What Pioneers Ate
Updated: May 11
Growing up in Iowa from a long line of farm families, I lived close to the land and food sources. If you’ve ever chopped off a chicken’s head with an axe, then watched
that chicken run frantically around the farmyard without its head, you know what I’m talking about.
Pioneer survival, too, depended on harsh realities and there was little room for sentimentality in food production. Feeding a family was hard, physically and emotionally, and a constant, pressing concern, especially during the long, frigid
winter months. Traveling thousands of miles on trails West was the first gauntlet and journals are littered with desperate stories of having to eat pet oxen and horses, dying of thirst or bad water, being poisoned by toxic cow’s milk, or losing a pig to swine fever, which meant losing meat for the winter. Homesteaders, when they finally arrived, had to be largely self-sufficient. They brought seeds for planting gardens and crops, kept chickens for eggs and meat, pigs for bacon, and cows for milk and, sometimes, meat. Water was always a vital resource and had to be accessible.
Settlers learned to forage off the land, hunting and gathering berries and native fruit, nuts, edible bulbs. Nearly anything that had fur or feathers could be eaten and was. Although venison, buffalo, rabbit, turkey, geese, and duck were the most commonly hunted, squirrel, possum, cougar or other wild cats, boar, badger, raccoon, and snake were perfectly edible. Squirrels were hard to hit and most larger caliber guns would obliterate much of the animal. So, squirrels were “barked,” that is, the bark or wood shot from underneath them so they would fall and then could be butchered without lead shot in the carcass. And, Jim Bridger, the famed mountain man and scout, claimed cougar was the most delicious meat of all! And snake—even venomous ones could be eaten—tasted like...you guessed it... chicken! The 1870’s “Housekeeping in Old Virginia Cookbook” is full of recipes for wild game, as well as parts of domestic animals we wince at today: barbecue squirrel, calf’s head soup, baked sheep’s head, scalloped sturgeon, baked hog tongue, pig jowl and turnip salad, turtle soup, pigeon pie, pig head hash, tongue a la terrapin (turtle), soused calves’ feet, roast ox heart, calf brain pudding, and lamb brain fricassee are just a sampling of delicious frontier cuisine.
A wide variety of meats, especially beef, pork, chicken, venison, buffalo, boar, and some fish, were smoked, cured or jerked to preserve them. Cured meat was soaked in salt water with herbs and spices. Smoked meat was cooked for a long time over low charcoal or wood smoke, imparting a smoky taste to the meat. Jerking was meat usually cut in thin strips, cured first then air-dried in the sun. One of the few advantages of cold winters was that meat could also be preserved by freezing and Mother Nature provided the icebox.
It’s hard to imagine that many fruits and vegetables we take for granted today were not indigenous to North America originally. Wild fruits, for example, were limited to wild grapes, blueberries, elderberries, mulberries, cranberries, pawpaw, wild plums, persimmon, choke cherry, and wild strawberries. It’s hard to imagine apples, peaches, pears, cherries, citrus, (even rhubarb!) were brought here by Europeans and Chinese. In fact, peaches—and pigs—were some of the first invasive species in North America! In 1539, the Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto landed near what is today Tampa Bay, Florida. He brought with him 600 men and lots of peaches and pigs. Both spread like wildfire and soon indigenous tribes were growing peach orchards for themselves. Of course, Americans know Johnny Appleseed as the champion of the apple. (No, apples are not indigenous to our continent. They originated in Kazakhstan!) He planted orchards from Pennsylvania to as far west as Illinois until 1845. (See related post, JOHNNY APPLESEED) After that, pioneers took apples--and apple seeds--with them west.
Corn, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, pumpkins, wild rice, tobacco, and some nuts were indigenous to North America and planted by various Native American tribes when whites arrived. Peas, carrots, celery, onions, white rice, even okra, were not indigenous to North America and were brought to the New World.
The Oregon Trail took roughly four to six months to complete. (See related post, WHAT PIONEERS PACKED TO GO WEST) Packing could mean the difference between life and death on the trail and varied wildly depending upon the sensibilities (and sometimes the sense!) of travelers. James Miller’s 1848 diary entry describes what they packed for food: “We had… 200 lbs. flour for each person, 100 lbs. bacon, cornmeal, dried apples and peaches, beans, salt, pepper, rice, tea, coffee, sugar, and many smaller articles for such a trip.” Pioneers also commonly packed 80 lbs. lard, 20 lbs. sugar, 10 lbs. each of coffee and salt per person, yeast, hardtack and crackers.
Some brought cattle to butcher along the way. Many brought a milk cow and a chicken or two for eggs. Each morning, after milking the cow, the buckets of milk were covered and hung under the wagon. The jarring of the unsprung axle would churn the milk! At night, the fresh butter would be skimmed off. A Dutch oven was the standard cooking container because it was versatile and could be used to bake bread, cook soups, grill meat, and make oatmeal in the morning. Most wagons had a “chuck box” at the back of the wagon that consisted of a fold-down table surface in front of a cabinet that contained food stuffs, utensils, plates and basics needed to prepare a meal. Large wooden water kegs on the sides of the wagons were resupplied from rivers along the way.
Because homesteading, farming and ranching were so physically hard, carbohydrates were important to maintain energy. Breads, potatoes, rice, and starchy foods put backbone into a meal and the hungry souls who ate it. The mainstays of a pioneer diet were simple fare like potatoes, beans and rice, hardtack (which is simply flour, water, 1 teaspoon each of salt and sugar, then baked), soda biscuits (flour, milk, one t. each of carbonate of soda and salt), Johnny cakes, cornbread, cornmeal mush, and bread. But, slathered in butter, anything is good! Fruit jellies sweetened breads and hardtack. Applesauce and boiled eggs were also common. Savory and fruit pies stuck to the ribs and were made with a universal recipe called “101-year-old pastry” from flour, lard, salt, an egg, and vinegar.
Soups and stews were also popular and had the advantage of flexibility in using whatever leftovers were available. In 1910, Horace Kephart wrote "The Book of Camping and Woodcraft: A Guidebook for Those who Travel in the Wilderness." In it, he featured a classic pioneer concoction called the “Never-Go-Bad Perpetual Soup.” He wrote: “Into it go all the clean ends of game — heads, tails, wings, feet, giblets, large bones — also the leftovers of fish, flesh, and fowl, of any and all sorts of vegetables, rice or other cereals, macaroni, stale bread, everything edible.” The pot is “always kept hot” and its “flavors are forever changing, but ever welcome.”
For dessert, custards, a variety of bread, rice and hasty puddings, pies, and fruit cobblers were common. A simple classic pudding called “Spotted Pup” was rice, milk, eggs with a dash of salt and sugar, fancied up with raisins and nutmeg, then cooked.
Lack of supplies and currency fostered creative alternatives to favorite dishes. Molasses or honey stood in for sugar. Vinegar could be used to imitate lemons. Boiled, mashed beans mixed with plenty of nutmeg and allspice made a lovely pumpkin pie. Catharine Beecher’s popular 1873 book, “Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper,” recommended that "two tablespoonfuls of snow, stewed in quickly [to the batter] is equal to one egg in puddings or pan cakes." Another frontier cook determined that you could stew up "orange marmalade" by boiling carrots in a sugary syrup flavored with ginger.
Even the simplest ingredients, like water, could be hard to come by. Carrying water to the house, garden and livestock was arduous work and a constant task. Keeping a fire stoked with wood or buffalo chips was never-ending and backbreaking. (A rule of thumb was a family needed a wood pile as big as their cabin to cook and warm their home for the winter.) Collecting eggs, milking the cow or goat, churning butter, feeding grain to the chickens, hay to the horses and livestock, and slopping the pigs were often done twice a day. Milking was sometimes done several times daily. Baking was a daily regimen. So was mucking stalls for the draft horses. Planting and harvesting time were all-consuming and exhausting operations. Nor was there rest after harvest time: drying fruit and some vegetables and later, canning was next. The 1858 introduction of the Mason jar made canning possible, but the process was still very labor intensive (as anyone who’s done it knows!). Butchering and smoking or “jerking” meat usually took place in the fall in preparation for winter. Digging in for the long cold months was an involved process and could mean life or death.
Pioneering was hard and keeping folks fueled to do the work was just as arduous. One funny, old frontier recipe for “Buffalo Stew for An Army” gives us a clue of just how hard cooking was:
- 2 large size buffalo - Lots of brown gravy - Cut buffalo into bite size pieces. This may take up to two months. - Put in very large pot and cover meat with gravy - Add vegetables as desired - Cook stew over hot fire for about 4 weeks
PHOTOS: (1) A pioneer woman reenactment of open-hearth cooking in a log cabin at Living History Farms in Polk County, Iowa. In early log cabins and sod houses, pioneers cooked in open fireplaces with cast iron Dutch ovens, caldrons, and skillets. Notice the cast iron ware hanging over the mantle and the iron bar across the inside top of the fireplace, called a “crane,” from which to hang pots and Dutch oven. (2) An emigrant couple stops to lunch on the trail next to their covered wagon in Greenwood County, Kansas. Note the white tablecloth, the woman’s nod to a little civility on the frontier. Kansas State Historical Society. (3) A farm woman feeds the chickens in the late 1800s. Chickens were commonly kept for eggs and meat not only on frontier homesteads, but among town families as well. (4) Kansas pioneer woman Ada McColl gathering buffalo chips for heating and cooking fuel on the Kansas prairie in 1893. Kansas Historical Society. (5) Colorado pioneer woman milking a cow takes time to share some milk with a farm cat waiting for a squirt! From the collection of the State Agricultural College (now Colorado State University). Circa 1921. (6) Mrs. George “Coyote” Smith after killing a mountain lion near Glenrock, Wyoming, around 1910. Wyoming State Archives. (7) Women branding cattle in Colorado, 1884. Colorado Historical Society. Veal and beef were popular meats later in the West after domesticated cattle supplanted buffalo herds. Some settlers brought milk and beef cattle with them on the trail. (8) Old settler peels apples on her front porch. (9) Young woman pumping water on a North Dakota homestead in Slope County. North Dakota Historical Society. (10 – 14) Bread, corn, jerked meat, beans and rice, and dried fruit were staples for pioneer family meals. (15) Dutch ovens and iron caldrons were a crucial cooking tool for open-hearth and campfire cooking on the frontier.
SEE THESE RELATED POSTS:
-What Pioneers Packed to Go West
-How To Build A Log Cabin
Posted November 9, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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