Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Wagons Ho: Moving West in a Covered Wagon



I’m packing up to move. Downsizing is tough. Deciding what to keep, sell or give away. We have family heirlooms and fond memories that we are passing on to family members. I got to thinking about the early settlers and all they had to do to “downsize” enough to head out across the prairie (not to mention the ocean first) in a covered wagon through unknown terrain to a destination they had only dreamed about.

These brave men and women sold their homes, and most, if not all, their possessions in hopes of a better life. Once they left the bosom of their family, the chances of seeing them again were slight to never. Sometimes extended families traveled together and set up housekeeping as neighbors. But often men or families went alone.

Whether they were crossing the Cumberland gap to the Midwest in the early part of the 19th Century or traveling further on the Oregon Trail in later decades, the challenges were the same.

These pioneers didn’t have a moving van to  transport all their worldly goods to a new home. Instead, they had to purchase a wagon, oxen and enough supplies to get their families to their destination healthy and whole. And like us, they needed to do a bit of research to know what they needed. They printed booklets with all that information.

Here is a list of recommendations for a ten-month journey.

A wagon that could haul 2500 pounds. That seems like a lot, but that wagon filled up fast with supplies. Although firearms were on the list, according to a Huff family diary kept during a trip west by wagon train they apparently didn’t read the booklet. When the wagon master asked what each man brought for weapons, many from Europe had swords. And others brought no weapons at all.

Back to the list.

Rifles with plenty of ammunition to hunt game along the way were the first thing on the list. Then came required tools: an axe, hatchet, hunting knife, spade,2-3 augers, handsaw, cross-cut saw, plow mold, two ropes, mallet, matches carried in a corked bottle. And nine-to-ten-gallon keg for water and a bucket.

 A medical kit consisted of iron rust, rum or cognac(for dysentery) Calomel, Quinine for Ague, Epsom salt for fever and Castor Oil. However many wives had their own standby remedies that they preferred. And if the travelers were lucky a doctor was in their company.

Now the food supply needed for one person: 150 pounds of flour, 25 pound of bacon, 10 pounds of rice, 15 pounds of coffee, 2 pounds of tea, 25 pounds of sugar, half a bushel dried peas, half a bushel dried fruit, 2 pounds of baking soda, 10 pounds of salt, half a bushel of corn meal, half a small keg of vinegar and pepper. Again, this is for one person, imagine multiplying this by four, five or ten depending on the number in the family for a ten month journey.

Clothing suggestions per person: two wool shirts, two wool undershirts for men. For the women two wool dresses. Both genders needed two pairs of drawers (underwear), four pairs of wool socks, two pairs of cotton socks, four colored handkerchiefs, one pair of boots and shoes, ponchos, broad brimmed hats. I noticed there was no winter coat mention because they hope to get to their destination before cold weather. Traveling in winter was very dangerous. Only two changes of clothes for the whole journey. Eww.

Sewing supplies were a bit different than we might think with the need to repair the wagon’s canvas and buckskin items. There were no quantities mentioned. The list begins with stout linen thread, large needles, thimble, bit of bee’s wax, a few buttons, and ends with  buckskin for patching, paper for pins. But women might add other sewing notions and material, hoping to sew a garment or two as they went along.

The personal items list shows how important  cleanliness was to early settlers even on the trail. Each person was to bring a comb and brush, two toothbrushes. Some may be surprised these pioneers ever brushed their teeth. Baking soda substituted for toothpaste. And the next item on the list was Castile soap.( a soft soap created in Spain in the 12th century that is vegetable based.). Th last two two items were a mystery to me: a belt knife and a flint stone. I suppose they used it to start a fire to heat water to washed up.

Now cooking supplies. A baking pan for baking and roasting coffee, a wrought iron or tin mess pan ( an all purpose pan used for boiling and frying), two churns one for sweet and one for sour milk,(Imagine if you didn’t bring a cow  these weren’t needed), a coffee pot, and each person should have a tin cup and plate and a knife, fork and spoon. Add a coffee mill, a cast iron kettle, and a frying pan, and you are ready to prepare meals over a campfire.

What about protection from the elements? Each person needed a canvas for the ground under their sleeping area, two blankets and a pillow to place in the family tent. Obviously, there was no room in the wagon to sleep. Smart travelers brought additional wheels to replace broken ones.

 Many families brought more than one wagon and either had the older boys drive it or hired men to handle the additional wagons.

But we mustn’t forget the oats and hay needed to feed the four oxen tasked with pulling said wagon thousands of miles. That food is kept in reserve when there is no grazing available when they stop for the night. Some travelers add a cow or two, or personal mounts to the back of the wagon. Some herded cattle, or brought along goats. And the family was solely responsible for this additional livestock. Some  preferred to use large farm horses rather than oxen to pull their wagons. They required more care than an oxen.

By the time they reach the end of their journey most of the livestock had been eaten or died along the way along with some of the faithful oxen. The heavy items such as pianos, dressers, desks, mirrors and tomes of books were left along the trail as it became more perilous, and the wagons needed to be lightened.

Reading about their hardships of my ancestors makes me appreciate how much easier it is for us to move across the country.


Cindy Ervin Huff is an Award-winning author of Historical and Contemporary Romance. She loves infusing hope into her stories of broken people. She addicted to reading and chocolate. Her idea of a vacation is visiting historical sites and an ideal date with her hubby of almost fifty years would be live theater.

Visit her  website



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  1. Thanks for posting this morning, and for your monthly contributions to the blog. I especially enjoyed this entry because I love reading about the wagon train journeys. It sure wasn't a trip to be taken lightly, as evidenced by that list of supplies!

  2. Wagon Train journeys fascinate and terrify me all at the same time. Especially after playing the Oregon Trail game so much as a child in school.
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thank you for sharing this fascinating post!

  4. I loved this post, Cindy! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Wow! The settlers were tough people. I don't think Americans today could do what they did.

  6. All of the pioneers and settlers had such a difficult time but they seemed to keep going on no matter what-wonder if we had to do the same thing if we go on or just give up ?