Provisioning for the Journey West

Independence Courthouse1850, from the Independence city website

Independence Courthouse1850, from the Independence city website

Emigrants preparing for the move to Oregon had plan carefully what they would take. They had to balance the amount of food and other supplies they needed for the journey, what they could afford to buy, the weight their wagon and teams could pull, and what mementoes and tools they would need to build a new life in the West.

Some of us remember the computer game Oregon Trail, where one of the first tasks in the game was to buy provisions. In the version I played, we could choose which of three income levels we wanted to be – wealthy (able to buy plenty of food and oxen), middle income (able to buy enough, but no extras), or poor (needing to live off the land when food ran out).

The game was realistic in this regard – emigrants came from all strata of society. But most of the emigrants were middle-class or poor. Most sold everything they had to supply themselves for the trip, and most did not expect to ever return to their former homes.

Of course, in the game, as in life, there was no guarantee that you wouldn’t lose everything in a flood, die of disease, or find meat when you hunted. Even the wealthy could suffer deprivation.

There were many checklists available for the pioneers to use in preparing for their journey, just as there are camping checklists today. With respect to food, an early list, from 1843, recommended that a wagon hold 1100 pounds of flour, 300 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds of sugar, 100 pounds of dried apples, 50 pounds of coffee, 50 pounds of salt, keg of syrup, keg of tar. See The Oregon Trail, by Ingvard Henry Eide, p. 53. Another list said that a family of four needed 824 lbs flour, 725 lbs bacon, 75 lbs coffee, 160 lbs sugar, 200 lbs lard and suet, 200 lbs beans, 135 lbs peaches and apples, salt, pepper, and bicarbonate of soda. See Traveling the Oregon Trail, by Julie Fanselow, p. 3. And yet another list travelers needed 200 pounds of flour per person, 100 pounds of bacon per person, corn meal, dried apples & peaches, beans, salt, pepper, rice, tea, coffee, and sugar. See Eide, p. 36.

That was just the food. In addition, the emigrants needed pots and pans; powder, lead and flint for their guns; bedding and clothing. And tools to repair the wagons. One list of tools included augers, gimlet (what is a gimlet?), ax, hammer, hoe, plow, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axles, kingbolts, linchpins, oxshoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, and chains. See Pioneers, by Huston Horn (a Time-Life book), p. 102-03.

Many emigrants bought these provisions at their homes in Illinois or Indiana, or whatever “civilized” state they came from. Others took steamships up the Missouri River, and bought their supplies at a “jumping off” point on the border in Missouri or Iowa. Merchants from St. Louis to Omaha did a booming business in the 1840s and 1850s outfitting emigrants.

Crossing Great Salt Lake 1859

Crossing Great Salt Lake Desert 1859

In addition to supplies for the journey, emigrants wanted to remind themselves of home. There are stories of armoires and tables, rocking chairs and mirrors making it across the mountains. But many of these keepsakes, which travelers had loaded into the wagons along with their hopes and dreams of a better life, were abandoned or destroyed as the trail grew steep and narrow, as oxen and mules died, and as wood from the furniture was needed for fuel or coffins.

The travelers may have started by balancing their survival needs with their financial resources and desire for reminders of home and family, but in the end, survival was all that mattered.

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