Continuing Our Journey West . . .

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.

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13 thoughts on “Continuing Our Journey West . . .”

  1. Pat this is so interesting. I love the information I’m picking up on this blog. The cost of a wagon train, who knew? It seems like Pa Ingalls just pulled his wagon out and started packing it.
    Of course he didn’t go all the way across the country, but still, of course they’d have to be water proof.
    I love knowing all this info is here for me.
    P.S. I got to see Cheryl St. John on Saturday at a writer’s group meeting.
    I get so lonely for other writers. It was fantastic just to be in the room with a bunch of them.

  2. Pat, I shudder to think of that long trip west in a covered wagon. And they did have to take so much stuff with them and try to make it do. I’d hate to think of running out of food or get stuck in the middle of nowhere. Now we sure know why they didn’t take many clothes with them! And why they had to take turns walking behind the wagon. It was the weight.

    Excellent post with lots of wonderful information! 🙂

  3. Pat, we have The Western Heritage Museum, the Union Pacific Museum and a Mormon Trail Museum in our city. I’ve also been to others in Nebraska, all fabulous displays of the westward movement. The WH has wagons and supplies, and it’s pretty amazing to look inside and see that tiny space and imagine all of a family’s belongings inside, plus they slept inside in bad weather! We come from some strong stock!

    Hi Mary! It was great to see you Saturday! Hope you can make it to our holiday party.

  4. Pat- Almost 400 lbs of staples on the trip! Wow, that’s amazing. I enjoyed learning about a single woman’s plight – it’s taking a while, but we’re finally catching up in the fair deal dept -no washing men’s clothes! I loved this!
    And me Cher — I’ve been known to bring a curling iron on a camp trip!!

  5. I’m constantly amazed at the bravery it took for these folks to go west, even with the lure of free land and, later, gold. But then it took a similar bravery for our original settlers to sail across the seas in tiny ships. Their trip, too, took months in horrible conditions.

  6. I love history so thanks for sharing such fascinating info, especially about the fiesty single lady, what courage & fortitude! I hated trying to figure out what to leave behind when chosing what was needed when we did an exercise like this in High school. Can you tell I’m a collector?!
    My hair is wash n’ go 2″, not fashionable then unless you had it cut due to fever; my problem would have been finding replacement eyeglasses on the trip (now wear contacts.) Can you imagine making the trip pregnant or with very small children??

  7. Loved the post, Patricia. I have Woman’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, but I haven’t read any of it as of yet. I’m going to tonight, though!

    Cheryl, that curling iron thing cracked me up. lol Hey, we women have to look good even if it is out in the middle of the woods!

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