By Claire Winson
Whether they came for land, seeking relief from religious persecution, gold, or driven by a sense of adventure, there are many lessons that the west-bound pioneers of the mid 1800s can still teach us today.
The men, women, and children who put it all on the line to travel the Oregon Trail were tough by any standards, but in 1841 a group of the most resourceful and resilient, the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, literally paved their own way further south and struck out for northern California (present-day Contra Costa County, California).
By nothing more than pure coincidence, my son and I made a similar move this year. We sold up everything for that idea of a “better life”; starting out in Virginia, slowly heading west, eventually landing in Contra Costa county ourselves for a few more months. Finally, we trudged north where we have come to rest in a historic town connecting California’s Central Valley and the Pacific Northwest, and originally home to the Wintu Native American Indian tribe.
Like with any big change, we’ve had to make do with what we had at times and looking at the old ways of doing things (such as substituting water and oil in place of milk, or flax or applesauce in lieu of eggs in baking) as needed.
There are a lot of wild edible plants to forage (even living in town). Wild plums and blackberries are everywhere (at least until the August heat scorches any fruit exposed to the afternoon sun) and there really isn’t a better way to spend a Sunday morning than collecting blackberries with a six year old (to top off homemade flapjacks). Wild grapes pop out along the Sacramento River as the season cools and huge pine cones hide stashes of pine nuts, and acorn mush is a staple of the Wintu to this day (it isn’t any tastier than it sounds but it’s edible).
Related: 16 Wild Edibles You Didn’t Know You Could Forage For
There’s satisfaction in collecting food grown in the wild, just as nature intended, knowing that if you were left overnight (or for a day or two) you would be fine.
But that’s just scraping by, just barely surviving (though useful knowledge should you ever need it).
What stands out about the pioneers moving west – whatever their reason for making that journey – is that it was never about surviving; it was about thriving. Not just after they arrived at their destination, but along the way.
There’s a lesson in that.
As prepper, we never really know how much we should store, how long our provisions will last, or even what we are preparing for (from long term unemployment to a TEOTWAWKI scenario). The truth is we don’t know, but neither did the souls who crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in 1841; they didn’t know much more than to “head west and a little farther south” off the Oregon Trail.
Their stories of resourcefulness and perseverance aren’t about surviving the four to six months trip ahead (the travelers themselves weren’t sure what waited for them), but tells of a permanent change, a way of life; for better or for worse.
Their decision on what would make the trip (and ultimately what didn’t) had to be strategic; food needed to be highly nutritious and satisfying, taking up as little space with as little weight as possible. Food choices also needed to be preserved for months at a time. Any of this sound familiar in your own prepping journey?
But food had another function for the pioneers as well.
Although the primary function of food is for survival, food also offered an opportunity to rest, connect with friends and family, celebrate, and the early settlers recognized their meal times as opportunities to separate themselves, at least mentally, from the arduous journey, if even for a short while.
Here’s some insight into the food, meals, and the thinking of the pioneers as they readied themselves to travel the California Trail in the 1800s.
What They Packed
Guide books of the day varied, but an accepted recommendation for provisions, per adult, for the four- six month trip was:
- 150 pounds of flour (some guides recommended 200 lbs);
- 20 pounds of corn meal;
- 50 pounds of bacon;
- 40 pounds of sugar;
- 10 pounds of coffee;
- 15 pounds of dried fruit;
- 5 pounds of salt;
- half a pound of saleratus (sodium bicarbonate);
- 2 pounds of tea;
- 5 pounds of rice;
- 15 pounds of beans.
Dried fruit such as peaches and apples were also included as a source of Vitamin C and to prevent scurvy (dried fruit takes up less space, is lighter, and lasts longer than fresh varieties).
Spices and condiments such as sugar, mustard, cinnamon, nutmeg, vinegar and pepper were often included.
Preservation & Preparation
Pioneers knew the benefits of drying food; dehydrated vegetables kept most of their nutrition and helped pioneers pack light. To prepare, vegetables were squeezed to remove the liquid and then baked for several hours until rock hard.
Water added to a fist-sized portion of dried vegetables and cooked could feed four adults.
Bacon or ham would be kept in bran-filled barrels at the bottom of the wagons in an attempt to keep the sun from melting the fat (barrels would be traded for sacks along the way). Eggs could be kept in a similar fashion, nestled in corn meal; the meal could then be baked into cakes or biscuits.
Pioneer days started early, and breakfast wasn’t too far off what we might eat today. Well-preserved ham or bacon and coffee were staples alongside corn porridge or Johnnycakes (made by adding boiling water to corn meal mixed with a bit of salt and sugar in a pan).
Buffalo meat was made into a high energy survival food (pemmican); thin flakes of buffalo (or the lean meat of any large game animal) was hung up to dry in the sun or by a slow fire, then pounded between two stones until ground to a powder. This powder was then mixed with an equal amount of melted grease. Pemmican could be eaten raw, with added dried berries that had also been crushed into powder, or mixed with flour and boiled. It was a highly nutritious meal that reportedly could be kept for up to 10 years.
Bread was baked fresh each day (likely made from white, whole wheat, corn or rye flour). Wheat could be hand-milled (ground) between two stones and then the coarse bran could be removed or sieved out.
Basic biscuits could also be made with the flour, along with saleratus, salt, bacon grease, water, and then cooked on the open fire. Saleratus (baking soda’s precursor) produced carbon dioxide gas in dough which acted as a rising agent, and was first packaged in small envelopes and sold from about 1840-1860. Pies and cakes, made with fruit collected along the way mixed with a little sugar, would also have been baked alongside the trail (though probably not fancy by any stretch).
“Mush and milk” was a simple but popular porridge served at supper, made from cornmeal and may have been sweetened with sugar.
When we are preparing for survival mode it’s hard to look beyond the basic, staple, necessities. But, like the pioneers, an “emergency situation” is also about prepping for a long term change, simplifying, learning about substitutions and being aware that our own meal times may be more than survival but also about connection. This is something we can learn a lot about from these earlier settlers who dared to go beyond the barrier of the Cascade Mountains.
Author Zane Grey wrote that the “Unwritten Code of the West” stressed integrity, self-reliance, and accountability. They sound like my type of folks.
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I am trying to learn all I can about “survival” and what it entails.
What area do you live in? Each area has things that will help. Other areas have other things, each to it’s own. I see things all the time that people walk by and do not know. I talk to neighbors and get fruit from trees.
I live in upstate NY near Lake George.
Google “Green Deanne” and subscribe to his free newsletter. Also, check out “The Survival Podcast” by Jack Spirko – brilliant!
Check out the Charlie Mike Solutions Survival Course in West Virginia. It’s a very well-rounded course for beginning survivalists.
is there a book on their recipes and survival tips. the leader on this article suggested recipes, didn’t see any.
I really enjoyed Wagon Wheel Kitchens, by Jacqueline Williams (I grabbed a copy on Amazon). I understand that recipes back then were “vague” (and trial & error); often written with hints that only the author understood!
Here is a fairly decent cookbook for living off the grid. Cheap enough for $10.95
There is also some great videos on YouTube. Look up “Jas Townsend & Son” for some great 18th century recipes. I have made quite a few of his recipes and they turned out great.
Bob’ This is very late, but I got tickled! THEY ARE THERE.
FLOUR, SALT, BACON GREASE, BAKING SODA.
THAT IS HOW THEY DID IT. One just grabbed some flour, put in stuff, till it LOOKED right. lol I make a cake like this, handed down from watching my mom. A sheet cake, with streusal on top.
Bob; they are there. lol Mush and milk. Biscuits. The kind of recipe’s we have today, is not like they cooked. My mom used to say things like, ‘a hunk of butter’. mix ’till it looks right’.
Example. “Johnnycakes (made by adding boiling water to corn meal mixed with a bit of salt and sugar in a pan).” This is how old recipe’s are! More like trial and error. I make a sheet cake, not measuring anything. Some flour, butter, some milk, egg, mix, till it looks “right” as a batter. You know, a pinch of salt. This is so funny to me. People have forgotten how to cook. I would bet, when starving and in survival mode, you could make up a recipe. Whatever you have, mixed with some flavorings. Rice, celery, onion, salt, chicken bullion or some fat from bacon. You would eat it ALL! Did not mean to offend, but it does tickle me.I have cooked from scratch, my whole life. JUST,,,START! ☺
OH, it seems I am redundant! Sorry did not see my old post from two months ago. Sorry.
I’ve cooked from scratch all my life. I learned to cook over the phone by calling my grandmother (who was born in 1886) each day and asking her how to cook whatever we were having that night. I still do use a cookbook for cakes but most other things are in my head.
Many years ago, a friend gave me her mother’s recipe for Pioneer Turnip Casserole. It has become a favorite of our family and everyone else who thought they didn’t like turnips! I will share it with you…of course, it has been adapted from the actual recipe during pioneer times:
6 medium turnips, peeled and thinly sliced and
boiled in water until not quite tender;
place in a 9″ x 13″ casserole dish;
sprinkle only about 1 tsp of granulated sugar over
the top of the cooked and layered turnips.
Spread contents of two regular sized soup cans full of
concentrated cream of celery soup over the hot turnips. (Do not dilute the cream of celery soup.)
Sprinkle the top of the casserole with either finely cut,
canned (store-bought) breadcrumbs or tear up some fresh bread into ragged small pieces and place atop the casserole. Pour 4 oz. of melted real butter over the crumbs, pouring in a thin stream to basically cover the surface of the breadcrumbs.
Bake at 325 – 350 degrees until the breadcrumbs are toasty-golden brown and the casserole contents are very hot. YUMMY!
My mom did something like this with CAULIFLOWER. But no canned soup. People did not have canned soup in those days. I think it is marketing,,that tells us, to use all of these CANNED soup products. This is my own preference, not to use any canned soup, in cooking. Just my own idea and bias. lol
Antoinette, you can make your own “any” cream of….soups. They are simple to do, and don’t have all of the additives and preservatives that canned commercial soups do. Look up recipes online. I have them all, and plan to make “instant” ones using freeze dried/dehydrated ingredients ( I just recently bought a freeze dryer) and also to can my own cream of…soups. Much healthier than store bought! (and cheaper, too!)
Great ideas and tips on this web site. Thank you all
I am interested in learning the recipes of the old days. They didn’t have what we have today in this century.
Mush and milk has been a favorite breakfast dish all my life. A similar dish can be made using grits.
You can also add an egg or two to the cooked mix, and bake until the mix is cooked firm, and serve it with berries, bananas, and other fruits.