A Note from Cottonwood Corners

It is interesting to note that food on the early frontier was often ignored or overlooked by the writers and historians of that time.  It is one of the most commonly overlooked details of early travel across America.  Oh, they may have commented from time-to-time about the “hardtack,” “jerky,” and “Indian meal” but that is about all we have been told.

We did learn about our early ancestors carrying a sack of corn meal and mesquite flour along with some sweetener and dried ‘jerked’ meat or pemmican.  That did help to alleviate the hunger; however, a half-pound of corn-meal and dried meat resulted in limited calories.  The relief from hunger lasted for only a short time and those traveling west soon began to lose muscle mass, energy, and endurance in a relatively short amount of time.

It is true that the earliest travelers to the west could harvest the wild game which was available along the route. However, this soon became very limited and in some places quickly disappeared completely.

Our early ancestors who traveled along the numerous western trails produced a large library of cookbooks that featured flavorful dishes, sweet deserts, and other cuisine to tempt the senses.  The problem was the availability of the ingredients and the cost.  Some of the cookbooks especially warned of the harmful effects that the same, monotonous, boring food had on the morale of the early travelers.

For the trip from St. Louis, Missouri to Oregon or California, what was needed?  Corn meal and Jerky would make a decent mid-day snack; however, the average adult burns over 400 calories an hour when hiking under normal conditions.  With a daily requirement of about 2,500 – 5,000+ calories when traveling along the Oregon Trail, the importance of adequate food could not be overemphasized.

The following are some of the key points that the traveler on the frontier across America had to keep in mind:

  • the trip will be about 1,900 miles, possibly more — considering the daily consumption of food being about 3-pounds per day, your wagon can carry enough food and supplies for 3-4 people on average
  • regarding travel times, 15-20 miles a day is good — more than 25 miles a day will ruin the animals
  • depending on road conditions, journey will take about 100 to 110 days — some roads eventually saw a 75-90 day passage — the bulk of your cargo will need to be food
  • don’t count on wild game and forage — the fast pace of travel did not allow the emigrant traveler to forage and game remained scarce and evasive — a few deer, antelope, or buffalo could be picked off from time to time — this was not sufficient to sustain a large group of travelers

“The Prairie Traveler,” the most popular guide for those who were planning to travel across America during the last half of the 1800s, listed what would be needed to sustain one person (man, woman, or child) for a 110-day trip.  The list included:

  • 150 pounds of flour or equivalent in hard bread
  • 25 pounds of bacon or pork and enough beef to be driven “on the hoof” to make up the meat component of the ration (about 125 to 175 pounds per person)
  • 15 pounds of coffee
  • 25 pounds of sugar
  • a quantity of baking soda or yeast powders for making bread and salt and pepper

The following is a short description of a few of the food items which were a part of the meals on the trail to the west:

COFFEE — The coffee beans were safely packed in a convenient place in the wagon were raw and had to be pan-roasted and ground daily as needed.  The grinder was always mounted to the outside of the wagon for easy daily use.  Eventually, “Folger’s Coffee Company” was able to develop a process which resulted in getting freshly roasted, ground coffee that did not become stale before reaching the western frontier. Later, “Arbuckles Coffee” became a popular brand during the long and colorful period of the western cowboy.

EGGS — For travelers on the “open prairie,” fresh eggs were rare unless you were traveling in an area where the earliest setters had established a homestead with livestock and chickens.  Due to their fragility and rarity, they were a valuable medium of exchange all along to the route to the far west.  In 1859, a dozen eggs along the trail cost $2.50 (that would be $92.48 today)!  These eggs had been packed into several barrels filled with liquefied lard.  They survived the 700-mile journey to the gold fields of Colorado and not one shell was cracked!

CANNED MILK — Borden’s Condensed Milk went into production in 1856; however, it was not until the time of the Civil War (1861) that it really came into its own. The milk was packaged in airtight cans in the same way that canned meats, soups, and vegetables were at that time.

The resourcefulness and ingenuity of those women who were responsible for cooking the meals that were eaten on the long trip west cannot be overemphasized.  Just for a moment think about what they were able to do without the convenience of their own private kitchen and the unexpected situations which they had to deal with.  And they did it all without any of the Martha Stewart products!



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on October 4, 2023