included a dutch oven, coffee pot, cast iron skillet or spider (frying pan with legs for sitting on the fire), reflector oven, tin cups and plates, cutlery, bread pan, rolling pin, coffee mill, churn, water barrel and fire-starting matches or flint and steel. An axe, fishing pole and rifle were also important for obtaining food on the trip.

Supplies for a trip on the Oregon Trail are included in Job Carr Cabin Museum's traveling trunks for schools.

Families would also bring personal favorite foods, clothes, supplies, books and furniture, but had to be very mindful of weight. The recommended weight limit for the wagons was 2,000 pounds. Just the food for one family could weigh from 1,300 to 1,800 pounds leaving very little room anything else.2

Since there was no refrigeration, food had to be nonperishable or preserved by salting or pickling.

The cost to fully stock a wagon and buy oxen or mules was about $600-$8003 or approximately $17,000-$23,000 in current day dollars.

Some families would grow or prepare portions of their own food prior to leaving on the trip, but merchants who catered to the travelers were ready to lend their assistance. A letter written to the St. Joseph Gazette on March 6, 1846 helpfully noted that St. Joseph “has 13 large mercantile establishments, which are capable of furnishing every article in the Grocery and Dry Good line that may be required for an outfit…”4

Works Cited

Bakken, Gordon Morris and Brenda Farrington. Encyclopedia of Women in the American West. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003.

Bureau of Land Management. National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Baker City, Oregon. Frequently Asked Questions. http://www.blm.gov/or/oregontrail/history-faqs.php

City of Tumwater, A Recipe from the Oregon Trail. http://www.ci.tumwater.wa.us/researchpioneerrecipe.htm

Crewe, Sabrina and Michael V. Uschan. The Oregon Trail. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2005.

Delano, Alonzo. Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings. New York: Miller Orton & Co. 1857. (as shown at http://www.journeycalifornia.com/life-on-the-plains-and-among-the-diggings)

Fanselow, Julie. Traveling the Oregon Trail, 2nd edition. Guilford, CT: Falcon, 2001.

Gunderson, Mary. Oregon Trail Cooking. Mankato, MN: Blue Earth Books, 2000.

Flora, Stephanie (ed.). What Should I Pack? 2007. http://www.oregonpioneers.com/packing.htm

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

Historic Oregon City, End of the Trail Interpretive Center. Women on the Trail.

http://www.historicoregoncity.org/end-of-the-oregon-trail-history/oregon-trail-history/105-women-on-the-trail

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.

Job Carr Cabin Museum. The History of Job Carr.  http://www.jobcarrmuseum.org/history.html

Marcy, Capt. Randolph B. The Prairie Traveler A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions. War Department, 1959 (as shown in http://www.kancoll.org/books/marcy/ )

Measuring Worth. Measuring Worth, 2011. http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/relativevalue.php

St. Joseph Missouri Gazette. Letter to the Editor from Kay Conn. March 19, 1847 (as cited in http://personal.my180.net/thesmiths/oregontrailrecipes.html )

National Oregon/California Trail Center, Montpelier, Idaho. A Day on the Trail. http://www.oregontrailcenter.org/HistoricalTrails/ADayOnTheTrail.htm

Tompkins, Prof. Jim (ed.). In Their Own Words: Packing to Go. http://www.oregonpioneers.com/Packing2.htm

Tompkins, Prof. Jim (ed.). In Their Own Words: Meals on the Trail. http://www.oregonpioneers.com/MealQuotes.htm

Tompkins, Prof. Jim (ed.). In Their Own Words: Camp Life. http://www.oregonpioneers.com/CampQuotes.htm

Washington HistoryLink.org. First emigrant wagon train crosses Naches Pass through the Cascade Mountains in the fall of 1853. http://historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=5053

Whitman Mission National Historic Site. National Park Ranger/Education Specialist Mike Dedman. Recipes from the Oregon Trail. Web. www.nps.gov/whmi

Whitman, Narcissa from her letters (as cited in http://oregontrail101.com/00.ar.whitman1.html)

Wikipedia. Oregon Trail.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_Trail  

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 could 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.

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