The Oregon Trail – Preparing for Leaving Day

antique photo of wagon train

Decisions to travel west in the coming year usually took place around a fire in the home of a family. The decision was usually determined by the man of the house with input from his wife and children in most families. However, it wasn’t uncommon for men to travel alone or with another man with plans to send for his family later.

The Oregon Territory was a land of promise, fertile land, and opportunity. It was an adventure fueled by hope.

I’m fascinated by the courage, stamina, and dreams the pioneers demonstrated from the day a decision was made to travel west to the day they arrived at the end of the trail. Danger lurked on the trail in many forms—illness, accidents, drowning, and limited food and water.

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In my book, Journey of Honor, the main character Rebecca Pierce and her mother, Sarah, are forced to decide to go or not go because the man in the family died two months prior to leaving day. They decide to go ahead. Sarah has a sister who traveled west the previous year. Preparations had been taking place for a year.

Journey of Honor begins on leaving day. What did the family have to do to prepare? What did they pack? How much did it cost?

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The journey averaged ten to fifteen miles a day on good days. Times of bad weather, lack of water, not enough feed for the animals or themselves, temperature extremes, changing terrain, illness, boredom, fatigue, and death would become almost everyday occurrences.

 The rules for each wagon train were set by the wagon master who was chosen for his experience and patience.

It was recommended that the emigrants have at least three yoke of oxen (six oxen) or six mules to pull the heavy wagons. In 1845 the average cost for an ox or mule was two dollars. Their livestock was the most precious possession on the trail.

The wagon beds were ten feet long by four feet wide. The bowed canvas was usually coated in linseed oil to help waterproof it. The weight limit of a fully loaded wagon was two thousand pounds.  Most wagons weighed between 1300 and 1600 pounds when packed.

The average cost of properly outfitting a wagon was $600 to $800. It was a hardship for most.

Food supply requirements for each adult included:

  • 120-200 pounds of flour
  • 30 pounds of hardtack or crackers
  • 25 to 75 pounds of bacon
  • 15 pounds of ground corn
  • ½ bushel cornmeal
  • 10-50 pounds rice
  • 2 pounds salteratus (we use baking powder)
  • 10 pounds of salt
  • 25 pounds of sugar
  • 5 to 15 pounds of coffee
  • 2 pounds of tea
  • 1 to 2 bushels of dried fruit
  • ½ to 2 bushels of dried beans
  • Vinegar, butter preserved in tin canisters (unless they had a lactating cow), salt, pepper, favorite spices, lemon and vanilla extract, personal favorite foods (many brought peppermint)
  • Whisky for medicinal uses

Cooking Equipment:

  • Cast iron skillet or Spider Frying Pan with legs
  • Cast iron Dutch oven
  • Coffee pot
  • Reflector oven
  • Bread pan
  • Rolling pin
  • Coffee mill
  • Churn
  • Tin cups and plates
  • Cutlery

Equipment on outside of wagon:

  • Water barrel(s)
  • Matches or flint and steel
  • Axe
  • Fishing pole
  • Rifle/knives
  • Tools for wagon repairs/jockey box

Personal:

  • Clothing and sewing supplies
  • Bedding
  • Books
  • Furniture (because of weight restriction heavy furniture was often left on the side of the trail if families didn’t leave it behind before leaving.)

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Life on the Oregon Trail was long and difficult. Travelers learned to work together and enjoy the good days. They were brave and paved the way west for future generations.

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