In order to survive the Oregon Trail, American pioneers learned to rely on foods that meet the most basic requirements. They needed to be easy to grow or find, easy to store or carry, and calorically dense.
A typical pioneer diet relied heavily on dried meat and game, flour, cornmeal, rice, beans, and dried corn. If you were lucky, you were able to bring a cow or a few chickens along with you on your journey. Then you could occasionally indulge in eggs, milk, and butter.
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However, many of these animals did not survive the long, treacherous journey. As a successful pioneer, you learned to take advantage of fresh fish and game whenever could. You would add to your menu with wild berries and vegetables and preserve any surplus for the winter.
You would parcel our sugar, salt, and other spices with care since they were usually in short supply. Generally, you would wash your meals down with water or coffee. On the trail, pioneers would roast raw coffee beans in a skillet over the campfire and then grind them.
Once pioneers settled into their new homes, they were quick to plant gardens and build root cellars. They made their own cornmeal and wheat flour, used lard for baking and cooking, and invented new recipes to make better use of the foods available.
Here are some of the pioneer foods that Americans will return to eating if modern conveniences falter in a crisis.
1. Dried Meat
Travelers on the Oregon Trail brought along as much bacon as they could carry. They ate bacon for breakfast, and they mixed it in with beans for lunch and dinner. Bacon also worked as a protein-packed snack food.
As they traveled, pioneers replaced their supply of bacon with dried buffalo and dried venison. They preserved their meat with smoke curing or salt curing.
2. Homemade Bread
Pioneers departed on their westward journey with large stores of flour. Whenever they stopped to rest along the way, they would make bread, often using the “salt-rising” method. Since they didn’t have yeast, the pioneers would bake the dough in a campfire kettle overnight, allowing natural bacteria to make it rise.
When they were settled, pioneers used home-grown wheat and corn to make their own flour. They often made biscuits made with cornmeal, and a common breakfast consisted of cornmeal mush. Although it was only a mixture of cornmeal and water and didn’t offer too much flavor, the mush was filling and warm.
The pioneers used dried corn to make dried cakes and dried biscuits that would travel and store well.
Rice was a popular item along the Oregon Trail since it was easy to store and carry. Pioneer cooks would mix rice in with beans, vegetables, meat, and fish in large batches in a kettle over a campfire or fireplace.
In a guide that he wrote for pioneers, Joel Palmer, who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1845, advised westward travelers to pack 10 pounds of rice per person for the trip.
Speaking of rice and beans, dried beans were an essential food item in a pioneer pantry. They were easy to cook and store and provided a good source of protein.
6. Dried Fruit
Fresh fruit was a luxury along the Oregon Trail and again when pioneers reached their destination. To make a fresh fruit harvest last as long as possible, pioneers would dry sliced fruit sections out in the sun. Dried fruit had a long shelf life and provided energy and nutrition in the winter months.
7. Soups and Stews
Pioneer cooks made the most of leftovers by making soups and stews. They would toss in bones, bits of meats, vegetable peels and ends and whatever else was available to make a warm, nourishing meal. Stew meat might consist of rabbit, squirrel, or other small game that they hunted along the trail or at a rest stop.
8. Root Vegetables
Once they got settled, pioneers were quick to plant root vegetables. Potatoes and turnips were favorites of pioneers because they stayed fresh for a long time. Beets, carrots, and onions were also popular. Pioneers would store their root vegetables underground, often digging into the side of a hill for their root cellar.
Pioneers sometimes found pumpkins and other squashes growing in the wild as they traveled west. They used these seeds to plant their own squash when they were settled, often mashing them to make cakes, pies, and breads.
Running out of food was a real concern for pioneers, and those who made the journey west without proper provisions often became malnourished and sick.
Edwin Bryant, who traveled from Arkansas to California in 1849, recommended the following list of foods for each traveler. His advice was published in the Arkansas Gazette in an article titled “Information for California Emigrants.”
- 150 pounds of meat
- 150 pounds of bacon
- 150 pounds of coffee
- 150 pounds of sugar
- Rice (as much as possible)
- 50-75 pounds of crackers
- 50-75 pounds of dried fruit
- 1 keg of lard
- Salt and pepper
Newton G. Finley, who journeyed from Missouri to San Jose, California in 1852, shared in the same article his food supply list. It included “pots with bails or handles attached and large Dutch ovens for baking bread, as well as cornmeal, flour, buckwheat flour, ham, bacon, sausages, dried beef, beans, peas, potatoes, rice, coffee, tea, sugar, honey, syrup, milk, butter, dried fruits, apples (green), walnuts, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, etc.”
When they began their journeys, many pioneers failed to conserve their supplies and wasted valuable leftovers. Peter H. Burnett, who emigrated from Missouri to Oregon in 1843, wrote, “Our emigrants, on the first portion of the trip, were about as wasteful of their provisions as if they had been at home. When portions of bread were left over, they were thrown away; and, when anyone came to their tents, he was invited to eat.”
What can we learn from what the pioneers ate? Preparation and planning are the keys to survival—whether it is for a long journey or a disaster situation. If you’d like to read more about what the pioneers ate, here are a few resources.
- Learn what Pioneers took on their Oregon Trail journey
- Food on the Oregon Trail
- Traveling the Emigrant Trails
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