Oregon Trail Preparedness Facts

In 1834, amidst seemingly unremarkable moments in American history, notable events marked their presence. Pennsylvania witnessed the completion of the first railroad tunnel, while President Jackson faced Senate censure for his actions regarding federal bank deposits.

This year also saw patents for sandpaper, the hard-hat diving suit, and the mechanical reaper. Additionally, Congress established the Indian Territory, later forming Oklahoma, and Abraham Lincoln embarked on his political journey in the Illinois State Legislature.

Amidst these occurrences, Nathaniel Wyeth and Jason Lee led the inaugural migration from Missouri to Oregon, pioneering what would become the Oregon Trail. Despite being the first, their venture paved the way for a mass movement westward.

Over the following decades, half a million pioneers traversed the rugged terrain, sacrificing possessions and risking their lives for a chance at a new beginning, enduring harsh conditions and treacherous landscapes. The journey claimed the lives of many, leading some to dub the trail as the world’s longest cemetery.

Who were these intrepid individuals, and what drove them to pursue the unknown?

Why did they make the journey?

Emigrants chronicling their travels provided various motivations for their migration. Some sought refuge from rampant diseases like malaria and dysentery prevalent in the densely populated Eastern states. Many were descendants of pioneering families who had settled in Indiana, Illinois, and the Michigan territories. These individuals, compelled by diminishing farming opportunities and escalating land competition, pushed further westward. The U.S. Census of 1830 recorded a population of nearly 13 million, which surged to over 17 million by 1840, signaling a significant increase in demand for land.

Approximations drawn from the preserved journals of these travelers indicate that around 70 percent were skilled farmers. Anticipating Congressional land grants in the Western territories, these farmers recognized the urgency in staking their claims early to secure prime agricultural land. Congress indeed allocated land, granting a square mile per married couple in 1850, incentivizing swift migration for advantageous land acquisition.

Additional factors propelled migration waves. The allure of California’s gold fields in 1849 attracted many, dubbed “49ers,” while others sought refuge from the looming Civil War in the 1860s. Despite diverse motivations, nearly every pioneer shared a common belief in Manifest Destiny, viewing America’s expansion as a divine mandate.

The route

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Most major Western emigrant trails originated near Independence, Missouri, appropriately dubbed the frontier town. From there or its nearby branches, travelers could opt for multiple routes: southwest via the Santa Fe Trail, westward to Sacramento along the California Trail, or northwest towards Oregon. The Mormon Trail, originating in Nauvoo, Illinois, led to Salt Lake City, intersecting with the Oregon Trail near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, after crossing the Missouri River north of Independence at Council Bluff.

Timing departure from Independence was crucial. Departures before mid-April risked scarcity of grass for livestock, while leaving too late risked encountering autumn snow in the mountains—a June departure could lead to disaster. Spring departures brought challenges such as swollen rivers, fierce prairie storms, and scorching mid-summer desert heat while traversing southern Wyoming, Idaho, and eastern Oregon.

Preparations for the trail

Guidebooks

Prior to embarking on their Western journey, prospective settlers sought out numerous travel guidebooks published shortly after the opening of the Oregon Trail. Among these, “The Emmigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California” by Lansford Hastings emerged as one of the earliest and most popular resources. Despite varying in quality, all guidebooks offered essential details such as travel distances, river crossings, food and equipment costs, hazard warnings, and local insights.

These guidebooks also provided crucial advice on necessary supplies, optimal wagon designs, and preferred draft animals for a successful journey. Seasoned travelers unanimously favored oxen over horses or mules due to their endurance and suitability for harsh conditions. Notably, utilizing oxen offered an additional advantage: in dire circumstances, they could serve as a potential food source, ensuring survival if needed.

Wagons

The pioneer families depicted in our childhood Western movies often rode in Conestoga wagons, towering vehicles unsuitable for the Oregon Trail’s challenges. Unlike these cinematic behemoths, the practical choice for pioneers was the “prairie schooner,” measuring four feet wide and ten feet long, featuring lightweight construction and a capacity of up to 2,500 pounds.

Prairie schooners, designed with waterproofed boxes, could double as temporary barges for river crossings. Given their heavy loads, passengers rarely rode inside; instead, families walked alongside, reserving wagon space for the infirm. Although some wagons offered sleeping arrangements, most pioneers relied on tents or slept under the stars, prioritizing storage over living quarters.

Acquiring a complete wagon, three yoke of oxen, provisions, clothing, tools, and firearms required a significant investment, equivalent to $15,000 today. For cash-strapped farmers, funding options included loans, gifts, or selling subscriptions to creditors. Alternatively, destitute individuals could join wealthier pioneers as trail helpers, exchanging labor for sustenance and passage.

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Food provisions for the Oregon Trail

Flour

Alora grabbed the bumpy bag of flour. It felt heavy, reminding her they were low on supplies. Flour back home was light and white, but this trail flour was different. Grumpy Mr. Jebediah at the store offered three choices: coarse flour with bits in it, leftover flour bits, or fancy flour.

The coarse stuff, Jebediah said with a laugh, was barely sifted and had the whole wheat outer layer. It wouldn’t go bad easily, but eating rocks sounded better! Leftovers were the bits left after taking out the good flour. They made the strongest bread, Jebediah said, but wouldn’t rise much. Fancy flour was closest to what Alora knew, but it cost a lot, only for special times.

Baking bread every day was hard. Their small metal oven worked, but finding things to burn was the real problem. Carrying firewood across those endless plains was crazy. Luckily, there were tons of bison everywhere, leaving behind piles of dried poop they called “chips.” It seemed weird at first, watching the kids gather these chips for the fire. But bison poop burned slow and hot, perfect for baking bread or frying their small amount of food. When the chips were scarce, they used sagebrush. It burned good, for sure, and gave their food a funny taste, but it kept them going.

Saleratus

Bakers might wonder why this guide doesn’t mention yeast. Simple answer: no store-bought yeast back then could survive the trip.

Yeast at that time was like cake or goo, mostly from beer makers. It wouldn’t stay good for long, only a few days after it got to the baker. The only way to keep it good longer was to use a super cold box (like a fridge) which wasn’t possible on a hot wagon.

Sourdough starter was another option, but it had problems too. It lasted longer than yeast, but it took a long time to make bread rise. Also, fancy rising breads wouldn’t work in a bumpy wagon, they’d just fall apart.

The answer was something called saleratus, kind of like baking soda we use today. Scientists invented it in the 1700s. When you mix it in dough for bread, it makes bubbles when heated, which makes the bread rise.

At first, travelers got saleratus from scientists, but then they found a natural source near Independence Rock, Wyoming. There were little lakes with no way out for water, so minerals from the mountains built up and made a hard white crust – almost pure saleratus! Because pioneers liked simple names, they called the biggest lake Saleratus Lake, and it’s still called that today.

Bacon

Another super important food for travelers was bacon. You might think they ate all sorts of fancy stuff, but nope, bacon and bread were their go-to meals most of the time.

Just like flour, bacon back then wasn’t like the kind you see at the store today. It was just any salty pork – sides, shoulders, you name it. Every travel guide said to bring bacon, but it rarely lasted the whole trip because it had a lot of fat.

If you were lucky, you could sometimes buy not-so-fresh bacon at forts or from traveling sellers, but it cost a lot more. Unlike other salted meats like pork or beef (which were kept in barrels of salty water), bacon was stored dry in bags or boxes to keep bugs away. In hot weather, they’d even bury the bacon in something called bran, which they thought stopped the fat from melting (or at least soaked it up).

Corn

ot parched corn

Travelers on the Oregon Trail packed all sorts of things to survive the long journey, but one of their favorite foods was simple and smart: parched corn. This wasn’t the sweet, yellow corn you might find on the cob today. Instead, it was regular corn kernels that had all the moisture baked right out of them. They did this by spreading the kernels out in the hot sun for days, or by roasting them in a big oven. The coolest part? This dried-out corn wouldn’t go bad easily, no matter how hot the journey got.

Since it was hard and dry, they couldn’t just eat the corn kernels on their own. So, the pioneers would take a big grinder and turn the parched corn into a coarse flour. This rough flour was then cooked into a mushy porridge. It wasn’t fancy, but it was filling and kept them going. To make it a little tastier, they’d sometimes add milk from the cows they brought along on the trail. This simple mush became a regular sight around campfires, keeping pioneers fueled up for their long trek westward.

Desiccated or dried vegetables

Everyone back then, not just folks heading west on the Oregon Trail, loved dried fruit for snacks. But dried vegetables? Not so much, at least at first. That all changed thanks to a book called “The Prairie Traveler” written by a fella named Randolph Marcy in 1859. In his book, Marcy told travelers about a newfangled food from the Crimean War called “desiccated vegetables.” These were basically fancy words for super dried-out veggies. Some folks loved these dehydrated veggies, saying they tasted pretty good considering they weren’t fresh. But others weren’t so impressed, guess they just weren’t used to the new way of eating vegetables.

Coffee

Coffee wasn’t just a morning pick-me-up for travelers on the Oregon Trail, it was sometimes the only food they had left near the end of the long journey! Unlike the pre-ground stuff you might buy today, they carried their coffee as green, unroasted beans. Roasted or ground coffee wouldn’t last and lost its flavor fast. So, when it was coffee time, pioneers would pull out their skillets and roast the beans right over the campfire. Then, they’d use a handy little grinder everyone seemed to have to turn those roasted beans into something they could brew. It might not have been fancy, but that hot cup of coffee sure helped them keep going on those long days.

Other necessities

TLW2b1Travelers on the Oregon Trail packed the basics to survive, but some folks brought along a few goodies to make the long trip a little tastier. If they had the space, they might pack some dried meats like jerky to munch on. For a sweet treat, there were hard candies or even chocolate, if they could keep it from melting in the hot sun. Cheese was another option, but it had to be a hard kind that wouldn’t spoil easily.

Lucky families who brought a cow along had a real treat: fresh butter! The bumpy wagon ride actually helped churn the cream from the milk into butter every single day. Almost everyone packed lard for cooking, because it lasted a long time and worked well in all sorts of dishes. And for some folks, there was no journey complete without tobacco, whether they chewed it, smoked it, or used it in other ways.

For medicinal purposes

The biggest danger on the Oregon Trail wasn’t wild animals or bad weather, it was sickness. With so many people traveling close together, and not really knowing how to stay clean, poop (from people and animals) and dead creatures often ended up near the water they had to drink. This was a recipe for disaster, especially for a disease called cholera, which spread through dirty water. Cholera caused terrible cramps and made you really dehydrated, and it was the biggest killer on the trail. Other nasty diseases like typhoid (mountain fever back then), diphtheria, dysentery, malaria, and even scurvy all plagued the pioneers. Plus, having a baby on the trail was extra dangerous because of the rough conditions.

Back then, medicine wasn’t nearly as good as it is today. Most folks just had a small first-aid kit with a few things in it, like a weird blue pill that wasn’t really good for anything, some quinine, opium (which makes you sleepy), and medicine to help you go to the bathroom. But there was one “medicine” that was super popular, even though it wasn’t on the official list: strong alcohol like whiskey, brandy, or rum. Almost every wagon had a big jug (or even a whole barrel) of this “medicine” on board, just in case.

Firearms

ot rifle showed by guide

Guns were a common sight on the Oregon Trail, packed in practically every wagon. Movies might make you think settlers were constantly fighting Native Americans, but that wasn’t really the case. A book called “The Plains Across” says way more Native Americans (around 426) died in fights with travelers than settlers (around 362) between 1840 and 1860.

The guns folks carried weren’t fancy, new ones. Most were long muzzle-loaders, like muskets or sometimes rifles. Those newfangled cartridge guns wouldn’t be popular for another ten or so years. Pistols were rare because they were expensive and not very useful for what people mostly needed guns for on the trail: hunting for meat to eat. But even though they weren’t fancy, practically every wagon had gunpowder, tools for making bullets, and lead to melt for them.

Everything else

We could write forever about all the stuff folks brought on the Oregon Trail! Clothes, tents, cooking gear, tools for fixing wagons and shoes – you name it, someone packed it. But the hardest part was deciding what to leave behind. Imagine having to ditch your favorite grandma’s quilt or that fancy lamp you inherited, just to lighten the load for your tired oxen!

Farmers weren’t just packing clothes and food. They brought their plows and precious seeds to start new farms out west. Craftsmen, like blacksmiths or carpenters, sometimes needed extra wagons just for all their hammers, saws, and other tools! That meant hiring extra helpers to drive the oxen and even more mouths to feed.

For entertainment (and maybe to keep track of the journey), people brought books, Bibles, guides about the trail, and even stuff to write with. Only about one out of every 200 travelers kept a diary, but those diaries give us a fascinating glimpse into what life was really like on the Oregon Trail.

The end of the trail

The Oregon Trail wasn’t a solo adventure. Folks mostly left from Independence around the same time, creating a giant wagon train. If something slowed them down, like a flooded river or a landslide, everyone got backed up until they figured it out together.

People camped together for safety and became a sort of traveling community. They traded stuff they brought or hunted together to share food. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows though, there were breakups and romances too, just like anywhere else!

Getting stuck on the trail was a bummer, but no one got left behind. The next wagon coming by would always stop and help. Everyone knew they could be next, so they looked out for each other. They celebrated good stuff that happened and comforted each other through the bad times.

Even when they finally reached Oregon or California, the journey wasn’t over. Many folks arrived with nothing left to eat and barely any supplies. Some had a little saved food but were too sick and tired to start fresh right away. Others had spent everything they had just getting there.

That’s where the kindness of strangers (or should we say neighbors?) came in. People who had arrived earlier set up groups to send supplies back down the trail to help those who were struggling to catch up. This support system didn’t stop once they reached their final destination.

Most folks showed up in late fall or winter, which is the worst time to plant crops or build a proper house. But their new neighbors, churches, and community groups all pitched in to help them survive the winter. They basically made sure the newcomers wouldn’t starve until they could get settled and plant some crops. Some folks called it pure kindness, others said it was just common sense – having thousands of starving, armed neighbors wasn’t exactly a recipe for success. Whatever the reason, anyone willing to work got a helping hand, even if they were paid in food instead of money.

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Recommended resources for preppers and homesteaders:

How to build an underground cellar for less than $400

Food Storage Plan For The Long Run

How To make an air fountain to obtain water from the air

Survival Foods of the Native Americans

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