Here are the Trail history posts that I wrote for April for the California Trail Interpretive Center.
For Frontier Fridays in April we’re looking at preparations emigrants made to make the journey to California. Then beginning May 1 we’ll be posting every day through September 30, following a “virtual road trip” along the Trail.
Emigrants to California came from all across the eastern United States but began following the trail from one of the “jumping off towns” in Missouri or Iowa. It was in these towns that they would complete gathering their supplies for the typically 4 or 5 month trip. They would gain advice on the necessary supplies from guidebooks or notes & diaries published by people who made the journey before them. One such guide as that of Joseph Ware, which can be viewed at https://archive.org/details/GR_4538.
In it Ware suggests, “Be sure to have a well bound cask 20 gallons in size, for supply ing yourself with water, across dry plains. For provisions for each person you want a barrel of flour, or 180 lbs ship biscuit that is kiln dried, 150 to 180 lbs bacon, 25 lbs coffee, 40 lbs sugar, 25 lbs rice, 60 lbs beans or peas, a keg of clear cooked beef suet, as a substitue for butter, (butter will become rancid in a few days on the plains) a keg of lard, 30 or 40 lbs of dried peaches, or apples, also some molasses and vinegar. For arms, you want a good rifle, and a pair of long pistols, (some companies foolishly talk of taking small cannon along,) or a revolver, 5 lbs of powder, “Laflin’s” best, with 10 lbs of lead, and a few pounds of shot. If you have room to spare fill up with additional provisions, as they will be scarce after you get through; four persons are enough for one team…. Extra axle-trees are useful. Every mechanic should have his tools within his reach tor emergencies on the road. Fish-hooks and lines are useful; seeds of most kinds are needed; all kinds of garden seeds, particularly peach, cherry, and plum stones—tobacco, cotton, rice, and other useful seeds. For clothing, you want plenty of strong cheap goods, for hard service—as well as boots, hats, caps, etc. When rightly equipped, the undertaking is not so serious as may be supposed.”
The typical wagon outfitted for a trip to California was called a “prairie schooner.” It was a smaller wagon better suited for the rough and narrow roads going to California. Some emigrants described their wagons for us. Helen Carpenter, a young newlywed, said, “Our wagon has square bows, which makes it much more roomy than the rounded bows. Inside the cover on each side are pockets in which odds and ends may be stowed away. Then there is an ‘upper deck,’ or double floor; the supplies being packed between floors and the bed on the upper one.” Similarly, Margaret Frink described theirs in this way: “The wagon was designed expressly for the trip, it being built light, with everything planned for convenience. It was so arranged that when closed up, it could be used as our bedroom. The bottom was divided off into little compartments or cupboards. After putting in our provisions, and other baggage, a floor was constructed over all, on which our mattress was laid. We had an India-rubber mattress that could be filled with either air or water, making a very comfortable bed. During the day we could empty the air out, so that it took up but little room. We also had a feather bed and feather pillows. However, until we had crossed the Missouri River, we stopped at hotels and farmhouses every night, and did not use our own bedding. After that, there being no more hotels nor houses, we used it continually all the way to California. The wagon was lined with green cloth, to make it pleasant and soft for the eye, with three or four large pockets on each side, to hold many little conveniences, looking-glasses, combs, brushes, and so on.”
Emigrants preparing for the journey had to decide on which type of animals to use to pull their wagons. Horses were expensive, but could travel faster and could be ridden. Oxen were the least expensive and could survive easier on native vegetation, but were prone to sickness. However, they were the most common draft animal used on the trail. John Wood recounted his experience purchasing livestock in Missouri: “On account of the great quantity of stock bought and driven away from here, many buy stock that is unbroken and young… Now, we have got to walk into a pen, full of wild, wicked steers, (they are not oxen, if so I should have said so, for most of them never saw a yoke,) and risk our lives yoking them, and after being kicked across the pen half a dozen times and run over as often, we succeeded in leading them out and hitching them to the wagon, when they ran away, every man hanging to a rope, fastened to each steers’ horns.”
And then there were mules. Their cost was between that of horses and oxen, but they definitely had a temperament. Alonzo Delano wrote, “Our first setting out was inauspicious. Our mules had been unused to labor—preferring rather to lay down on their dignity; for as soon as one was packed, he would saunter off a little way and lay down, and it being impossible for him to rise again without help, in his struggles he would disarrange his load so much, that they had to be repacked, much to the vexation of our drivers, as well as ourselves. But at last we got them all on their feet, and our caravan moved off. We could not go ten rods before some rascally mule would either lay down, or stray off, in spite of all we could do, and while we were running and shouting after one, another was sure to tramp off in a different direction—for of all mulish animals under the sun, a mule is—; but I wont swear!—only we found a mule to be a mule.” The illustration is from https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/61NKNP53SML._AC_SL1000_.jpg
Wagon trains consisted of multiple parties and some measure of organization was required to aid in the success of the journey. Mary Hayden listed an example of what a wagon train organization looked like (see the picture accompanying this post). Hayden’s book Pioneer Days can be read or downloaded at https://www.google.com/books/edition/Pioneer_Days/J3pNAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0. Alonzo Delano wrote, “Soon after my arrival, all hands were summoned, by the blast of the bugle, for the purpose of adopting general rules for mutual safety in traveling and also to detail a guard for the night.” Delano related another example of governance told to him by a friend met on the Trail. He wrote, “[The Colonel] gave me an amusing account of his setting out from Missouri, with a company from Tennessee. They were seventy strong, having a republican and military form of government, a constitution and by-laws, a president and vice president, a legislature, three judges, and court of appeals, nine sergeants, as well as other officers, who, by their laws, were to be exempted from the performance of camp duty by virtue of their dignified stations—leaving it for the plebeians and common soldiers to do the drudgery of camp duty, and of standing guard at night. All this read very well on paper, and quite to the satisfaction of those who were to be exempt from labor, but reduced to practice, it was not strange that it produced murmuring, which ripened into actual rebellion. Thinking it smacked too much of favoritism and aristocracy, the Colonel petitioned the legislature for an amendment of the constitution, which, after much discussion, was decided to be out of order, as it was not presented in due form by an honorable member of that august body; and no member was found willing to present a petition which compromised his own privilege. This led to an open rupture, and the Colonel withdrew, after holding up the folly of their course to view, followed by thirteen wagons, and which finally ended in the dissolution of the government of the traveling republic… Thus this sublime government fell to pieces by the weight of its own machinery and exclusive privileges. I laughed till my eyes run over at the Colonel’s ludicrous description.”
Joseph Ware’s guide (referenced in the April 1 post and viewed at https://archive.org/details/GR_4538) also included instructions for how to set up camp. He said “These directions are given on the supposition that you have organized properly, and that every member of the company is willing to submit to the orders of the Captain. Camps are usually enclosed by a ‘caral,’ or enclosure, formed by driving the wagons in an eliptical or circular form. It requires a little practice to make one at the commencement of the journey. By referring to the diagrams [see accompanying photo], Fig. 1, it will be seen that before you arrive at the spot selected for a camp, the wagon in the middle of the line strikes out to one side of the road, and is followed by all behind. By driving a little faster, the middle wagon soon gets abreast of the head of the line, thus forming two parallel lines; fifty yards from your camp ground, one of the wagons will be driven ahead, and reined up square across the road, while the wagons following, divide their lines on either side, and take their places as indicated in Fig. 2…. Cooking operations are generally carried on outside of the enclosures…. The cattle are usually turned out soon to feed, whenever you stop to camp, where they are guarded by a company of ‘herds,’ detailed every day for the purpose. After feeding, if near night, they are driven into the enclosure, there to remain until turned out next morning by the herds, for the day. Designate your herds every night. It is necessary, frequently, to stake them inside of the caral. When it is unsafe to turn your stock out on the plains to feed, you will have to secure them with ropes, to stakes, driven firmly in the ground. The camp must at all times be guarded by sentinels, every man in the company taking his turn. No shooting of fire arms should be allowed, as false alarms are frequently raised by such carelessness. Never allow guns to be capped or cocked in camp; deaths have occurred from carelessness in this particular.”