Supper on the Trail: The Significance of Food and Provisions in Early Western Travel

Andi Gray
History 2004

Immediately after the Civil War, a journalist named Samuel Bowles, accompanied by Schuyler Colfax, then Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, embarked on a sort of "official junket" to observe the American West.[1] During the journey, Bowles wrote a series of letters, which was published in the East, wherein he tried to describe "the distinctive experiences of the Overland Journey."[2] Upon their arrival in California, Bowles made this observation:

When the Puritans settled New England, their first public duty was to build a church with thrifty thought for their souls. Out here, their degenerate sons begin with organizing a restaurant, and supplying Hostitter's stomachic bitters and an European or Asiatic cook. So the seat of empire, in its travel westward, changes its base from soul to stomach, from brains to bowels.[3]

How did the stomach become the leading force in a man's travel through the west? Though it is often overlooked, food was a critical and defining aspect of early western travel,[4] and the answer lies in the distinctive experiences of those nineteenth century travelers who found their way across the continent. Capturing the significance of food for travelers, Bowles wrote that, "it is a wonder how people can go alive through this country at the rate of twelve and fifteen miles a day, and finding food and drinks as they go. But they do, year by year, thousands by thousands."[5]

The availability of food played a leading role in the health, as well as the happiness of the travelers. When food was scarce and stomachs were empty, spirits were most often low. Even the scenery seemed to change with one's digestive state. One explorer, John C. Fremont, wrote from snowy northern California that "Éthe days are sunny and bright, and even warm in the noon hours; and if we could be free from the many anxieties that oppress us, even now we would be delighted here; but our provisions are getting fearfully scant."[6] The land did not have enough food to offer, so even its aesthetic beauty was unappreciated. Food was always on the travelers' minds, more so when it was scarce, and their overall experience of the American West was therefore influenced by the presence or absence of satisfactory provisions.

The western landscape posed a number of problems for the parties who depended on it for survival as they passed through. Their provisions were limited to the staples that wouldn't spoil and could be carried with them. When those ran out new provisions had to be found, either by hunting and gathering, purchasing, or trading. And there was always the chance such opportunities would not be present when needed most. To avoid desperate situations of privation, routes might be altered to seek new supplies, or one's own animals might have to be sacrificed as food. The sharing of food served as a means for healthy relations with Native Americans, and at times travelers might even find themselves dependent on the natives for their sustenance. As time progressed, and the West was slowly developing, western travel improved. Stagecoaches rolled travelers along and their station stops might be ready with a hot meal. Even better, the new railroad cars fed passengers as they hurried over the country in relative ease or even luxury. These new modes of transportation lessened the critical influence food had on travelers, and even changed the way the Western landscape was viewed when one's initial reaction was no longer to see what edible provisions it had to offer.

The importance of food for early Western travelers is an aspect of America history that historians should therefore consider. By reading travelers' accounts in narratives, journals, reports, and letters, we learn what provisions they ate and how they obtained them, the influence and consequences of those provisions on their travel, and how the significance of that food changed through time with new modes of transportation. More significantly, we find in these sources that obtaining food was perhaps the most critical concern for early travelers. Before stagecoaches and trains took the burden of finding and preparing food off of the travelers, Western travel was shaped by food. It influenced new diets, Native American relations, routes, and the mood of travelers, and helped determine the overall experience of the early westward journey.

Perhaps the first step toward understanding the importance of food for early western travelers is to look at what they actually ate. What sorts of provisions were capable of sustaining them as they moved across the Great American Desert, which is what the region west of the Missouri River was commonly called? What were their staples? How did they obtain meat? How was the food preserved and prepared? Where did they find new provisions when their stocks ran out?

Generally, a party started with a store of staple foods, which might include flour, coffee, dried meat, bacon, salt, sugar, beans, and bread or hard tack, as well as livestock such as cows and oxen. These could be consumed in any number of combinations. For example, George Brewerton described preparing food for his upcoming travels as such: "Éwe passed the eveningÉby baking a quantity of biscuit in one of those three-legged iron conveniences known to the initiated as a 'Dutch bake-oven.' To these apologies for the 'staff of life' we added some ground coffee, a little brown sugar, and a few slices of cooked bacon."[7] These hard biscuits, also called hard tack, were popular with western travelers because when prepared and dried properly they could last several months and remain "as nutritious as ever."[8] The preservation of nutritious food was important for early travelers who had to carry and depend on their provisions for extended periods of time.

The staples of a party's stores had to be guarded carefully, not only for protection from natural elements and animals, but from the hungry party itself, who might occasionally not ration themselves wisely. Fremont was grateful for one man in his party, Mr. Fitzpatrick, who had a great deal of experience living in the West and "had watched over [their] stock with jealous vigilance." He "had often endured every extremity of want during the course of his mountain life, and knew well the value of provisions in this country."[9]

One way to guarantee that a supply of stores would be available later on in a particular journey was to make a cache which was, as Fremont explained, "a term used in all this country for what is hidden in the ground."[10] For example, on July 3, 1842, he buried "a barrel of pork,"[11] and was appreciative of it when he returned on August 15. "Here was not the inn which awaits the tired traveler on his return from Mont Blanc," he wrote, "or the orange groves of South America, with their refreshing juices and soft fragrant air; but we found our little cache of dried meat and coffee undisturbed."[12]

Wild animals might also threaten a party's provisions, such as coyotes, which emigrant Randall Hewitt described as "the sneaking pest of the plains and all prairie regions." He described them as "inveterate thieves" who "will often slip into a camp when all is quiet and grab provisions and make off without attracting attention."[13] Such animals could also threaten a party's live stock, as when Hewitt passed emigrants whose ox "had been ham-strung the night before by grey wolves" and therefore had to be killed.[14] The emigrants could still obtain beef from the killed ox, so it was not a total loss. Still, they did not need the extra beef at that time and would have preferred to kill and prepare the animal later when it was actually necessary.

Despite a party's earnest efforts to guard and save their stores, accidents did occur, especially when traversing rivers. Brewerton's party experienced trouble crossing a river when "a large raft, which carried the greater share of [his party's] provisions, was dashed against a sawyer in the stream."[15] Similarly, near the beginning of Fremont's expedition to the Rocky Mountains, his party had trouble crossing the Kansas River. He reported that

all the sugar belonging to one of the messes wasted its sweets on the muddy waters; but our heaviest loss was a bag of coffee, which contained nearly all our provision. It was a loss which none but a traveler in a strange and inhospitable country can appreciate; and often afterward, when excessive toil and long marching had overcome us with fatigue and weariness, we remembered and mourned over our loss in the Kansas.[16]

Coffee was, as suggested, an important staple for these traveling men. Brewerton also wrote that, "I provided myself with a tin-cup, which might hold about a quart, for no true mountaineer ever drinks less than that amount of coffee at a sitting if he can get it."[17] The loss of coffee was, therefore, not merely a loss of provisions but of a personal comfort for those traveling through the West.

The stores of staples were not the only means of obtaining food available to travelers in the West. Most parties hunted along the way, which provided fresh meat. When Fremont's party was near the Platte River, their "stock of provisions [was] entirely exhausted;" but "regarding provisions, it did not much matter in a country where rarely the day passed without some kind of game, and where it was frequently abundant. It was a rare thing to lie down hungry," he wrote, "and we had already learned to think bread a luxury."[18] Likewise, Bowles (who traveled by stagecoach with a U.S. senator and therefore had a relatively easier journey to the West than other travelers) noted how "the canned fruits and vegetables and clean table-cloths disappeared for a time after Virginia Dale, [Colorado,] but the antelope came in to soften the fallÉand we found him and his successors most luscious eating."[19] Western travel, especially for early nineteenth century travelers who mostly hunted for their food, altered the traditional diet of easterners and meant normal foods such as bread and vegetables were missed when replaced with a primarily meat diet.

Buffalo was one of the main game animals hunted in the west, particularly on the prairie. The largest of the animals, it provided the most amount of meat for traveling parties, though for larger parties one animal might not last long. For example, Fremont wrote that his camp "was capable of consuming two buffaloes in every twenty-four hours."[20] Lewis wrote during the famed Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805 that "we eat an emensity of meatÉit requires 4 deer, an Elk and a deer, or one buffaloe, to supply us plentifully 24 hours."[21] William Marshall Anderson wrote of the "mighty bison," whose "meat is good eating," including "Bosse, hump-ribs, side ribs, tongue and marrow-bones."[22] Most often when travelers mentioned the preparation of a buffalo it entailed roasting the ribs. Anderson addressed his readers' curiosity about the strange food, responding to the query "is such meat really good? What a question to ask a hungry man! Ask a Catholic if he loves or believes in the Virgin Mary."[23] A feast of roasted buffalo might not have been appreciated or even proper in the East, but the limited provisions available while traveling through the West demanded a reevaluation of what tasted Ôgood.'

Other animals besides buffalo were, of course, hunted or captured and eaten as well. Deer and antelope were common, as were waterfowl and fish where available. Meat that was not immediately consumed might also be treated and preserved to last several days as the travelers moved through less populated areas of the West. Drying the meat was most common, and could be done the way Fremont's party did, where "low scaffolds were erected, upon which the [buffalo] meat was laid, cut up into thin strips, and small fires kindled below."[24] In this way he and his party prepared "a stock of provisions for fifteen days," which he planned only to use "when [their] rifles should fail to procure [them] present support."[25] Planning ahead was therefore necessary when venturing into unknown territory because travelers could not be sure game would be found again in the near future.

Travelers gathered natural provisions throughout the West as well. Berries might be gathered, as the Hewitt party did when they found some, "strongly resembling the cultivated raspberry," in a valley.[26] "Acres of service berries" along the trail were also "gathered and eaten with substantial relish."[27] And salt was a staple that might be found and collected in some areas along lakeshores, and could then be used to flavor food and preserve meat. Fremont's party once found the cliffs and rocks along a lake encrusted with salt: "It appeared strange that, in the midst of this grand reservoir, one of our greatest wants lately had been salt. Exposed to be more perfectly dried in the sun, this became very white and fine, having the usual flavor of very excellent common salt, without any foreign taste." Yet there was a problem with this salt. Fremont said that "only a little was collected for present use, as there was in it a number of small black insects."[28] Travelers could, therefore, find natural provisions along the way, but these were not always ideal.

In addition to hunting and gathering, new provisions might also be available for purchase at forts and trading posts throughout the more traveled portions of the West. Fremont mentioned obtaining fresh provisions from such places several times in his report. For example, the man who ran the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Boise shared his supplies with them. "We made a sensible impression upon all his comestibles;" Fremont wrote, "but our principal inroad was into the dairy, which was abundantly suppliedÉand we had an unusual luxury in a present of fresh butter, which was, however, by no means equal to that of Fort Hall," which they had visited earlier in their journey."[29] The fort in Vancouver, in present day Washington state, supplied Fremont with three months worth of provisions, "consisting principally of flour, peas, and tallowÑthe latter being used in cooking."[30] And again, at Uintah Fort, a trading post on the Uintah River, Fremont's party "obtained a small supply of sugar and coffee, with some dried meat and a cow."[31] These transactions did, of course, have to be paid for, which Fremont did with "bills on the Government of the United States."[32] Travelers therefore had to have the means to purchase provisions throughout their journey, either in cash or through trade. Nevertheless, the various forts and trading posts throughout the West were a valuable resource to those traveling through who were in need of new provisions.

Hewitt's emigrant party was also occasionally able to purchase needed stores on their westward journey. When no game could be found for hunting, their company was "confinedÉto the monotonous routine of fare supplied by [their] stores, except in the rare cases when an opportunity was offered to purchase fresh meats from a hunter or trader."[33] Some local men of the West found it profitable to take herds of cattle up from the Platte Valley to the emigrant trails, and there sell beef to the travelers.[34] Similarly, Hewitt described "Mormon freighters, up from Salt Lake," who "made it a profitable occupation to take heavy stores of provisions and such other staples as would find a ready sale, and drive to the northward from Salt Lake City to intercept the streams of emigration across the plains, sure of meeting many in the desert valley who were in need of the wares the trader carried."[35] This meant emigrants and other travelers had to have adequate financial resources before heading west, especially when traders and profiteers could take advantage of desperate travelers. Concerning the Mormon freighters, Hewitt observed them "trading wherever they could," and how "the prices demanded for their commodities would make a dealer in sacred relics ashamed of himself, for his modest charges."[36]

It was therefore possible, depending on one's location, to obtain provisions through purchase during a western journey. It must not be assumed, however, that such provisions were always plentiful or satisfactory. For example, forts along emigrant trails could not necessarily meet the high demand for stocks from those frequently passing by. Fremont found this to be true when his party was low on food and could obtain little from Fort Hall, "which had been entirely exhausted by the necessities of the emigrants."[37] A less serious lack of supply came when Fremont's party visited the Whitman missionary fort and "were disappointed in [their] expectations of obtaining corn meal or flour at this station, the mill belonging to the mission having been lately burnt down; but an abundant supply of excellent potatoes banished regrets, and furnished a grateful substitute for bread."[38]

There were, however, stretches of land where no trading posts or forts were nearby for replenishing stocks and where scarce game made hunting difficult. In these areas, not even basic provisions of low quality were available. In these situations, travelers had to be flexible and find or try new food sources in order to survive. Brewerton advised "the reader" that "if he should ever become a traveler in the provinces of Mexico, to instruct his servant in the art of foraging; for if he proves an adept, it shall be well for his master, who might otherwise go supperless to bed."[39] Most travelers were aware of the possibility that no food would be available, and though it was not a pleasant thought for some, they endured it for the sake of fulfilling their travels, whether they were emigrants trying to reach the West Coast or explorers hoping to survey the next unknown summit in a mountain range. For example, Fremont's party to the Rocky Mountains received discouraging news from local Indians concerning the lack of grass or animals ahead, and the Indians even suggested they turn back and forget their expedition. Fremont told his men about the daunting situation so they could decide for themselves if they wanted to risk the journey. "We still had ten days' provisions," he wrote,

and, should no game be found, when this stock was expended, we had our horses and mules, which we could eat when other means of subsistence failed. But not a man flinched from the undertaking. 'We'll eat the mules,' said Basil Lajeunesse; and hereupon we shook hands with our interpreter and his Indians, and parted.[40]

To eat one's mules or horses was not by any means desirable. When Brewerton's party was forced to kill a horse for food, he wrote, "Eat horse-meat! The very thought was revolting. I had heard of such a thingÉ.But then the contemplation of horse-meat, as an edible, had been with me but an abstract idea, which I had never contemplated putting into practice. Now, however, the thing was tangible. To eat, or not to eat, became Ôthe question.'"[41] Brewerton himself could not eat the horse meat, even at the brink of starvation. But his fellow travelers did, while Brewerton "alone stood aloof, and went supperless to bed."[42] Fremont Ôstood aloof' when the opportunity to eat horse meat came on his expedition to Oregon and California. Though he let his men kill one of the horses, he wrote, "Mr. Preuss and I could not yet overcome some remains of civilized prejudices, and preferred to starve a little longer; feeling as much saddened as if a crime had been committed."[43] Such stands for decency, however, could not always compete with the pangs of hunger. Unfortunately, even Brewerton found his efforts to stand aloof to be "all in vain; for Starvation is a weighty reasoner, and Hunger gained the day at last. I stood out like a Trojan for eight-and-forty hours," he wrote, "and then Ôgave in' with as good a grace as possible, and for more than a week ate horseflesh regularly."[44] Neither could Fremont hold out forever, and in fact he and his party ate the meat of mules and horses several times. In early 1844, on the Oregon and California expedition, his report includes mention of killing a mule for food on February 21, another mule the next day ("now our only resource from starvation"), a horse on February 24, a mule on the 27th whose "head was boiledÉfor several hours, and made a passable soup for famished people," and another mule on March 3.[45]

Fremont's party also found it necessary earlier that February to eat two dogs. Suffering from great privation, one of the messes asked if they could kill their dog, "which had been a compagnon de voyage," and were granted permission. "Spread out on the snow," Fremont wrote, "the meat looked very good; and it made a strengthening meal for the greater part of the camp."[46] Twelve days later, they were again in great need of food. He wrote,

The [expected] meat did not arrive this evening, and I gave Godey leave to kill our little dog, (Tlamath,) which he prepared in Indian fashion; scorching off the hair, and washing the skin with soap and snow, and then cutting it up into pieces, which were laid on the snow. Shortly afterwards, the sleigh arrived with a supply of horse meat; and we had to-night an extraordinary dinnerÑpea soup, mule, and dog.[47]

Other unusual animals found themselves made into meals as well. Prairie dogs, which were entirely new to travelers in the West, might be hunted and eaten. Hewitt wrote, "They are vegetarians entirely, and, therefore, there is no good reason why the flesh should not be wholesome, in dearth of other meat at least."[48] Brewerton also mentioned "the little prairie dog," noting, "Its flesh, though often eaten by travelers, is not esteemed savory."[49] However, neither Hewitt nor Brewerton said they actually ate them. Fremont mentioned that a skunk once "made a supper for one of the messes,"[50] and once Hewitt enjoyed the turtle soup made by a neighboring emigrant camp.[51] These animals would not have been eaten at home in the East, but surviving the West required that travelers be open to trying new foods.

Some travelers, in desperate situations, consumed still less appetizing foods. Fremont included in his report an extract from the journal of fellow traveler Mr. Preuss, who found himself without salt. He "tried the soldier's substitute in times of war, and used gunpowder; but it answered badlyÑbitter enough, but no flavor of kitchen salt."[52] This was at a point when Mr. Preuss was accidentally separated from the rest of the party and in dire need of sustenance. While trying to dig roots out of the ground to eat, "he found a nest of big ants, which he let run on his hand, and stripped them off in his mouth; these had an agreeable acid taste."[53] Mr. Preuss also found in the pools of a river "some of the smallest kind of frogs, which he swallowed, not so much in gratification of hunger, as in the hope of obtaining some strength."[54] The experience of eating whatever was available for survival was not always pleasurable, therefore, but was quite common for early western travelers. Brewerton captured the change in what one was able to bear after he traveled through the southwest. "I had got bravely over my squeamishness by this time," he wrote, "and would have dined with a Mandarin, without ever inquiring into the contents of the dishes."[55]

Native Americans[56] also introduced new foods sources, namely roots and seeds, to travelers. Fremont learned about the yampah (or Indian carrot, a species of fennel)[57] from a Snake woman who he observed digging the plant from the bottom of a creak. Abundant in the Rocky Mountains area, he wrote, "this is considered the best among the roots used for food. To us, it was an interesting plantÑa little link between the savage and civilized life. Here, among the Indians, its root is a common article of food, which they take pleasure in offering to strangers; while with us, in a considerable portion of America and Europe, the seeds are used to flavor soup."[58] Whatever prejudice Fremont may have had toward the "savage" root he soon learned to eat it more substantially than as a mere flavoring, and its traditional role was reversed when he had for supper "yampah, the most agreeably flavored of the roots, seasoned by a small fat duck."[59] In fact, the root became common enough in Fremont's diet to discontinue writing the word yampah in italics in his report.[60] Another root the Indians introduced was kooyah, or tobacco root. Fremont wrote that it was "the principal edible root among the Indians who inhabit the upper waters of the streams on the western side of the mountains."[61] Though he included how the root was offensively distasteful to some of his men, like Mr. Preuss, others found "the taste is rather an agreeable one, and [he] was afterwards always glad when it formed an addition to [their] scanty meals."[62] Fremont's party purchased kooyah several times from Indians they came upon. In the attempt to "become acquainted with the plants which furnish to the Indians a portion of their support,"[63] he once, "by the gift of a knifeÉprevailed upon a little boy to show [him] the kooyah plant."[64] The pine nut was also introduced to Fremont by Indians, which made "an agreeable addition to our now scanty store of provisions."[65] Roasted acorns were also purchased several times.

Not only did Indians introduce new foods, but they might provide travelers with more ordinary provisions as well. For purchase, through the exchange of goods, travelers could often obtain meat such as buffalo, antelope, big-horn sheep, or salmon, depending on what game was in the area. Indians might also be able to provide other foodstuffs, as when Fremont traded a yoke of oxen with an Indian woman for a cow and a calf, and was then presented with "vegetables, pumpkins, onions, beans, and lettuce. One of them," he went on to write, "brought butter, and from a half-breed near the river I had the good fortune to obtain some twenty or thirty pounds of coffee."[66]

In some areas, the Indians were quite eager to trade with white travelers. When traveling near the Snake River, Fremont described a group of Indians as "oddly and partially dressed" in the various garments they had collected from passing emigrants, and how "for a few trifling pieces of clothing, travelers may procure food sufficient to carry them to the Columbia."[67] Similarly, at Couer d'Alene Hewitt found "the Indians were eager to trade such articles they had, peas and potatoesÑwappatoes in ChinookÑfor powder, shot, salt, soap and trinkets, no money being required in the transaction."[68] Food was, therefore, an important trade commodity between travelers and the Indians.

In fact, travelers sometimes found themselves entirely dependent on the Indians for their food, which meant for their survival. Brewerton wrote, "Our provisions had now become so scanty that it was necessary to add to our stock by purchasing what we could from the [Eutaw] Indians," and "we managed to obtain a portion of a Rocky-Mountain sheep, or Ôbig-horn,' as it is often called."[69] It is a wonder why he and his men were not able to hunt for themselves, but he explained later how though there was plenty of game in the area, "the animals were so wild and unapproachable that our hunters were often disappointed in obtaining meat; so but for the Indians, who were here better provided, we should have been obliged to return to the horseflesh."[70] Even more desperate was Mr. Preuss of Fremont's party, who found himself alone and forced to eat ants and small frogs. In his weak and starved state he happened to come upon a small group of Indians who, in exchange for his pocketknife, "gave him a welcome supply of roasted acorns."[71] In addition to providing food, the Indians might also provide the only means for cooking the food one already had. For example, Fremont's party once camped in an area void of wood or grass sufficient for fueling a fire, but Indians took and sold them pieces of wood,[72] enabling them to properly cook their supper.

Food was also a symbolic token of friendship between whites and Indians, and it was common for travelers to share their provisions with the Indians they came upon. Fremont's party was once approached by a group of Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians who had actually tried to raid them but then claimed they mistook Fremont's men for another Indian tribe. "Their excuse," wrote Fremont, "was taken in good part, and the usual evidences of friendship interchanged. The pipe went round, provisions were spread, and the tobacco and goods furnished the customary presents, which they look for even from traders, and much more from Government authorities."[73] In another instance, Fremont's camp was visited by several of the Oglallah Sioux who had suffered greatly the preceding winter, and who were, "as usual, [É] provided with buffalo meat."[74]

Hewitt's party, too, shared provisions with Indians near their camp. He described an instance where they were on their guard against possible raids, so "When these Indians appeared in sight, our party had gathered our animals close up to the wagons, and each man had occasion to carefully inspect his rifle."[75] Nevertheless, the "salutation of ÔHow! how!' was duly responded to. They, too, were invited to dine; a hastily brewed boiler of coffee and some hard tack seemed to please them greatly, and a gift of Ôtobac' added to their happiness."[76] Here the shared provisions were to ensure friendly relations with the Indians, so the food was more than simple sustenance. Fremont acted similarly when he once invited three Cheyennes to supper, and in addition to friendly relations he was also able to get the visitors to draw a rough map of "the watercourses of the country which lay between us and their villages, and of which [he] desired to have some information."[77] In this way Fremont found that sharing food with Indians could open up important Ôsecrets,' like where the nearby rivers were.

Indians were a great concern for white travelers in the West. They were considered a "savage" people who needed to be watched and guarded against, or simply as a novelty for the easterners who had never seen Native Americans before. It is interesting, therefore, to see how food played an important role in these relations. Indians introduced new foods to travelers and sold and traded needed provisions with them, which helped them survive the westward journey. Relationships between the two peoples were also fostered by the use of food as a symbol of friendship and hospitality. The way food was a significant link between the Indians and travelers therefore contributes to the influence food had on virtually all aspects of Western travel.

The constant search for food in the West also played an important role in the travelers' itinerary. In the expansive and unpopulated West where game and other provisions were not always available, routes and schedules might need to be altered when stores became low or even desperate. For some this meant speeding up, as when Hewitt and his party noted how their "store of provisions was getting low, so much so that it was concluded that this division of the journey must be covered soon or the company would have to be put on short rations."[78] Hopefully in such a case the party's members and livestock were not too fatigued or wanting, so that moving faster and further in a given period of time might actually be possible.

For other travelers, the need for new provisions meant varying their intended course. At one point along the Arkansas River, Fremont's party was running low, so he "determined to vary [his] route, and proceed several camps to the eastward, in the hope of falling in with the buffalo."[79] Luckily this shift was successful, and a buffalo was killed and enjoyed that night.

When a new stock of provisions was available and it was probable the same opportunity would not present itself for quite a while, schedules were adjusted to halt and prepare a sufficient stock to get the travelers to the next post, station, herd, etc. As Fremont and his party were about to leave the Plains on their journey to the Oregon Territory, they stopped upon finding natural salt, which they used to prepare the buffalo meat they had secured. This stop was not planned, but Fremont wrote, "I determined to make here a provision of dried meat, which would be necessary for our subsistence in the region we were about entering, which was said to be nearly destitute of game."[80] He stopped at the same place a year later on his homeward journey from California, where his party again spent the whole day hunting and preparing buffalo, "in order to make a provision of meat sufficient to carry us to the frontier."[81] The route did not have to be altered to find these buffalo, but a day had to be spared to prepare enough meat for an extended period of travel.

Perhaps more important than finding game, however, was finding water and fuel for fires. Even when travelers had enough food to eat, they could not cook without a fire, and water was, naturally, essential for survival of both man and beast. It was therefore mandated by these basic needs that travelers plan and alter their routes accordingly. For example, in Brewerton's travels of the southwest the importance of his proximity to water made the difference between traveling fifteen miles in a day or up to fifty.[82] Hewitt's party at one point cut off the well-traveled emigrant trail to the Northwest because "the judge had reliable assurance that a more northern route meant good grass and abundance of water and woodÑtwo things absolutely necessary."[83] In fact, a little further on they chose another fork for the same reason, and this one meant leaving the more direct route to cover several more miles. As Hewitt wrote, however, "a longer line with abundant feed and water would in reality be shorter than one as badly supplied as that we had come over for the last three hundred miles."[84] The western landscape did not cater to those who passed over it; it instead forced travelers to tailor their path to the land's natural supplies.

Unfortunately, those natural supplies, especially water, were not always readily available or of good quality, and it could make traveling quite distasteful. During his expedition to the Rocky Mountains in July 1842, Fremont wrote, "We had suffered much to-day, both men and horses, for want of water; having met with it but once in our uninterrupted march of forty miles, and an exclusive meat diet creates much thirst."[85] This thirst was both typical of and unique to early western travel, especially for those accustomed to the lush land in eastern America. "Travelers through countries affording water and timber," wrote Fremont, "can have no conception of our intolerable thirst while journeying over the hot yellow sands of this elevated country, where the heated air seems to be entirely deprived of moisture."[86] Even when water could be found, it was not always appetizing. Hewitt wrote of an instance when the available water, found in the nearby stream, "was brackish and otherwise tainted, which required it to be boiled and then settled with a handful of meal to render it palatable."[87] Sometimes the chore of accessing water and hauling it back to camp could be quite tedious, so the lack of clean water made it all the more disappointing.

The necessity of wood or a similar fuel for fires was also a serious concern for travelers, for without a fire water could not be boiled, meat could not be roasted, coffee could not be made, and bread could not be baked. Multiple times a day fuel had to be found and gathered for these necessary fires, which were also used for light and warmth. Hewitt described such "packing" of wood for the camp as "not a task to be ardently sought for above many other occupations"[88] when it had to be carried from distant woods. This indicates such wood was not available where they were camped, as was the case for many travelers in the more barren regions of the west.

When wood was unavailable other fuel sources had to be found. Sagebrush was a common alternative, but it could demand "a continuous performance to keep a fire going where the branches were small."[89] Bowles wrote of the sagebrush's success at creating a "quick, hot fire," though he was not personally fond of it and added, "but think of savoring your food with soap and sage tea; think of putting a soap factory and an apothecary into one room, and that your kitchen!"[90] Greasewood was also used, but collecting it could be laborious.[91] Hewitt wrote of using willows once, but found them "so green that it took some patient coaxing to get fire enough to cook supper."[92] Another fuel alternative that travelers could find and gather themselves was dried buffalo dung. Concerning his southwestern travel in the 1850s, Brewerton wrote, "the traveler is necessarily obliged to depend for his fuel upon the dried buffalo dung, which furnishes an excellent substitute for wood for all culinary purposes."[93] Yet this source became unavailable as the buffalo herds of the west dwindled due to the indiscriminate hunting of whites. When Hewitt's party traveled west in 1862, they struggled to find fuel:

The matter of wood through this barren region was one of serious import this year. ÔBuffalo chips'Ñthe anthracite of the plains being out of the question, as the buffalo had gone, and timber was scarce and distant; it was quite necessary that everything that would burn be gathered and cared for; so when I saw a stick drifting in the river or lodged on the bank I was apt to secure it promptly.[94]

Earlier on in their journey, when still in the Midwest, Hewitt's party was able to purchase wood when it could not be found, but it was usually quite expensive as its sellers could exploit its necessity for the travelers passing through.[95] The search for fuel as the means to eat properly was another one of the many concerns travelers had as they passed through the American west.

Because it was not the people alone who required food but their animals as well, the search for grass and other feed was also important. "For the sustenance of [the 104 mules and horses in his party]," Fremont wrote, "our reliance was upon the grass which we should find, and the soft porous wood, which was to be its substitute when there was none."[96] Therefore the altering of routes and schedules was often done with the animals in mind, so that grassier paths were chosen.[97] Sometimes, however, even the grass was not satisfactory to keep the animals alive and moving. Fremont explained in his report how "American" horses, or those from the eastern United States, were often unable to survive on grass alone because they had been raised on grain. Until they spent a winter in the west, they were "not of any serviceable value."[98] Hewitt seems to have had a more sympathetic feeling toward his animals, and wrote, "It was with no enduring pleasure that the members of the party ate a hearty breakfast and enjoyed a cup of delicious coffee, while realizing that our faithful animals were getting nothing more than dry brush to nibble."[99] Without the animals to carry the people and their things across the country, there would have been no travel at all, which makes the importance of food doubly significant. The travelers may have been provided for, but usually their animals were totally dependent on the country. There were, of course, still those times when neither man nor beast was satisfied, such as when Hewitt wrote it was "necessary to feed the mules every crumb of dry bread and bit of cracker to be spared, to eke out a scanty meal."[100] Nevertheless, altering their routes in search of better provisions was how travelers could try to provide for their animals considering their own frequent privation and the fact that both were dependent on the difficult western landscape.

Food also had a profound influence on the overall personal experience of early western travelers. The lack of food, or the lack of good quality and variety in food, could be very disheartening when traveling itself was already so hard. Concerning his wagon journey to the west, Hewitt wrote, "Every animal and every human being was beginning to show the fearful strain imposed by the mode of life and the hardships endured,"[101] which included lack of food, water and heat, equipment in need of repair, being on guard against Indians, the danger of snakes and scorpions, and the constant annoyance of mosquitoes and gnats. Neither was there usually any significant relief for travelers on the trail. "The realities of the situation out here," wrote Hewitt, "called for forbearance and courage. No time for coddling stiff joints, sore muscles or tender feet; get up without wasting time; take your allotted task, whatever the same be, gathering wood, getting water, hunting up grazing ground for your charge of mules, or packing up camp equipage. Head pains or bones aching count for nothing."[102]

Poor food could, and often did, only add to the difficult travel experience, especially when it caused weakness and illness. "All the men are becoming weak from insufficient food,"[103] wrote Fremont of his party. And once he became ill with "violent headache and vomiting," which he attributed to "the excessive fatigue [he] had undergone, and want of food, and perhaps, also, in some measure, by the rarity of the air."[104] Difficulties arose not only from a lack of food, but from the poor quality of some of the food travelers ate. Fremont mentioned in his report information about a fraction of his party who had been left in the mountains, including the fact that "several had been made sick by the strange and unwholesome food which the preservation of life compelled them to use."[105] Even ordinary foods could cause illness, as when the meat of a buffalo made Fremont's men sick.[106]

Sadly, illness and lack of food also occasionally led to death for western travelers. Anderson camped near Scott's Bluff during his journey to the Rocky Mountains and recalled its namesake, "an old mountaineer, who died here from sickness and starvation." He goes on, "Two of his companions remained with him for several days, bearing him along as his weakness increased, and only left him when compelled by the want of food."[107]

The want of food was not always so dangerous, but it still greatly influenced early travelers' experiences. Food had the ability to raise or lower one's spirits, as was often reported. For example, Fremont's party once killed a buffalo for supper and looked for additional provisions to complete the meal. But "With the exception of a little parched coffee, unground, we found nothing. Tired and hungry, with tough bull meat without salt, (for we had not been able to kill a cow,) and a little bitter coffee, we sat down in silence to our miserable fare, a very disconsolate party."[108] It may be assumed, in fact, that unhappiness caused by poor food was quite common, at least for Fremont's expedition to the Rocky Mountains. He wrote specifically:

[G]ame was very scarce; and, though it does not appear in the course of the narrative, (as I have avoided dwelling upon trifling incidents not connected with the objects of the expedition,) the spirits of the men had been much exhausted by the hardships and privations to which they had been subjected. Our provisions had well nigh all disappearedÉ.Our daily meal consisted of dry buffalo meat, cooked in tallow; and, as we had not dried this with Indian skill, part of it was spoiled; and what remained of good, was as hard as wood, having much the taste and appearance of so many pieces of bark.[109]

In the midst of such privation and low spirits, it is no wonder a good meal had the effect of raising a traveler's spirits. Brewerton illustrated this truth precisely when he wrote, "With our former experiences of scanty rations and hard travel, it will scarcely be thought surprising that after a day's rest and our famous feast of chowder, we should feel as if we could have faced not only a whole legion of 'Diggers,' but the 'Old Boy' [the Devil] himself."[110] Similarly, Fremont found "in the enjoyment of a bountiful supper, which coffee and bread made luxurious to [them, they] soon forgot the fatigues of the last ten days."[111] Hewitt, too, noted the effect of good food and wrote, "everybody was fagged out and irritable. After a good supper and a meal to a hungry person will soften ill humor very quickly a little time spent around a campfire had a reviving influence."[112] Not only was good food able to raise spirits, it was perhaps one of the few things that ever did during a long hard travel through the West. Fremont explained that

We had brought with us, when we separated from the camp, a large gaunt ox, in appearance very poor; but, being killed to-night, to the great joy of the people, he was found to be remarkably fat. As usual at such occurrences, the evening was devoted to gayety and feasting; abundant fare now made an epoch among us; and in this laborious life, in such a country as this, our men had but little else to enjoy.[113]

This reviving effect of good food and its role as one of the only sources of enjoyment for western travelers is further evident by the way some form of special food was desired to celebrate special occasions, such as holidays. On Christmas day of 1843, Fremont wrote, "Always, on days of religious or national commemoration, our voyageurs expect some unusual allowance; and, having nothing else, I gave them each a little brandyÉwith some coffee and sugar, which here, where every eatable was a luxury, was sufficient to make them a feast."[114] These foods were not in themselves extraordinary, but they helped make Christmas stand out as an extraordinary day for the travelers. Hewitt's party experienced the same thing when they opened two cans of tomatoes to celebrate the Fourth of July in 1862. On the tomatoes, which were made into stew and soup, Hewitt wrote, "The company thought nothing ever tasted half so good. Taking surroundings into account with steady service of bacon and beans this simple vegetable came very near being the delightful change it was said to be, on that patriotic occasion. Perhaps it was the only time tomatoes were ever served as a course at a Fourth of July banquet."[115] Food had, therefore, a powerful influence over the general mood of travelers. The lack of it, or even the dreadful monotony of it, could lend to an unpleasant experience. But good food and a variety of it raised spirits and made the strenuous travel much more bearable.

As time progressed, and traffic through the West increased, overland travel became easier. By the late 1850s and early 1860s stagecoaches carried passengers from station to station, and though the bumpy ride might not have been comfortable, historian Anne Hyde points out that travelers no longer needed "to toil physically or worry about their survival."[116] Stations were located in frequent intervals along the popular trails, for according to Bowles "every ten or fifteen miles is a stable of the stage proprietor, and every other ten or fifteen miles an eating-house."[117] Bowles also observed how, "the stagesÉcame in here every day within half an hour of the schedule time, and left precisely at eight every morning, and timed their arrivals at stations along the route so certainly that the keepers had the meals all cooked and warm as the stages drove up, all the way from [Atchison] to Salt Lake City."[118] The food prepared consisted of many of the same staples earlier travelers had survived on, with a few extras. Bowles wrote,

Our meals at the stage stations continued very good throughout the ride; the staples were bacon, eggs, hot biscuit, green tea and coffee; dried peaches and apples, pies were as uniform; beef was occasional, and canned fruits and vegetables were furnished at least half of the time. Each meal was the same; breakfast, dinner and supper were undistinguishable save by the hour; and the price was one dollar or one dollar and a half each.[119]

Money was now paid for the conveniences of stage travel, which included prepared meals all along the way, rather than how money used to be spent on entire animals or forty pound bags of flour that would then require a great deal of preparation.

Food was no longer, therefore, a defining factor of Western travel. It was no longer necessary to carry, hunt, gather, purchase, or even cook, one's own provisions. Neither did travelers have to eat strange, perhaps unhealthy foods. Stations still had to be located near water and grass, but the burden of finding the water and grass was no longer the traveler's responsibility, so routes were now determined by stations and not by food.

Even more advanced was the railway travel that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century.[120] Though travel was still expensive, trains carried passengers in comfort and ease. In Pullman luxury cars, Hyde explains, "passengers lolled in cars Ôfitted up with oiled walnut, carved, gilded, etched, and stained plate glass, metal trappings heavily silver plated, seats cushioned with thick plushes, washstands of marble and walnut,' and ate in dining cars appointed with snowy linen, fine china, a silver flatware."[121] No longer were bacon and coffee a traveler's staples, and no longer did food determine one's route in any way.

Travelers could now sit comfortably and enjoy the West for its beautiful scenery. Back in 1844, Fremont observed, "The country had now become very beautifulÑrich in water, grass, and game; and to these were added the charm of scenery and pleasant weather."[122] For early travelers like Fremont, the Western landscape was beautiful for the food it could provide, and its charming scenery was merely an added bonus. Now that food was no longer a critical concern, travelers could begin to appreciate the Western landscape for its aesthetic beauty. From a railcar the West was something to look at, not something to depend on for survival. Even Mark Twain, on his overland mail coach ride, said "nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs."[123] Hewitt, too, knew the difference food made in viewing the West. With some nostalgia, he wrote that "None could then realize that the days of the emigrant train were numbered and that within six yearsÉthe locomotive would whirl train loads of tourists over mountains and through chasms bringing before their delighted vision the wonderful beauties of this region, among scenes made attractive in a rapidly progressing development."[124] Food was no longer a determining factor in what made the land beautiful, and with all worries of finding and preparing food gone, the developed rail travel had indeed changed the Western travel experience.

In the excitement of the railroad and the development it ushered into the United States, however, historians must not take for granted or forget the significant role food played for those who traveled the West by horseback and wagon. The numerous mentions of food in these narrative reports and journals show that it truly was a defining aspect of early travel. Fremont wrote in the introduction to his report that what was included in the publication was "strictly confined to what was seen, and to what is necessary to show the face and character of the country."[125] He was sent by the United States government to explore unknown Western regions and take notes on the land, flora and fauna, and meteorological measurements, and yet he wrote so often of food that its importance is quite clear. Likewise, Hewitt wrote that he had "little time for literary exercise,"[126] so his frequent mentioning of food is proof its importance took precedence over other incidents that could have been elaborated on instead. Concerning his publication, Hewitt also wrote, "It is hoped that the rising generation will find something of interest in perusing this story, and so obtain some idea of the hardships endured by the generations passed in opening up and pioneering the way to the magnificent country they inhabit to-day."[127]

These men's writings thus show that the importance of food is a significant aspect of Western history. As we have seen, nineteenth century travelers had to find and prepare all of their food along the way, including new and foreign foods; they used food as a means of communicating and fostering healthy relationships with Native Americans; food determined their routes and itineraries; and their overall attitude toward and enjoyment of Western travel was heavily influenced by their food. It is no wonder then, as Bowles observed, that after enduring such a long and toilsome journey across the Great Desert, "the seat of empire, in its travel westward, change[d] its base from soul to stomach, from brains to bowels."[128]



Primary Sources

Anderson, William Marshall. "Anderson's Narrative of a Ride to the Rocky Mountains in 1834." Sources of Northwest History No. 27, Missoula: Montana State University. Reprinted from the Historical Section of Frontier and Midland Vol. XIX, No. 1. Missoula: Montana State University, 1938.

Bowles, Samuel. Across the Continent. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Inc., 1966.

Brewerton, George D. "A Ride With Kit Carson: Through the Great American Desert and the Rocky Mountains." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 7 (August 1853): 306-334.

Brewerton, G. Douglass. "Incidents of Travel in New Mexico." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 8 (April 1854): 577-596.

Brewerton, George D. "In the Buffalo Country." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 25 (September 1862): 447-466.

Fremont, John C. Report of The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-Ô44. Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1845.

Hewitt, Randall H. Across the Plains and Over the Divide: A Mule Train Journey From East to West in 1862, and Incidents Connected Therewith. New York: Argosy-Antiquarian Ltd., 1964. (First published in 1906.)


Secondary Sources

Civitello, Linda. "From Coyotes to Coca-Cola: The 19th Century in America," Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food & People. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004, 179-210.

Holland, Leandra Zim. Feasting and Fasting With Lewis & Clark: A Food and Social History of the Early 1800s. Emigrant, Montana: Old Yellowstone Publishing, 2003.

Hyde, Anne Farrar. An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820-1920. New York and London: New York University Press, 1990.

McLynn, Frank. Wagon's West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails. New York: Grove Press, 2002.


[1] Samuel Bowles, Across the Continent (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Inc., 1966), in unpaginated "Forward."

[2] Ibid., v.

[3] Ibid., 201-202.

[4] The majority of the books I looked at on Western history and travel do not address food in a substantial way, if at all. One of the only secondary sources I found that looks at food is Frank McLynn's Wagon's West: The Epic Story of America's Overalnd Trails (New York: Grove Press, 2002). He mentions food several times and describes how much was carried or how new provisions were obtained, but he never goes beyond the simple narration of "what happened" to make a cohesive argument around the importance of food in shaping Western travel.

[5] Ibid., 73.

[6] John C. Fremont, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-'44 (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1845), 233.

[7] George D. Brewerton, "In the Buffalo Country," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 25 (September 1862): 464.

[8] Randall H. Hewitt, Across the Plains and Over the Divide (New York: Argosy-Antiquarian Ltd, 1964), 461.

[9] Fremont, 119.

[10] Ibid., 22.

[11] Ibid., 22.

[12] Ibid., 71.

[13] Hewitt, 181.

[14] Ibid., 186.

[15] George D. Brewerton, "A Ride With Kit Carson," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 7 (August 1853): 328.

[16] Fremont, 11.

[17] Brewerton, "A Ride With Kit Carson," 308.

[18] Fremont, 110-111.

[19] Bowles, 71.

[20] Fremont, 63.

[21] Quoted in Leandra Zim Holland, Feasting and Fasting With Lewis & Clark (Emigrant, Montana: Old Yellowstone Publishing, 2003), 212.

[22] William Marshall Anderson, "Anderson's Narrative of a Ride to the Rocky Mountains in 1834," Sources of Northwest History No. 27 (Missoula: Montana State University), 4.

[23] Ibid., 6.

[24] Fremont, 51.

[25] Ibid., 51.

[26] Hewitt, 370-371.

[27] Ibid., 320.

[28] Fremont, 155.

[29] Ibid., 173.

[30] Ibid., 197.

[31] Ibid., 279.

[32] Ibid., 191.

[33] Hewitt, 233.

[34] Ibid., 233.

[35] Ibid., 269.

[36] Ibid., 269.

[37] Fremont, 149.

[38] Ibid., 183.

[39] G. Douglass Brewerton, "Incidents of Travel in New Mexico," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 8 (April 1854): 582.

[40] Fremont, 53.

[41] Brewerton, "A Ride With Kit Carson," 329.

[42] Ibid., 330.

[43] Fremont, 159.

[44] Brewerton, "A Ride With Kit Carson," 330.

[45] Fremont, 237-239, 242.

[46] Ibid., 229.

[47] Ibid., 234.

[48] Hewitt, 146.

[49] Brewerton, "In the Buffalo Country," 461.

[50] Fremont, 141.

[51] Hewitt, 143.

[52] Fremont, 36.

[53] Ibid., 243.

[54] Ibid., 244.

[55] Brewerton, "A Ride With Kit Carson," 330.

[56] For the remainder of this paper I will use the same language as the early travelers, and will therefore refer to the Native Americans as Indians.

[57] Holland, 238.

[58] Fremont, 124.

[59] Ibid., 152.

[60] Ibid., 158.

[61] Ibid., 135.

[62] Ibid., 135.

[63] Ibid., 140.

[64] Fremont, 160.

[65] Ibid., 226.

[66] Ibid., 12.

[67] Ibid., 169.

[68] Hewitt, 416.

[69] Brewerton, "A Ride With Kit Carson," 326.

[70] Ibid., 330-331.

[71] Fremont, 244.

[72] Ibid., 184.

[73] Ibid., 127.

[74] Ibid., 110.

[75] Hewitt, 352.

[76] Ibid., 351.

[77] Fremont, 18.

[78] Hewitt, 449-450.

[79] Fremont, 113.

[80] Ibid., 126.

[81] Fremont, 288-289.

[82] Brewerton, "A Ride With Kit Carson," 314

[83] Hewitt, 214.

[84] Ibid., 273.

[85] Fremont, 33.

[86] Ibid., 266.

[87] Hewitt, 135.

[88] Ibid., 244-245.

[89] Ibid., 439.

[90] Bowles, 73.

[91] Hewitt, 174.

[92] Ibid., 119.

[93] Brewerton, "In the Buffalo Country," 460.

[94] Hewitt, 142-143.

[95] Ibid., 95-96.

[96] Fremont, 197.

[97] Hewitt, 214.

[98] Fremont, 130-131.

[99] Hewitt, 404.

[100] Ibid., 171.

[101] Ibid., 171.

[102] Ibid., 129-130.

[103] Fremont, 233.

[104] Ibid., 67.

[105] Ibid., 245-246

[106] Ibid., 113-115.

[107] Anderson, 3-4.

[108] Fremont, 24.

[109] Ibid., 63.

[110] Brewerton, "A Ride With Kit Carson," 326. The name "Digger" Indian was a derogatory label given to a number of California tribes, and in this instance most likely refers to the Western Shoshones. See James J. Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image, (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), 49.

[111] Fremont, 36.

[112] Hewitt, 302.

[113] Fremont, 167.

[114] Ibid., 211.

[115] Hewitt, 142.

[116] Hyde, 115.

[117] Bowles, 20-21.

[118] Ibid., 6-7.

[119] Ibid., 21.

[120] The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. See Hyde, 107.

[121] Hyde, 117, quoting Robert E. Strahorn, To the Rockies and Beyond: A Summer on the Union Pacific Railroad and Its Branches (Omaha, 1878), 4.

[122] Fremont, 282.

[123] Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain], Roughing It (1872; paperback ed., New York, 1980), 114, quoted in Hyde, 115.

[124] Hewitt, 230.

[125] Fremont, 5.

[126] Hewitt, i.

[127] Ibid., ii.

[128] Bowles, 202.