Saturday, June 18, 2011


Jeanmarie Hamilton is overwhelmed today, so I’m filling in for her. Actually, Linda Hubalek has graciously allowed me to quote from her book TRAIL OF THREAD, in which Dorothy Pieratt describes preparing for the trip West from Kentucky to Kansas.

Dorothy Pieratt's words:

We debated, but finally packed two wagons for each family. We felt it was better for the animals’ sake to limit the weight on each wagon to around 2000 pounds instead of overloading one wagon....Since we need six oxen per wagon, we bought extra animals a few weeks ago. John decided to use oxen instead of mules because the oxen are easily managed, patient, and gentle--even with the children--and not easily driven off or prone to stampeding like mules and horses...After much discussion, John agreed to hitch a cage of chickens on the back of the wagon.

Yesterday we sold everything that wouldn’t fit in the wagons at a public auction on our farm. The strain of the day is still on my mind. This morning I’ve been ready to fetch something and then I stop in midstep, wondering if it’s tucked in the wagon or was sold yesterday. It was hard to see most of the animals and all but a few chickens leave the place. But we can’t take everything along, and we need the money.

New wagon beds were built using seasoned oak boards. Sides were jointed together. No nails were used that could work out along the bumpy road and spell disaster. Along the inside of the three-foot-high sides, John built long boxes running the length of the wagon for storage. These boxes will serve as seats during the day if the children want to ride inside. We just add boards cut to fit across the storage boxes, put bedding on top, and the wagon is outfitted for sleeping. The boards fit in a wooden holder that runs along the outside of the wagon. They can also be used to make a bench or table when laid across stumps, or, heaven forbid, as lumber for a coffin.

I had a big hand in preparing the wagons, too. The wagon beds were fitted with a framework of hickory bows high enough to give head clearance, and I hand-sewed long pieces of cloth together for coverings. It was quite an undertaking. It had to be tight, strong enough to withstand heavy winds, and rainproof so things inside don’t get soaked. Even though it was extra work, I ended up making them a double thickness to keep out the cold. A dark muslin went over the framework first, then a heavy white linen. The dark cloth cuts down on the brightness of the reflection as we walk beside the wagon. I coated the outside material with a mixture of hot beeswax and linseed oil for waterproofing. It turned the material a sand color, which should help the reflection, too.

The covering is drawn together on the ends by a strong cord to form tight circles. End flaps an be buttoned on to completely seal the wagon top. My stitches and buttonholes will be tested by the first storm we run into. I even stitched pockets on the inside covering to hold little things like our comb, sunbonnets, and other personal things I didn’t want out of reach.

John borrowed a guidebook to Oregon and California from a neighbor, which suggested that for each adult going to California, a party should carry 200 pounds of flour, 30 of hardtack, 75 of bacon, 10 of rice, 5 of coffee, 2 of tea, 25 of sugar, 2 of saleratus, 10 of salt, a half-bushel each of cornmeal, parched, and ground corn, and a small keg of vinegar. We’re not going to California (unless the men change their minds), so we shouldn’t need that much per person, but we’ll need supplies until we get crops and garden planted and harvested. Who knows how long it will be until towns with stores get established in the new territory?

I’ll take one barrel of pickled cucumbers along to prevent scurvy...the decision of what kind and quality of item to trade for had to be made...The mill sells different grades of flour. I wish I could have bought the superfine flour, sifted several times...I bought the next grade, middlings, for our cooking. It’s much more coarse and granular, but it serves the purpose...The mill’s shorts, a cross between wheat bran and coarse whole wheat flour, looked clean, so I also bought 125-pound sack of it...

We can’t afford to carry the flour in heavy barrels, so it is mostly stacked in fifty-pound cotton cloth to cut down on weight. Because the flour is not kiln-dried, we double-sacked it in a leather bag. If the flower absorbs too much moisture, I’ll end up with a heavy loaf and will have to add more flour to my baking.

Sorghum molasses, our main sweetener, will make the trip in small wooden kegs...For special occasions, I bought three cones of white sugar. The New Orleans sugar we buy reasonably in the stores her may fo for top dollar on the frontier. The cones resemble pointed hats. They are molded at the factory, and wrapped in blue paper. Usually I leave the cones whole and use sugar snippers, a cross between scissors and pliers, to break off lumps as I need them. To save space on the trip, I ground up the cones and divided the two types of sugar (the white sugar on the top gradually changes to brown sugar on the bottom), then sifted to remove the impurities. The storekeeper said I should pack it in India rubber sacks to keep it dry, but I decided not to add that extra expense. I tucked the cone papers in the wagon because I can extract the indigo dye from it to color yarn and material blue.

I also bought a small quantity of low grade brown sugar since it is ten cents cheaper than the cones. It’s dark, smelly, sticky, and sometimes dirty, but it still gives sweet taste to cooking.
Parched corn is another sacked commodity in the wagon. The kernels were sun dried last fall and I’ll grind them into meal with the mortar when I need it.

Smoked bacon was double-wrapped in cloth, put in wooden boxes, and covered with bran to prevent the fat from melting during the trip. I cooked the crocks of cut meat I had left into a thick jelly. After it set up in pans and dried, we broke it into pieces and packed it in tins. If I add boiling water to some, we’ll have portable soup on the trail.

Smaller sacks of beans, rice, salt, saleratus, and coffee are wedged around the whiskey jugs underneath the wagon seat. The medicine box, filled with tiny cloth sachets holding dried medicinal herbs and little medicine bottles, is wedged on top, ready for an emergency.

I put the sacks of yeast cakes, dried bead, and hardtack inside one of the long boxes, along with the box of homemade soap bars. I’ll have small sacks of each staple in the back box and refill them from the bigger sacks when I need to.

The back end of the wagon drops down partway on chains and will serve as a preparation table for food or for other jobs. The provision box faces the back so it can be opened up without hauling the box out of the wagon every time. It has my tinware, cooking utensils and small sacks of necessities for cooking everyday.

Wish I could have brought all my kitchen utensils, but I settled for two spider skillets, three Dutch ovens of various sizes, the reflector for baking, the coffee pot, the coffee mill, the mortar and pestle, a few baking pans, knives, and my rolling pin.

Walking out to the wagons for the umpteenth time, it struck me that they are starting to look like a peddler’s caravan. They are overflowing with items attached to the sides. The wooden washtubs and zinc washboard are fastened to one side of the wagon. The walking plow is lashed to the other side. Small kegs of water, vinegar, and molasses fit in where needed to balance the wagon. Everybody can see what we own because it’s hanging in plain sight.

The second wagon is packed even tighter than the first with household and farming tools we’ll need after we get to our new land. All the boxes are packed tight so they won’t slide around, rattle, or spill. I hope we won’t have to unpack it until we reach our destination.

You can learn more about preparing for a wagon train trip and pioneering in a new land from Linda Hubalek’s TRAIL OF THREAD, the series of the same name, and at


  1. Can you imagine? I cannot, but I love to read this sort of narrative. Just to understand every detail they went through to travel across land is astounding. These books sounds wonderful. Caroline, thanks for sharing Linda's books with us. Celia

  2. To think, these days we just toss clothes in a suitcase and head out in our car.

    Lots of good information.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing a very informative article. I loved reading it. I was suprised at how much work went into getting ready to head west. I'd love to read more.

  4. This shows not only how much work it was to prepare for the trip, but how expensive it was, too. I loved reading this. :)


  5. I remember on our trip through the Badlands of South Dakota stopping at an out of the way historical landmark that showed actual ruts in the mud (which had turned to stone over time) of wagon tracks from settlers heading West.

    What an amazing experience those people had and it they survived the trip, the stories they told the rest of their lives.

  6. Great information. My first story is a wagon train and I was blessed to have my great great grandfather's journal he wrote along the trail in 1849. This information is interesting and can help me with greater details in my story. Thank you!


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