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Food Along the Overland Trail

The food supply was the heaviest and most essential part of an overland emigrant's outfit. It was necessary to pack the right amount. Too large a quantity of food would wear down the draft animals, but too little might mean hunger along the trail. Game, fish, and berries harvested as opportunity and time permitted, could not be relied upon. No stores or trading posts were to be found along the overland route before 1849. With the Colorado gold rush of 1859 and thereafter, ranches and trading posts grew up along the Platte, but during earlier years emigrants had to fend for themselves.

According to Merrill Mattes's Great Platte River Road, Lansford Hastings, one of the earliest guidebook writers, recommended that each immigrant be supplied with two hundred pounds of flour, ten pounds of coffee, twenty pounds of sugar, and ten pounds of salt. Basic kitchen utensils were a cooking kettle, fry pan, coffee pot, tin plates, cups, knives, and forks.

Staples of the emigrant diet were bread, bacon, and coffee. Other food items could include chipped beef, rice, tea, dried beans, dried fruit, saleratus (baking soda), vinegar, cheese, cream of tartar, pickles, ginger, and mustard. A welcome alternative to bread baked along the trail was cornbread. Some packed manufactured wheat biscuits. A few pioneers carried eggs or butter, normally packed in barrels of flour or meal. Some of the resourceful brought milk cows along.

Antelope meat, when available, was highly favored. Many liked it better than buffalo. Other creatures which occasionally turned up in pioneer stew pots were sage hen, rabbit, badger, rattlesnake, prairie dog, and eagle. Domestic oxen, horses, and mules could be eaten in emergencies. Several overland emigrants reported successful fishing in the Platte, but overall references to fishing in emigrant diaries and reminiscences are uncommon.

The one item almost never left behind was whiskey. Other items such as flour, bacon, furniture, harness, stoves, and even silver and linen were left by the side of the trail as the need arose, but never whiskey. The majority of emigrants prized it for its medicinal and restorative properties.


(August 2000)



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