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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Provisions Going West

The courageous folks who braved the overland trek to California in the 1840s knew they had to take enough food to last six months. After “jumping off” at the Missouri River—the last point of American civilization before their covered wagons rolled onto vast, empty landscapes—established trading posts and impromptu relief stations were few indeed.


Deer, elk and buffalo were out there on the Plains, but the emigrants knew they would have to cross through regions where the availability of game was uncertain. Recommended food supplies per adult typically included 200 pounds of flour, 10 pounds of rice, 30 pounds of pilot bread (dehydrated meal wafers), 25 pounds of sugar, 75 pounds of bacon, 1/2 bushel each dried beans and dried fruit, 1/2 bushel each corn meal, and lesser amounts of coffee, tea, and salt. Most foods containing folic acid were perishable, so to prevent the debilitating effects of scurvy, travelers were advised to take kegs of pickles or vinegar.


All this—plus clothing, cookware, furniture and personal items—had to be packed in wagon beds smaller than the size of a modern SUV. Those families with merchandise to sell in California took more than one wagon, hiring teamsters to drive them.


Some families hauled cooped chickens, for meat and eggs, on two-wheeled carts attached to the back of their wagons. Others drove small herds of beef cattle to be consumed as they crossed the continent. Families with small children took at least one milk cow that walked beside their wagons. Always on the lookout for ways to ease the journey’s hardships, mothers soon discovered that hitching a pail of fresh milk beneath the family wagon “churned” butter as the wagon rocked and swayed during the day.




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