Monday, August 8, 2016

Cooking on the Oregon Trail (A Slice of Life)

This post is brought to you by Janalyn Voigt, author of the Montana Gold historical fiction series.

Cooking on the Oregon Trail 

A madonna of the prairies 
by Hiram Campbell Merill (b. 1866); Ivory, Percy Van E. (op. 20th c.)
Image courtesy of the New York Public Library

Imagine, for a moment, that you have just walked or ridden in a jostling wagon for twenty miles while watching over your children's safety and caring for a baby. The wagon train with which you are traveling rolls to a stop. Your muscles ache, the baby is fussing, and you're so exhausted you'd rather sleep than cook over a campfire. But you love your family. Your husband needs to tend the oxen and possibly fish or hunt to provide fresh meat. T
he chore of keeping all those bellies filled with nourishment belongs to you.

Oregon Trail Provisions

The Emigrants

Hatch, George W. (ca. 1805-1867); Fisher, Alvan (1792-1863) 

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library

Before you left St. Louis, the city known as the gateway to the Oregon Trail, you and your husband packed your prairie schooner full of provisions for the journey. Although food comprises half of the goods in your wagon, you found it hard to fit all your supplies in a bed measuring ten feet long by four feet wide and three feet deep, And your wagon weighed perilously close to its maximum load of 2,000 pounds. That left you no option to walk during the first part of your journey, a problem that proved painful as your feet became accustomed to walking so far. You had to cook, then, too.

The guidebook you consulted suggested you bring flour, bacon packed in bran, sugar, coffee, tea, lard, beans, rice, and dried apples and peaches. The chickens in a crate lashed to the back of the wagon give you eggs. If you hadn't brought them along, you'd be obliged to pack eggs in your cornmeal to save them from breaking. You also brought along a milk cow and have suspended buckets of cream from the bottom of the wagon to churn into butter from the jostling of the journey. Seasonings you brought along include salt, pepper, vinegar, and molasses. You also indulged in packets of commercially-prepared crackers and dried vegetable cakes.

Preparing Food on the Oregon Trail 

Cooking the Hump Roast
Alfred Jacob Miller [Public domain ]
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
You sigh and get to work, first making sure one of the children carries water from the river near the wagon encampment to top off the water barrel strapped to the wagon and for tonight's cooking. The others you send off to gather edible greens or berries, if they can be found, and whatever is available to start a cook fire. That might be firewood, buffalo dung, or (as a last resort) sagebrush. Meanwhile, you open the mess box on the back of your wagon and pull out the beans you set to soaking this morning, a slab of bacon packed in bran to keep the fat from melting in the heat, some biscuits you baked yesterday, and cornmeal for hoe cakes you'll cook in the bacon fat.

You have no table to use in preparing your food but must make do with an empty crate turned upside down, the top of a trunk, or whatever other surface you can find or make. While cooking at the fire, you take care to stay upwind to avoid the fate of those unfortunate women whose skirts blew into the flames. You add molasses, brown sugar, and bacon to the beans and suspend the pot over the fire from a tripod or place it directly on the flames. While the beans are cooking, your hands keep busy forming dough for the hoe cakes, rolling pastry for dried apple or berry pie, and making bread for tomorrow's journey. 

The camp will be awakened by a gun fired into the air early in the morning, and you'll be expected to roll out with the wagon train shortly thereafter. There will be no time to cook,. This is your chance to prepare enough to eat for tomorrow's travel and to guard against an unexpected disaster, illness, or rain storm preventing you from cooking for a day or more.

You cook as much as you can to stave off the possibility of your family's going hungry before you run out of daylight or energy (or both).

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy creates breathtaking fictional worlds for readers. This multi-faceted storyteller writes in the historical fiction, romantic mystery, and epic fantasy genres. Janalyn is a history enthusiast and romantic. These elements appear in everything she writes.

Beginning with DawnSinger, the epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, carries readers into a land only imagined in dreams.

Hills of Nevermore, the first installment in Montana Gold, a historical romance series set during Montana's gold rush, releases in 2017.

Deceptive Tide (Islands of Intrigue: San Juans, book 3), the final installment in a romantic suspenseseries set in an island paradise off the coast of Washington state.


  1. Wow....Wonder Woman. Makes me feel lazy.

  2. Replies
    1. Aw! Thanks for taking the time to say that. You are quite welcome, Connie. I enjoyed writing this slice-of-life post, so I'll probably do more of them.

  3. I really enjoyed both subjects on today's post. In college during the late 70's, I would drive while my friend did the map deciphering. She had a habit of thinking too long, she said I drove too fast. It made for crazy adventures!

    missionwife AT hotmail DOT com

    1. Hi, Melody. My father taught me at an early age that I was never 'lost,' but simply having an adventure. That attitude has served me well throughout my life.

  4. Okay, Janalyn, now I'm tired just reading this! What warriors these women were.

  5. Wow!! That's the only word I can think of. It certainly makes me grateful for what we have!

    1. We do have more ease today, although cooking for a hungry crew on a daily basis is still no picnic.

  6. I would never have made it as a pioneer woman. It's amazing anyone survived the journey with all its hardships.

    1. It's easy to understand why there are so many pictures of worn-out women on the Oregon Trail.

  7. Oregon Trail Cooking was a great post. Reading historical fiction along with history classes, I've admired the women who traveled across America to new territory. They are women who inspire me that nothing is impossible when trusting God with every detail of our lives. Faith and reliance upon their Heavenly Father was so important to them, and it's sad that so many Americans have become self sufficient in their own eyes instead of depending upon God. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi, Marilyn. You're welcome. Celebrating lives well lived is one of my passions.