Advice for Wagon Train Pioneers



Crossing the prairie, mountains and rivers with a covered wagon containing one’s belongings and daily supplies for living was extremely difficult by today’s standards. It, no doubt, was not an easy undertaking in the 19th century either. The mode of travel, nature, native peoples, stress of the trip and who knows what else had to have been more than we can comprehend.

This story is gleaned from reading several books, including The Prairie Traveler by Randolph B. Marcy. Captain Marcy had been serving in the western wilderness for 25 years when the US War Department asked him to write an informative book to aid the multitude of travelers planning a wagon train trip. His book was published in 1859. I will not attempt to discuss the reasons for attempting such a trip nor trying any route in particular, but rather the packing of suitcases and picnic baskets.

Organization in preparation was not any different that planning a serious event today. After a group of people had agreed on a route and a destination, elected a leader and agreed on rules of the trip, packing could begin. 50 to 70 men in a group were about the correct number to provide protection as well as keep the animals, being herded along, under control. Rules of the trip included agreements between the travelers to help each other in the event of animal or wagon loss, illness etc. Each traveling entity would ante up an amount and put it in the control of the leader for unexpected expenses.

A simple wagon made of strong and well-seasoned wood was necessary to carry a 2000-pound load. A good choice for wheel material was Osage orangewood or white oak. The wrong choice of wood may cause wagons and/or wheels to fall apart in the dry summer air of the high plains. The many bolts in a wagon would be riveted in order to prevent the nuts from being lost. Horsepower usually was provided by mules or oxen. Oxen were a better choice, as they could survive better on the available food sources, were more stable, were not the best prize for the Indians and would arrive at their destination in very good condition. Milk cows traveling with the train could also be worked into the yoke, if an ox was out for any reason.

Food packed for the trip was simple. For each adult: 150 lbs. of flour, or the equivalent in hard bread, 25 lbs. of bacon, 25 lbs. of sugar, 15 lbs. of coffee, dried vegetables, yeast powders, salt and pepper. They shared a number of beef traveling with the train. Most of the food supplies would have been packed in stout canvas bags. Sugar would be better kept in gutta-percha sacks in order to keep it dry. Gutta-percha was a rubbery material introduced in the United States in the 1840’s. A good bit of advice was to keep most of the supplies for the second half of the trip.

Water, of course, was not carried in quantity, but due to its great importance, I will mention it here. The major trails followed rivers whenever possible. Water can be very scarce when crossing the plains, but is generally found in mountainous districts. During the rainy season, water could be found in low areas, but evaporated quickly in the dry season. They looked for areas where the grass was green and tall, damp areas in the bottom of a sandy stream bed, green cottonwood, willow trees, water-rushes, or flags. We have the native flags growing in our yard to this day; they are a small iris.

A well may have been dug from time to time. Here is a quote from the book. “When it becomes necessary to sink a well in a stream the bed of which is quicksand, a flour-barrel, perforated with small holes, should be used as a curb, to prevent the sand from caving in. The barrel must be forced down as the sand is removed; and when, as is often the case, there is an undercurrent through the sand, the well will be continually filled with water.”

They also looked for fresh animal tracks leading to a common location, or watched birds flying to and from a common location. So, there you have it; finding water was to be a snap. The book goes on to talk about conserving water as well as chewing small green twigs and leaves to compensate for the lack of it. The discussion of water covers 7 pages in The Prairie Traveler.

Captain Marcy recommended the following lists of personal items: 2 blue or red flannel overshirts, 2 woolen undershirts, 2 pairs of thick cotton drawers, 4 pairs of woolen socks, 2 pairs of cotton socks, 4 colored silk handkerchiefs, if you are going to be walking, 2 pair of stout shoes, if you are going to be riding, 1 pair of shoes and 1 pair of boots, 3 towels, 1 gutta-percha poncho, and 1 broad-brimmed hat. Don’t forget a coat and overcoat. Bedding, for one person, was rolled inside a moisture-proof ground cloth. Two blankets, a comforter and a pillow were all that was needed for comfortable rest. Other personal items required were: 1 comb and brush, 2 toothbrushes, 1 lb. Castile soap, 3 lbs. bar soap for washing clothes, 1 belt-knife and small whet-stone, stout linen thread, large needles, a bit of beeswax, a few buttons, paper of pins, and a thimble, all contained in a small buckskin or stout cloth bag.

The medicine kit was nothing like the first-aid kits of today. It contained a little blue mass, quinine, opium, and cathartic medicine. Blue Mass, sometimes known as “Blue Pills”, was used widely, often ineffectively, for a range of 19th century ailments, including toothache, constipation, childbirth pains, parasitic infestation and tuberculosis.

The main ingredient of Blue Mass was mercury, now known to be toxic, but it also contained glycerol, rose honey, and Althea. Quinine was the first effective treatment for malaria. It wasn’t until the 1890’s that it was discovered mosquitoes transmit the disease; before this, bad air was blamed. Opium is a pain killer, but can cause constipation. But, not to worry, a cathartic was there to solve that problem. In medicine, a cathartic is a substance which accelerates defecation. This is in contrast to a laxative, which is a substance that eases the process.

Cooking and eating utensils would add considerable weight to the wagon. The list included a wrought-iron camp kettle, a coffee-pot and cups with handles riveted on, tin plates, frying and baking pans of wrought-iron, a mess pan of heavy tin or wrought-iron, knives, forks and spoons, a gutta-percha bucket (not wooden) for water, an axe, hatchet, spade and a mallet for driving picket-pins. Matches would be carried in bottles and corked tight. A rifle and pistol were included, with the pistol carried on the belt, as it may have been needed at any moment.

Considering how ancient all this sounds, we must remember that we are not far removed from those days. Only three generations ago, my brother-in-law’s great-grandmother walked next to her family’s covered wagon from Springfield, Illinois to Atchison, Kansas in the late 1860’s and she lived until 1960.