If you decided to move from Illinois to California, what would you take with you? Before you decide, here are a few constraints. The date is 1850 and everything you take must fit within a wagon bed four or five feet wide by ten to twelve feet long. The sides would be about two feet high, sometimes a little more. Don’t forget that on some nights you may also have to sleep in the wagon and you must carry large amounts of certain food staples like flour, sugar, bacon, and maybe a cured ham or two. You are allowed to tie a few items on the outside of the wagon. Remember that weight is a problem. The weight capacity for most wagons was about 2500 pounds. If you have more weight you will need a second wagon at additional cost.
Despite these limitations travelers took a surprising amount of goods, occasionally including a piece of furniture like a favorite chair, dresser, or table. When emigrants joined wagon trains and followed trails westward they tried to carry their normal life with them as much as possible.
By 1850 books were published to inform migrants about travel on the westward trails. These books offered a basic inventory of edibles and other items necessary for the trip to California or Oregon. Some guidebooks were written by a person who had successfully made the trip, but a few guidebook authors had never left home.
A typical guidebook, such as one written by Joel Palmer, would include a list of food and equipment to take on the journey. Most migrants could replenish these items if necessary, but at a much greater cost, when they reached Fort Hall (in present day Idaho). Data on food prices in the nineteenth century varied slightly depending on the data source and the year.
Palmer’s list here was the amount needed for each adult traveling from Missouri to San Francisco over a period of three to four months.
200 lbs of flour 30 lbs of pilot bread (hardtack)
75 lbs of bacon 10 lbs of rice
15 lbs of beans 5 lbs of coffee
2 lbs of tea
2 lbs of saleratus (baking soda)
25 lbs of brown sugar
50 lbs of lard
One half bushel of corn meal
One half bushel of dried beans
A small keg of vinegar
Ten pounds of salt
Bags of dried peaches and apples
Based on the 1850 price information, estimated food cost could be $30 per person. In addition to food costs, emigrants often had to buy a wagon at $65, oxen at $75 each, or mules at $120 each, or horses at $150 each. People living on farms usually had the necessary animals and a wagon which they modified with additional storage boxes and wooden bows for a canvas cover. (Note: To compare 1850’s prices with today’s prices, multiply by thirty. The $30 food cost per person would be $900 today.)
Supplies could be replenished at a Hudson’s Bay Company store in Fort Hall but the prices were much higher. For example, flour at Fort Hall cost twenty dollars per hundred pounds, about 1,000 times more than in Missouri. At Fort Hall the only accepted payment was cash or cattle, no bartering with dry goods or other items. Other trading sites away from the trail sold supplies for much less, but they were not accessible to the emigrants. Palmer advised travelers to “be cautious and lay in a sufficient supply to last them through.”
In addition to food migrants packed many other items. Most items were for use on the trail, but personal items such as a favorite clock or chair were usually included too. A few examples were: bedding, a tent, blacksmith tools, medicine, stove, chairs, gunpowder, etc.
Some diaries give details on costs. For example William Smedley wrote: “our outfit consisted of two yoke of oxen costing $117.50, a wagon costing about $80.00, our bedding consisting of buffalo robes and blankets, about 600 pounds of provisions, consisting of sacks of flour, one barrel of hardtack, a few boxes of Boston biscuit (‘common crackers’ used to thicken stews and soups or split and eaten like bread), some bacon, coffee, sugar, dried apples, etc. cooking utensils, two revolvers and a rifle.”
Palmer’s advice on kitchen equipment stated: “a dutch oven and skillet of cast metal are very essential. Plates, cups, etc. should be of tin ware, as queensware is heavier and liable to break. Families should each have two churns, one for sweet milk, and one for sour milk. They should have one eight-gallon keg for carrying water, one axe, one shovel, one hand saw. …A good supply of rope should be taken.”
More random tips from Joel Palmer:
“From ten to twenty-five wagons is a sufficient number to travel in safety.”
“Much injury is done to teams in racing them, endeavoring to pass each other.”
“Persons should always avoid rambling far from camp unarmed.”
“For those who fit out but one wagon, it is not safe to start with less than four yoke of oxen, as they are liable to get lame, have sore necks, or to stray away.”
“Oxen that have been raised in Illinois or Missouri stand the trip better than those raised in Indiana or Ohio; as they have become accustomed to eating the prairie grass upon which they must wholly rely while on the road.”
“Each family should take a few extra cows, as the milk can be used the entire route, and they are often convenient to put on the wagon to relieve the oxen.”
Joel Palmer’s guidebook was for the Oregon Trail and included a table of distances from point to point all the way to western Oregon just below The Dalles. Below is a short sample of Palmer’s table of distances along the Oregon Trail beginning at Independence, Missouri. The Rendezvous mentioned was a place twenty miles from Independence where wagons gathered and were organized into wagon trains of ten to twenty-five wagons led by an experienced person designated as wagon master.
Table of Distances (Joel Palmer) Miles
From Independence to Rendezvous…………………………… 20
Rendezvous to Elm Grove……………………………….……. 15
Elm Grove to Walkarusha (meaning Wakarusa, Kansas)… 20
Walkarusha to crossing of Kansas River…………………….. 28
Kansas to crossing of Turkey Creek…………………………. 14
People planning to emigrate to Oregon or California would certainly buy a guidebook such a Joel Palmer’s and study it carefully before departure. Also they would refer to it daily to determine distances to their next stop.
Palmer, Joel. Journal of Travels Over the Rocky Mountains. Cincinnati: J.A. & U.P. James
National Park Service Information. Catalogue of Goods on the Oregon Trail. On NPS
Bureau of Land Management Information: Catalog of goods carried on the trails found on
Bureau of Land Management website: