Traveling Cross Country in a Wagon Train in the Mid 1800s


Over half a million people crossed the plains and the mountains toward the west coast in the mid-1800s.

Back in November, I was writing the first draft of my latest NaNoWriMo project. My working title is Little Africa. (for more about Little Africa, check out my article about this place) I know that there will be a better name for it, but in the process of writing that story, I decided at the end that my characters would go west with a wagon train.

Even though I know I will be ending the book with them going to the west coast by wagon train, I decided that I wasn’t going to write any book about the topic, but I am putting this information in the footnotes at the back of the book as some of the added material that I include. The reason I am not writing that story is that the story of people crossing the prairie to the west coast has already been done many times. However, that doesn’t stop me from writing about it at all.

The wagon train experience began In 1834 when a merchant from New England named Nathaniel Wyeth and an Episcopalian missionary named Jason Lee led the first eighty people to take the 2170 mile trip from Missouri to Oregon on what became the Oregon Trail.

By the end of the 1860s, half a million pioneers had traveled overland to the far West in search of new land, gold, and a new life. These pioneers gave up almost everything they possessed and left behind families that they might never see again. These people walked across half a continent through prairies, high deserts, and snow-covered mountains. They passed through territories that would later become Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

Approximately ten percent of the travelers died along the trail usually, not from Indian attacks but, from disease or accidents. The wagon train routes across the country were considered by many to be the longest cemetery in the world.

Why?

Why did they take this journey? Some were escaping frequent outbreaks of diseases like malaria and dysentery in the crowded Eastern states. Many were the children of pioneers who had homesteaded in Indiana, Illinois, and the Michigan territories. This younger generation was forced to move further west because all the best river-bottom land for farming had already been claimed, and the competition for even the less-desirable farmland was fierce due to immigration.

Seventy percent of the travelers were farmers. They knew that in order to get the best land, they had to get there first. In 1850 the U.S. Congress ceded land in the Western territories to settlers by granting a square mile of land to each married couple and their children would inherit it.

Gold discoveries in California also drew people to the West Coast. Congress gave actual settlers 640 acres in California. In 1849, many folks began the journey as “49ers,” heading for the newly discovered goldfields of the Sierra foothills of California.

Later in the 1860s, some went west to escape the looming Civil War. But no matter the reason, there was one underlying sentiment shared by nearly every pioneer. Manifest Destiny was a deep-seated belief that the growth of the United States was divinely preordained.

The Trail

With a few exceptions, all the major Western trails started near the frontier town of Independence, Missouri. From Independence or at various branches further to the west, the traveler could head southwest on the Santa Fe Trail, west to Sacramento on the California Trail, or continue northwest to Oregon. The Mormon Trail, which lead to Salt Lake City, began in the town of Nauvoo, Illinois, and crossed the Missouri River north of Independence at Council Bluff, eventually joining up with the Oregon Trail near Fort Laramie, Wyoming.

They needed to leave late enough in the spring to provide grass for the livestock, so they did not leave any earlier than mid-April. However, they also didn’t want to leave in June because of the possibility of facing early snows in the mountains. They had to leave sometime between mid-April and during May. However, this meant facing swollen rivers, violent thunderstorms, and blistering mid-summer heat while crossing the deserts of southern Wyoming, Idaho, and eastern Oregon.

Preparing for the Trip

Before leaving, these pioneers acquired travel guidebooks like The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California, written by Lansford Hastings. All the travel guides provided commonly known details about travel distances, river crossings, the cost of food and equipment, and what dangerous situations they might face.

Oxen were much preferred over horses or mules by experienced travelers. These animals were more easily managed, were not likely to run away or die because of the hardships, cost less than horses or mules, and were worth more in Oregon. In addition, if the situation because necessary, they could always eat the oxen. Wagons with three yoke of oxen (two oxen per yoke) were required to make a successful journey.

Most of the wagons we see in movies are not the wagons that they used. Those wagons are Conestoga wagons, but these large freight-moving vessels were far too heavy to navigate open prairie, muddy river crossings, and mountain passes.

The wagon used by most pioneers was the “prairie schooner.”  This wagon was four feet wide and ten feet long. These light but strong wagons had vertical or slightly canted sides with waterproofed canvas covers supported by bent-wood ribbing. This wagon carried a maximum of 2,500 pounds of supplies. This made it necessary to walk rather than ride in a wagon.

Because of the weight limit, family members walked and guided the oxen. The only people to ride in the wagons were those too ill to walk. Some people set up their wagons so that they could sleep in them, but usually, these pioneers slept in tents or under the stars. They needed as much space as possible for storing their needed goods.

A complete wagon, three yokes of oxen, and the food needed for a five-member family cost a minimum of Six hundred dollars or equal to fifteen thousand dollars in today’s money. Poor farmers weren’t always able to come up with cash for these journeys so they did what they could like selling their land to a neighbor for what they could get or getting someone else to sponsor their trip cross country with the understanding that they would be paid back after they started making money from their new farm. Single young men and women were often hired on as “trail helpers” to wealthier individuals who were making the trip.

The food that was recommended for the trip for each adult was two hundred pounds of flour, thirty pounds of pilot bread, seventy-five pounds of bacon, ten pounds of rice, five pounds of coffee, two pounds of tea, twenty-five pounds of sugar, half a bushel of dried beans, one bushel of dried fruit, two pounds of saleratus, ten pounds of salt, half a bushel of corn meal; and a half-bushel of parched ground corn, as well as a small keg of vinegar.

Flour in the mid-1800s was not the bleached and enriched flour available today. Then, the pioneer had to choose between three types of flour: shorts, middlings, and superfine.

“Shorts” was a coarse-ground flour somewhere between wheat bran and whole wheat. It was poorly sifted and retained a high degree of impurities. Shorts flour was often the least-expensive option.“ Middlings”  was a remainder product formed during the separation of bran from white flour. High in gluten, “middlings” became a waste product for many mills and were often sold as an inexpensive flour without further refinement. “Superfine” flour was as close to modern white flour but was more like unbleached flour than what we have today.

They baked bread on the trail every day. They used small sheet-iron ovens, or dutch ovens, or they fried biscuits in a skillet.

Building fires on the trip was problematic because firewood was in short supply. Instead, on the prairies, they used small piles of “dried buffalo chips” or dried buffalo manure. These chips burned steadily and had little odor. When chips were in short supply, sagebrush was used.

Commercial yeast was not available at the time. Any yeast used had a short shelf life and was delivered from breweries as a by-product of beer making therefore could not be used on these cross-country endeavors. Sourdough starters were also problematic because it required a long time to make bread rise and rising bread or pastries required a place that wasn’t moving.

The answer to the problem was saleratus, a precursor to our modern baking soda. This was discovered by chemists in the late 1700s. It was a form of bicarbonate of soda that, when added to the dough, released carbon dioxide upon heating, causing the bread to rise. A natural source was found along the Oregon Trail near Independence Rock, Wyoming.

The other staple of trail life was bacon. Bacon then was any pig meat from the sides, hams, or shoulders that received a salt cure. This bacon rarely survived the entire journey and often became rancid or suffered insect infestation because of its fat content.

This was sometimes remedied by purchasing bacon at various forts along the way but at much higher prices.

Unlike salt pork or beef (which was kept barreled in a brine solution), bacon was stored dry in bug-proof bags or boxes. In hot climates, bacon was buried in bran,  supposedly this kept the fat from absorbing it.

Parched corn (corn whose kernels had been sun-dried or roasted in an oven) was very popular with the pioneers, if for no other reason than because it did not spoil easily. It was usually ground into rough flour and cooked as mush, which was served with milk from the traveler’s cows.

Dried fruits were a staple, not only amongst the pioneers but for practically everyone in 19th century America. Dried vegetables were less common with pioneers. This changed in 1859 with the publication of Randolph Marcy’s The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook for Overland Expeditions in 1859. Where he suggested each traveler have desiccated vegetables, or dried vegetables,  a product used extensively in the Crimean War.

Coffee was not just a staple on the trail, it was often the only thing left near the end of the journey. Trail coffee was green (unroasted) beans because roasted or ground coffee traveled poorly and quickly lost flavor. They roasted the beans in a skillet over a fire, then ground them in a coffee grinder.

Medicinal Supplies

Disease was the big killer on the trail. In the mid-1800s, effective medical supplies were limited. A medical kit included “a little blue mass” which was mercury-based and used for many different diseases from constipation to tuberculosis. Opium and quinine were used for pain.

Weapons

They also carried a five-gallon drum of “medicinal spirits” a benign name for whiskey, brandy, or rum.

Everyone carried weapons for protection and to provide meat along the trail. Most travelers had a muzzle-loading long gun musket or rifle. Pistols were rare and expensive. Every wagon was equipped with gunpowder, shot molds, and lead for casting rifle balls.

Other Items

They also took clothing, camping supplies, day-to-day tools, livestock supplies, and a few keepsakes many of the family heirlooms were discarded along the route. Seed and plow blades were brought by farmers. Skilled craftsmen often brought additional wagons with the tools of their trades. Many family Bibles made the trip across the country along as did family cows.

The Trail’s End

While on the trail, couples married, gave birth, or broke up.  They suffered wagon mishaps. They developed a kinship with fellow travelers.

Many of the emigrants who arrived in Oregon or California were starving, with no provisions left. Others had some preserved food but had become sick and worn out from the journey. Many had also spent their last dollar.

The pioneers who had already made the journey were there to help the new arrivals. They helped stragglers in need.  Most of the new settlers arrived in the late fall or early winter, too late to put in a crop or do more than hastily construct winter quarters. Neighbors, churches, and civic committees worked together to keep the new arrivals alive, at least long enough to help them to get in a crop and “prove-up” their homesteads. Many of them considered that having thousands of new neighbors both armed and starving was a disaster waiting to happen. Anyone who wanted to work was offered employment even if their labors were rewarded in food rather than gold.

The Locket Saga

The research above was done for a future book in the Locket Saga series. In this series, a locket is passed from generation to generation of ordinary Americans who are a part of extraordinary events as family members are born, live, marry, and as they pass the torch and the locket to the next generation.

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