Emigration Fever in the Midwest
The awareness of the great open west following the 1849 Gold Rush in California inspired thousands of people to seek new horizons. By 1852 few went for gold, as the gold fields had become overcrowded and the easy placer gold was mostly gone; the bigger interest was farm land, commercial enterprise, or perhaps adventure.
In 1852 the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper wrote that the state was being depopulated…that the finest farmers were leaving for Oregon or California for gold or new land. They complained that many homesteads and small towns were nearly abandoned. “In Indiana excellent farms are offered for sale all over the state by persons intending to seek the Gold Land. What will be the end of these things? It is a grave question.” The Cincinnati Gazette wrote that mass departures were ruining local business. Fully equipped and stocked farms were available at sacrifice prices because of the movement west. The Saint Joseph Gazette in Missouri wrote that four hundred emigrants came into Saint Joseph in a single day, “…the road is crowded with teams, and hundreds more are daily crossing the Mississippi at various points.” Supplies in those towns became “scarce…as to almost clean out the place.”
One writer estimated the number of emigrants in the peak year of 1852 to be twice the population of Chicago. (The population of Chicago in the 1850 census was just under 30,000.) Several contemporary estimates held that 60,000 people emigrated in 1852: 50,000 to California and 10,000 to Oregon in that year. In addition, 10,000 Mormons headed to present day Utah in that period. This amounts to nearly a 0.3% shift of the U.S. population (23,192,000) into the west during that one year alone. That percentage of today’s population would mean about one million people moving to California and Oregon in one year. After 1852 the number of migrants slowly declined.
The daily sights as migrants traveled the trails included crowds of people, with a few pretty rough characters, many wagons, massive herds of bison, dead oxen by the roadside, and too many fresh graves. Contact with Indians was infrequent and usually peaceful, despite the impressions we have from many movies. One factor preventing some Indians from contact with wagon trains was the diseases the migrants carried with them. (More on disease in another blog) That is not to say there were no contacts with Indians, there were enough attacks to keep the migrants alert. Indians were particularly interested in horses but many other items the migrants carried were also attractive to them. It was not uncommon for migrants to encounter Indians coming to trade or beg for migrant’s clothing. One migrant wrote, “…they do not stop asking for everything that they see. They ask for money, for clothes, etc, etc. One has an old hat, one has an old wesket [waistcoat], another a chemise [shirt], another with handerchiefs [sic] around his neck. although they wear buffalo skins, they are each one covered with ear rings, necklaces, medals, bells, and different ornaments the like of which you never seen.”
Some migrants wrote of seeing vast herds of buffalo, but often the presence of the wagon train scared the buffalo away. John Clark wrote that he saw piles of buffalo chips and places where the ground was white with their bones, but he complained that he “did not see a single one of the creatures.”
The skull of the buffalo was smooth and white, and often used by emigrants for transmitting news and general information. Travelers wrote messages on skulls and set them by the roadside. Sometimes emigrants would just write the names of the people in their party and leave it in an easily visible place by the road.
Not all migrants in the 1850’s were moving west to find good land and a new home. Many went intending to set up a commercial business in California or Oregon. One report tells of a brave soul who drove a flock of two thousand turkeys from Missouri to California. The source sounds as though he drove the turkeys like cattle, but that is a bit hard to imagine. I wish I had details on just how he managed that, but I assume he had them in crates or at least confined in wagons. Another man took seven wagonloads of chickens in custom-built wagons with several levels and sold them in the goldfields at magnificent profits.
Food on the trail
A previous blog (Preparations for the Trail, 9/26/2019) told a bit about the food migrants packed into their wagons at the start of the trip. It is useful now to see how they used those supplies on the trail.
Baking bread was a daily and necessary activity and it was baked in a cast iron Dutch oven. Therefore flour was probably the most critical item in the emigrants' wagons. Nathan Putnam took the time to write his parents in Kentucky saying that the flour they brought turned out first-rate bread, he also wished he could send the home folks a delicious “hump ribb of Fat Young Bufalo.” (Buffalo was not regular fare for the migrants, but when a herd was near, a few men rode out to kill some.) Most mentions of flour in the migrants’ diaries and letters do not say if the flour was white, brown, wheat, rye, or corn, but it certainly was not the bleached white flour that we see today. That process did not appear until the early twentieth century. Grocery store ads of the mid-nineteenth century said they sold “middlings, bran, and shorts.”
The term “shorts” regarding flour was defined in Catherine Beecher's 1848 book, A Treatise on Domestic Economy. She described shorts as "the coarser part of wheat bran.” Flour called shorts was a cross between wheat bran and very coarse wholewheat flour. Sometimes it was known as unbolted, or unsifted, flour. But in contrast to today's wholewheat flour that has all contaminants removed, "shorts" was a dense, coarse type of flour that needed sifting to remove impurities. “Middlings” is a byproduct of the wheat milling process that is not flour. It is a good source of protein and other nutrients, and is used to produce foods like pasta and breakfast cereals.
Migrants brought a supply of saleratus (soda) for use in baking, but if they needed to replenish their stock they used water from soda springs in central Wyoming. Joel Palmer’s guide book told that water from those springs was strong enough to raise bread equally as well as yeast. Lodisa Frizzel wrote that the saleratus looked like “frozen snow forming a crust around the edge of the water.” She said she was satisfied with water from the soda springs for raising her bread. “…it made it quite light, but gave it a bitter taste.”
A second commodity of only slightly less importance than flour was sugar. Every migrant wagon carried sugar for pies, cakes, and sometimes jam when berries were found along the trail. Sugar was available in many forms. In 1846 the Berthold and Ewing grocery store in St. Louis, Missouri advertised New Orleans and Havana sugars either as crushed sugar in boxes or a loaf sugar. Advertisements in St. Joseph, Missouri offered molasses in barrels and sugar as brown, clarified, crushed, powdered, or loaf sugar. Sugar came from Louisiana and Cuba in large cones or loaves and was broken down by the refineries into the smaller loaves sold in grocery stores, hence the name “loaf sugar.” Small loaves were often molded into cones that looked like pointed hats. Such loaf sugar was traditionally wrapped in blue paper, from which a thrifty person could extract blue indigo for dye. The sugar had to be ground and sifted to remove impurities before use.
The sugar loaves included both white and brown sugar, with most of the white on top. The brown sugar in the 1850’s was a raw, lumpy, sticky product that still contained molasses. In hot weather the molasses would ooze from the brown loaf. Crushed sugar had much of the brown sugar removed, but it was still not pure white like today’s sugar. Recipes of the period called for "pounded loaf sugar" or "finely-pounded loaf sugar.”
Bacon was one of the primary meats and was often served twice a day. Abigail Scott claimed, "A piece of bacon placed between two pieces of bread actually tastes better than the best of cakes and pies at home.’' Some migrants complained that the menu was limited to bacon and bread. Helen Carpenter wrote, ”But then one does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is to bacon and bread." One minor variation was bread dipped into bacon grease which was called "hot flour bread.”
Because of its high fat content, bacon readily spoiled and was one of the items frequently thrown away. Alonzo Delano graphically described a piece of bacon ready for the trash bin. “We discovered that we had been imposed upon in St. Louis in the purchase of our bacon, for it began to exhibit more signs of life than we had bargained for. It became necessary to scrape and smoke it, in order to get rid of its tendency to walk in insect form.”
In the middle of the nineteenth century the term bacon was a broad category of meat referred to either as sides, hams, or shoulders. It was bought or put up as "cured side bacon" in slabs and sliced as needed. It had a little resemblance to the neatly packaged slices of pork fat with thin slivers of meat that we see today.
Migrants carried a good supply of dried corn from which they could make cornmeal or parched corn. Parched corn is dried kernels roasted in an oven…like corn nuts. Corn, as either meal or parched corn, was a favorite among migrants because it was tasty, nutritious, did not spoil, and could be fried, roasted, or cooked to a mush. One source recommended crushing corn to a coarse meal in a mortar, then mixing it with water, sugar, and cinnamon, making it “quite palatable.” A half-bushel of parched corn per person was “sufficient for thirty days,” according to a guidebook.
Another essential commodity was coffee, which actually has some nutritional benefits besides the boost provided by caffeine. Coffee is a source of several B vitamins plus magnesium and phosphorus. If you have ever made camp-fire coffee, you know the satisfaction of the coffee aroma and flavor as you stand around the fire. Emigrants carried green coffee beans which they roasted as needed in a frying pan, then ground for boiling in a big campfire coffee pot. Any leftover coffee was saved for the noon break.
Migrants also carried dried food of various kinds. Meat biscuits were popular in the 1850’s…dried meat compressed into a small loaf. One pound of meat biscuit contains the nutrition of five pounds of the best fresh beef, and one ounce will make a nutritious soup. Also the meat biscuit would keep without spoiling for any length of time. It was packed into tin canisters or casks. A different way of treating meat was a mixture they called “portable soup,” which was made by boiling meat with the bones into a rich broth until it was thick like jelly. The "jelly," a very concentrated, gelatinous substance, was then set in pans or cups and allowed to dry until it was hard. When a bit of dried meat cake was added to boiling water, one had instant soup.
The arduous work of travel in the 1850’s, during which most migrants walked from twelve to twenty miles per day, required a lot of nutritious, high energy food to keep the wagon trains moving. Meat, bread, and dried fruit carried them through.
Bagley, Will. With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West 1849-1852. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2012.