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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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A Day on the Oregon Trail

The earliest emigrants on the Oregon Trail set a basic pattern that would be followed, with some refinements, by wagon trains making the same journey in the decades to come.

On May 20 of 1843, that first group gathered near Independence, Missouri, to hold an organizational meeting and elect a captain. The next day about 875 emigrants assembled, with 120 wagons and the oxen that were required to pull them (oxen had proven better suited for this purpose than either horses or mules). The group hired a retired mountain man as a guide, and the next day they all set off.

A typical day would begin at 4 a.m., when the emigrants would be awakened by a volley of shots fired by the wagon train’s sentinels. Quickly they would strike their tents, hitch up their teams, and take their places in the column of wagons. The wagons were divided into platoons of four, often groups of friends or extended family. Because the wagons in the rear of the train would be exposed to all the dust kicked up by those in front, each platoon moved forward one place in the order each day. But if one wagon were late getting started, its whole platoon would lose its place in line. This tended to encourage speedy preparation!

During the day, the guide would lead a party of riders ahead of the group to choose the best route, and to make any improvements the route might need, such as filling in deep ruts. Other riders would range out to hunt game, while women and children would ride in the wagons or, more often, walk alongside. When the guide party found a suitable location, the whole train would halt for lunch; during this hour everyone ate, rested, and watered the animals. A bugle would summon them to resume the day’s march.

Near sunset, the guide would lead the party to a suitable camping place, and the teamsters would circle the wagons. The front of each wagon was chained to the back of the one ahead of it, to make a corral; the animals were secured in the center of the circle, which formed a defensive barrier against any Indians or other dangers that might be about. Then the men would tend to their stock or dig wells for fresh water, while the children collected buffalo chips for fuel and the women cooked the evening meal. A little fiddle or banjo music might round out the day, but bedtime was generally early for everyone but those who had sentinel duty.

The ox-drawn caravan could cover about fifteen or twenty miles in a day. That first group reached its destination, in the valley of the Grand Ronde, on October 1. During the four-and-a-half months of the migration, although four men of the group had died from illness or drowning, the party’s total numbers had increased: more than that many babies had been born along the trail.

(Woodworth 72-76)

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