I thought I would continue our trip west in 1848 this week. Our wagon trail left Independence on April 5th. We hope it will take less than six months, but more likely it will take seven or eight. Good thing we don’t know that yet.
You already know from previous blogs about the clothes necessary for the trip and about some of the maps available at the time. I thought this week we would consider the provisioning for the six to eight month trip.
The cost of the trip ran between six hundred and a thousand dollars, and many families saved years for the trip. This total included the wagon, mules or oxen and provisions, but did not include money needed along the way for additional provisions, ferries or for Indian guides.
Building a wagon and provisioning were major undertakings. According to “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey,” the overland wagon “had to be built of seasoned hardwood to withstand the extremes of temperature; an ordinary farm wagon was not strong enough. The classic prairie schooner was not the big-wheeled, boat-curved Conestoga wagon, but a smaller, lighter wagon with straight lines top and bottom.” Typically, emigrants used a farm wagon with a flat bed about ten feet wide with sides two feet high. It had to be amphibious and its slats caulked for river crossings. It should carry no more than 2,000 – 2,500 pounds. The covering of the wagon was a double thickness of canvas “as rainproofed as oiled linen or muslin, or sailcloth could be made to be.”
Foodstuffs were assembled at the start of the journey. “The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California”, recommended that each emigrant supply himself with 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar and 10 pounds of salt. Additional supplies included chipped beef, rice, tea, dried beans, dried fruit, baking soda, vinegar, pickles, mustard, and tallow. Butter may be preserved by boiling it thoroughly and skimming off the scum as it rises to the top until it is quite clear like oil. It is then placed in tin canisters and soldered up. Packed in this way, it keeps sweet for a great length of time.
If you think of a family of six, food stocks would nearly consume all the allowable weight. Then there would be needed spare parts for the wagon, tar and grease barrels, water barrels and spare parts for the wagon.
Think of that farm wagon again. After the provisions there is precious little room left for personal possessions, much less sleeping space for a family of five or six or nine.
The diet would hopefully be supplemented by wild game, and this was plentiful in the 1840’s, but as the number of trains multiplied along the Oregon Trail, some as large as 400 wagons, the game disappeared and the diet, well, the diet became rather spare.
Single women occasionally took the trek, though they were rare. The Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey tells the story of Rebecca Ketchum of New York who decided she wanted to go to Oregon to become a teacher. She traveled by stagecoach, unaccompanied by anyone, from New York to Independence when she joined a group for the remainder of the way to Oregon.
Although a woman, but probably because she was single, she spent most of the trip on horseback with the men. The wives apparently did not consider her worthy of riding in the wagon with mothers and children. Ketchum’s account also illustrates at least one nineteenth-century woman’s clear sense of her own worth. When she accidently discovered that she was paying more than others for her place in the wagon train, she refused to do washing any more, since the men – who had paid less than she – were not expected to wash clothes.
And that leads me to my next blog when I’ll talk about love and marriage on the trail. Some facts might well surprise you.