What Pioneers Packed to Go West
Updated: May 11
Pioneers packed like their lives depended on it, because they did!
Westering pioneers had many routes to choose from but the main ones were the Oregon, California, Sante Fe, and Mormon Trails. Whatever route they chose, many read guidebooks like Landsford Hastings’ 1845 “The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California” or Captain Randolph Marcy’s 1859 “The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-Book for Overland Expeditions.” They offered advice on what and how to pack, what draft animals to buy, distances, water, grass, terrain, weather, firearms and ammunition, tools, wagon parts, how to make repairs, and what hardships they might meet along the way.
Two primary types of wagons were used on wagon trails going west. The Conestoga wagon was named for Conestoga Township in Pennsylvania where many German pioneers in the 1750s first started West on the Appalachian Trail to settle land east of the Mississippi. It was a huge and very heavy wagon, 28 feet long with wheels five feet tall and, loaded, could weigh as much as six tons and took three pair of oxen to pull. (Like pulling a semi!)
Later, the much smaller Prairie Schooner became most common on the Oregon, California and Sante Fe Trails to the Western frontier. It was usually built in the Midwest for the departure points in Missouri, where all three trails started. The prairie schooner was half the size of the Conestoga, 12-13 feet long, and weighed 1,300 pounds empty and as much as two tons loaded. It required less animals to pull and to feed on the trail and could move faster (20 miles a day vs. 13-15 for the Conestoga wagon).
The sides of the wagons were waterproofed with tar, so they could ford rivers and keep the cargo dry. A thoroughly water-proofed wagon would also float in high water, making the crossing much easier. The canvas tops were oiled to keep out the rain. Wooden wheels had iron rims to prevent wear.
The Oregon Trail took roughly four to six months to complete. Packing could mean the difference between life and death on the trail and varied wildly depending upon the sensibilities (and sometimes the sense!) of the travelers. James Miller’s 1848 diary entry describes what they packed for food: “We had… 200 lbs. flour for each person, 100 lbs. bacon, corn meal, 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.
A wagon was filled with essentials, so travelers usually walked alongside the wagons. This also saved the energy of the oxen, mules or horses pulling the wagons. Teams grazed at night for grass.
Some travelers 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. Shelving below the axle contained larger Dutch ovens, bowls for making bread dough, tubs for washing, or even bottles of a more sundry nature.
Large wooden water kegs were carried on the sides of the wagons. Water would be resupplied from rivers along the way. However, there were some dry stretches and water was carefully preserved. Cholera epidemics were most common along the Platte River and were caused by contaminated water from the massive numbers of travelers that bivouacked there.
Medical and surgical supplies were essential: bandages, ointment, laudanum, cough syrups that contained cocaine, painkillers that contained opium, and of course alcohol for drinking. (Alcohol as an antiseptic was not commonly used until the 1890s.) Surgical instruments for suturing wounds, pulling teeth, lancing boils, extracting bullets or arrowheads, and a bone saw for amputating were commonly packed as well.
Tools for repairing or rebuilding wheels, axles, wagons, ox bows, and harnesses were heavy but crucial to have. The basics were hammers, saws, augers and gimlets. Prudent planners would also pack heavy rope, chains, spare parts, axle grease, and even pulleys. Oil and candle lanterns were essential since work and repairs often had to be done at night, so all would be ready when the wagon train left in the morning.
Warm clothing for rain and cold was packed, as was bedding. Although bedding took up space, it was crucial to get as much sleep as possible. Travelers walked about 20 miles a day over often rough terrain, or in prairie grass as tall as they were, and were exhausted at the end of each day.
Those who insisted on packing iron stoves, heavy furniture, pianos, sewing machines, iron plows, kegs of whiskey, blacksmith anvils, or other weighty items usually discarded them on the side of the trail as the grazing and water ran out. Fort Laramie in Wyoming became known as “Camp Sacrifice” because it was so littered with jettisoned cargo, antique furniture and family heirlooms, chests of silver and china, stoves, and pianos, broken wagons, and dead animals.
Most wagon trains had at least 25 wagons. Perhaps the largest wagon train to travel on the Oregon Trail left Missouri in 1843 with over 100 wagons, 1,000 men, women and children, and 5,000 head of oxen and cattle. The train was led by a Methodist missionary named Dr. Elijah White. But wagon trains became so common on the trail that processions seemed to have no beginning or end. Diaries told of hundreds of wagons passing by Fort Laramie in a single day in the 1850s. Foraging for the teams became a serious challenge because grazing near the trail had been exhausted.
Two posts from the pioneer diary of Elizabeth J. Goltra provide a glimpse of traveling on the trail:
September 20, 1853: Two of our horses are missing this morning. Bought 30 pounds of beef and some other eatables… found plenty of wood and water and grass one mile south. We are now at the foot of the Cascades, in heavy timber. Bought 80 pounds of flour off an emigrant at 10¢ per pound. We now have plenty of provisions to last us through. We guard our cattle very closely or we would lose them in the timber. Rest the remainder of the day to let the cattle eat plenty for feed is scarce in the mountains.
September 24, 1853: This is a very rainy morning. The roads are very bad. Fearful of being caught in a snowstorm… This is the roughest and steepest hill on the road. Got down all safe by cutting and chaining a tree behind the wagon 100 feet long. Camped at the foot of the hill and tied our stock up with nothing to eat but a little grass we carried along with us.
PHOTOS: (1) Conestoga wagons were used early in pioneer history to travel on the Appalachian Trail and east of the Mississippi. But they were extremely heavy—up to six tons loaded--and required up to six animals, usually oxen, to pull. (2) The smaller Prairie Schooner started to replace the larger Connestoga wagons and were often built in the Midwest near the starting point of the Oregon Trail. (3) Two families rest at the end of the day on the trail at the foothills of the Rockies in northern Utah,1870. Photograph by Henry Martinean. Denver Public Library. (4) A very rare photograph of the inside of a covered wagon packed for the Oregon Trail shows the crowded quarters. (5) Custer’s Black Hills Expedition of 1874 included 110 covered wagons, 1,200 men, artillery and food supply for two months. This expedition was about the same size as the largest wagon train ever to travel the Oregon Trail.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
-What Pioneers Ate
-Pioneer Survival Guides
"What Pioneers Packed" was originally posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on June 24, 2019
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