Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cooking on the Western Trail

by Anna Kathryn Lanier 

Wow.  You’d think that the diaries of those who travelled West would be full of cooking trials and tribulations.  But no. After choosing this subject, I searched through my many ‘wagon trail diary books’ and found very few references on cooking. In fact, several of the books didn’t even have ‘cooking’ in the index. However, I think I found enough references to make this blog worthwhile.
One of the many tasks women performed on the trail was cooking. Though cooking and baking was second nature to most women (the highly born women didn’t always know how to cook, as they had hired help to do that job back East), cooking on an open flame was not something the women were familiar with. Even Keturah Belknap, who had never cooked on a stove, but rather a hearth, had to learn the ins and outs of cooking on a camp fire.

Helen Carpenter, a new bride making her way west on her honeymoon, wrote: “Although there is not much to cook, the difficulty and inconvenience in doing it amounts to a great deal—so by the time one has squatted around the fire and cooked bread and bacon, and made several dozen trips to and from the wagon—washed the dishes….and gotten things ready for an early breakfast, some of the others already have their night caps on—at any rate it is time to go to bed.” (1)  She also comments, “It is hurry scurry to get breakfast and put away things that necessarily had to be pulled out the last night…nooning is barely long enough to eat a cold bite—and at night all the cooking utensils and provisions are to be gotten about the camp fire, and cooking enough to last until the next night.” (2)

When the wagon train took a break from traveling, either to observe the Sabbath or to give the animals a rest, women “boiled a big mess of beans, to be warmed over for several meals,” relates Catherine Haun in her diary. (2)

Even in wind and rain, the cooking must go on.  According to Amelia Stewart Knight, “(Dreary times, wet and muddy, and crowded in the tent, cold and wet, uncomfortable in the wagon. No place for the poor children [she has seven].) I have been busy cooking, roasting coffee, etc. today….” A month into the journey she writes, “Fine weather; spent this day in washing, baking, and overhauling the wagons” and the next day, “I have been cooking, and packing things away for an early start in the morning.” (1)
When food was found on the trail, it was not wasted.  Eliza Ann McAuley writes “In cutting a way for the road, the boys find thickets of wild currants. There are several varieties, the black, the red and the white. The boys cut the bushes, some of them ten feet long and loaded with ripe currants, which we strip off and make into jelly, currant wine and vinegar, dried currants and currant pie.” (3)

I’ve camped out with my Girl Scout troops and we did a few campfire meals, so I know from experience how much work it is.  I have to admire the women who did it day in and day out, rain or shine for five to six months at a time!



(2)    PLAINS WOMEN: Women in the American West by Paula Bartley and Cathy Loxton

             (3) COVERED WAGON WOMEN:   Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1852 by Kenneth L. Holmes

Promo alert: Next month, I’m doing a month-long workshop PIONEERING WOMEN OF THE WEST on Hearts Through History’s Campus.  Click HERE to find out the details and to register. WIN A FREE WORKSHOP - Just leave a comment and with a contact email and you will be eligible for the drawing.  I'll draw for a winner on July 16th.

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Anna Kathryn Lanier


  1. Oh, I don't think I could have done it!!! Great Post, Anna!

  2. It's amazing what you can do when you have to. Our country was founded not just by brave men, but also by strong women. In many ways, it would be fair to say the women were stronger than the men. We come from good stock, ladies.

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

  3. Thanks for a wonderful article. I barely cook on a stove. Can't imagine doing it on a fire for anything but s'mores!

    Two other points that might interest readers... Cooking over an open stove was dangerous for women with their long skirts that could easily brush the flames. I wonder if any ever gave up and wore their husband's pants.

    Finding fuel was often difficult, especially if the area was picked over by other wagon trains or they weren't in a woody area. In some places, they used dried buffalo chips. I can't imagine that the food would taste well.

  4. Hi, Tess, Vonnie and Deborah. Deborah, thanks for the reminder about the fuel used. I meant to post about that, but forgot. The women and children would pick up buffalo chips as they travelled each day so they'd have them for the evening fire.

    Vonnie, the women usually had to do double duty, their own work, and the men's as well, in the form of driving the wagons, herding the animals, etc.

  5. Ah, I must have been "highly born" in another life. That explains why I haven't taken to cooking like I should.

    Camping cooking is challenge enough. I cannot imaging covered wagon cooking.

  6. I don't know how those women did it! I've been on a few pack trips into the mts, and those are a HUGE amount of work, with packing the food in, cooking over a fire, and cleaning up after. And we carry packaged food!

    Great post!

  7. I'm a Civil War reenactor and let me tell you, I've burned my share of cornbread and biscuits while learning to cook "authentically". Also, there was/is the hazard of the wind blowing your skirt into the open flame. (I read somewhere the % of women who were burned/died of this particular injury and tho' it was high, I can't remember well enough to quote it.) Anyway, I love the hobby - I portray an Army laundress - and it makes me appreciate modern conveniences;)
    Thanks for the interesting post!

  8. This is great stuff!I know a man here in town who has a custom-made "chuck-wagon" made on a flat bed trailer to pull behind his pickup. He goes on hunting trips with guys, those with about 20 men in the group and they drive hundreds of miles. This man provides all the meals--they only pay for the food--he does the work free.
    When not on a trip, he uses it on his big back yard patio. In outdoor cooking, he makes biscuits in a dutch oven, peach cobbler, too, grills and roasts meats, and makes the most wonderful campfire beans you have ever tasted. See? Even I have benefitted from his gifts--and I do not hunt.
    This is why we love our history, isn't it, Anna? We know we had ancestors who did all this. Amazing. Celia

  9. Anna Kathryn, what a great post and I loved the photos. One book that does discuss cooking on the trail is TRAIL OF THREAD,by Linda K. Hubalek. Although the woman in her book is moving only from Kentucky to Missouri, she discusses the difficulties of cooking on the trail and several incidents that went awry. As Tess said, I don't think I could have done it!

    Debra, I have ancestral anecdotes about the sling under the wagon used for fuel. To make a yukky subject worse, when it rained, the children slept in the fuel sling rather than bedding on the ground. Hmm, I wonder if they'd had wood or buffalo and cow chips in the sling before bedtime?

  10. In my research for Jodi's Journey, I found out that after the war a couple of men in the north made coffee much easier to make and you no longer had to roast it in a skillet first. This made the trail drives much easier for the cooks, let me tell you, and once Jodi discovered it,she bought a box full of this wonderful coffee that had been roasted with egg and sugar was a hit with the men on the cattle drive.

    What we take so for granted was a lot of hard work for our ancestors and a joy to research for us.

    Wonderful article.

    Love and blessings
    Rita Hestand

  11. I remember those days as a Camp Fire leader were filled with cooking over campfires. It was time consuming, but the food tasted so good. I'd not want to do it day in and day out. My first story is a wagon train and it was interesting coming up with some of the food they ate. Time was never wasted during their journey.

    Great post.

  12. Enjoyed your post! We did a lot of tent camping when our kids were young but always used a camp stove for cooking.I knew about using the buffalo chips for fuel. Can't imagine that smelled too good either. I hate to think how many women probably did die from being burned. It was a hard journey for them, for sure. I wonder if their men appreciated them?

  13. Hello, everyone! Sorry I didn't check in earlier, I was having lunch with my mom and then doing some errands with her.

    Some great comments. Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  14. Fabulous post, Anna!

    I love to cook, but beans for several days in a row does not sound all that appealing!

    Thanks for yet another insight into the lives of our foremothers.

  15. How pampered we are now with our microwaves, washing machines, air conditioners, dishwashers and automobiles. If I'd been born during that era, I guess I could have handled it. No other choice. But I certainly am glad to be a 21st century woman, though!
    Thanks for sharing your research findings with us : )

  16. I know any time we went camping whatever my husband cooked was burnt on the outside and raw inside. of course you were usually so hungry by the that didn't matter. I expect the same thing held true then. lol

  17. Interesting post. Makes me appreciate our modern conveniences. Squatting or leaning over a campfire after picking up the furel for that compfire was back breaking work.

    Mary Galusha

  18. Hi, Lisabet, Janie, Larion and Mary. Thanks for stopping by. I agree, things were rough back then. Certainly a lot more work at cooking than we do today, even off the trail!

  19. Congratulations to Janie. She won the free workshop registration for my Pioneering Women of the West workshop!

    One more chance to enter and win: I'll be on Seduced by History at blogspot on July 19th. A commentor will win a workshop there, too.


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