The Emigrant Diet

In 1859, U.S. Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy was asked by the War Department to write a guidebook for westward-bound pioneers. The resulting publication, The Prairie Traveler, became the emigrants’ principal manual for safe passage West. In The Prairie Traveler, Marcy spent a chapter advising pioneers on which routes to take and what to bring along. His section on “Stores and Provisions” is a glimpse into how the emigrants may have subsisted along the trail.

Marcy advised first that bacon or well-cured pork be brought along in hundred-pound sacks or packed in boxes, surrounded by “bran” to keep the fat from melting away. Flour was to be sewn up in stout, double-thick canvas bags, one hundred pounds to each. Butter was to be first boiled and skimmed until it was as clear as oil, and then sealed up in tin canisters. Sugar was to be secured into India-rubber sacks and kept well away from any source of dampness.

In the mid-nineteenth century, many people felt that fruits and vegetables were unhealthy. Marcy spent a long paragraph defending the usefulness of vegetables and emphasizing their antiscorbutic properties. Although canned vegetables were widely available, they were heavy, so emigrants were advised to purchase dried vegetables from a particular supplier in New York. Imported from Paris, the vegetables (they are only mentioned generically, no particular variety is named) were sliced and pressed into solid cakes which were as hard as rocks. A piece half the size of a man’s hand, he claimed, could be soaked in water and reconstituted to fill “a vegetable dish,” and would feed four men. A cubic yard of the stuff contained 16,000 rations.

If one were unable, or unwilling, to procure dessicated vegetables, Marcy advised them instead to take along citric acid. This could, if mixed with sugar and water and a little “essence of lemon,” pass as a substitute for lemonade. Other possible antidotes for scurvy were wild onions, wild grapes, greens, or tea made from hemlock leaves.

Another useful item was pemmican, which Marcy claimed constituted almost the entire diet of those working in the Northwest fur trade. To prepare pemmican, you were to take buffalo meat, cut it into thin strips, and dry it well in the sun. The dried meat was then to be pounded into a fine powder, mixed with melted grease, and sewn into bags of animal hide (with the fur, he is careful to mention, on the outside). Pemmican was to be eaten raw, but as a change one could also mix it with a little flour and boil it.

Then Marcy described the simplest and most portable source of calories, used extensively, he claimed, by Mexicans and Indians. It was something called “cold flour,” and it was made by mixing cornmeal with a little cinnamon and sugar. This was to be mixed into water and used as a beverage, and he claimed that on half a bushel of the stuff, and with no other provisions, a man could easily subsist for thirty days.

In extreme situations, a little creativity was to be exerted. Mules and horses could be consumed, but Marcy warned that if the animals were half-starved and stringy, a man would have to eat a lot of this excessively lean meat, perhaps five or six pounds a day, to stay alive. In the absence of salt, a mule or horse steak could be charred in the fire and then sprinkled with a little gunpowder to make it more palatable. Men desperate for tobacco could resort to smoking the roasted bark of the red willow, or sumac leaf. A good coffee substitute could be found in dried “horse mint.”

To make the journey from the Missouri River to California, each grown person would require 150 pounds of flour or hardtack, 25 pounds of bacon, cured pork, or meat driven on the hoof, 15 pounds of coffee, and 25 pounds of sugar. These were the essential articles needed, and Marcy warned travelers to be careful and not use up all their provisions during the first half of the trip. It is hard to imagine how that could have been a temptation.

(Marcy 30-36)

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