Places


Westward Ho: Daily Life on the Oregon Trail

daily life on the oregon trail
Source: Wikimedia Commons / Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington

When was the last time your daily routine included helping an ox with his snot-rag or filtering your water through a hanky? For most of us, never. But for over 200,000 pioneers in the mid-1800s, these were just part of a long day on the Oregon Trail.

Thanks to letters, diaries, and personal accounts that have been preserved for nearly 200 years, we get to sneak a peek into the daily lives of these hopeful travelers. They stayed up late, writing by the light of stubby, precious candles; and because of that, we’ve learned that most days on the Oregon Trail were, by and large, the same.

Life on the Oregon Trail

Of course, there were many one-off days spent fording a river, “laying by” to rest the animals, or managing mayhem. But for the most part, a day on the Oregon Trail looked something like this schedule.

4 a.m. – Rise and Shine

The crack of a gunshot or the yelp of a bugle awakens the travelers to yet another day of marching through the prairie wilderness.

5 a.m. – Breakfast and Chores

After a night of grazing, the animals are rounded up and “corralled” within the circle of wagons.

The women fry up bacon and stir kettles of corn porridge. They milk the cows and skim off the frothy cream, spooning it into pails, which, swinging to and fro on their jarring journey, will churn it into thick butter for their evening biscuits.

6 a.m. – Break Camp

The men tear down tents, look over the wagons, and tend the animals – wrapping a lame foot or smearing salve on hides rubbed raw. Wise travelers take good care of their animals, knowing that without them, they will likely become one of the 10 graves seen every mile. The author of a popular pioneer guidebook warns:

The success of a long expedition through an unpopulated country depends mainly on the care taken of the animals, and the manner in which they are driven, herded, and guarded. If they are broken down or lost, everything must be sacrificed, and that party becomes perfectly helpless.”

U.S. Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy

While the men yoke the oxen and hitch up the mules, the women and children wash the breakfast dishes and stash away the bedrolls. If water is rumored to be scarce up ahead, they fill as many barrels and pots as they can without adding too much weight to the animals’ already hefty loads.

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7 a.m. – Wagons Ho!

Once everything is fully loaded and hitched up, a bugler heralds “Wagons Ho” to start the wagons rolling down the trail. According to pioneer Jesse Applegate, it was best to be on time, for “all know when, at seven o’clock, the signal to march sounds, that those not ready to take their proper places in the line of march must fall into the dusty rear for the day.”

Normally, though, each wagon takes turns leading – a relished position after spending the day tasting the gritty dust of the dozens of wagons ahead.

south pass wyoming
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the next several hours, travelers trudge on to the sound of grasshoppers chirruping, wagon wheels creaking, and foot after plodding foot crunching on dry grass.

Nothing but actual experience will give one an idea of the plodding, unvarying monotony, the vexations, the exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived.”

Luzena Stanley Wilson

If the trail is rough or uncertain, a few men ride ahead on horseback with shovels to scout it out and clear the way.

Along the way, women and children collect kindling and buffalo “chips,” tossing them into the backs of the wagons. The Great Plains were short on timber to begin with, but the earliest pioneers had long ago used up the trees along the trail. Fortunately, travelers like Alonzo Delano discovered a suitable alternative.

Our fuel was dry weeds and buffalo excrement, which served us quite well to boil our coffee and fry our bacon.”

Alonzo Delano, 1857

12 p.m. – Nooning Time

After a few hours on the trail, travelers stop for a quick lunch and to water and rest their animals. Before starting up again, young boys wrap up a most important job: wiping the oxen’s noses with a damp rag to keep the trail dust from accumulating and choking them.

Typically, the nooning time is just an hour. In the heat of summer, though, some parties opt to “lay by” for a few hours, preferring instead to travel at night and in the cooler hours of the day.

1 p.m. – Back on the Trail

The emigrants resume their journey.

Most walk to avoid adding any extra weight to the wagons. But frequently, injured, sick, or laboring travelers have no choice but to ride in their bumpy wagons. One in five women on the trail are pregnant. They suffer birth pains as the travelers roll onward; their wagon pulling over only briefly, when it’s time to push.

days on the oregon trail
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Men and boys keep an eye out for wild game or take off on a hunting party, hoping to bring back fresh meat for supper and save their cattle for when no game can be found. Earlier pioneers find buffalo, antelope, and deer plentiful; but the thinning of wild herds necessitates that later travelers pack their own meat for the journey “on the hoof.”

5 p.m. – Make Camp

The pioneers search for a campsite – ideally, an easily defendable location with plenty of grass for grazing and access to clean water.  

It is the practice of most persons traveling with large ox trains to select their camps upon the summit of a large hill, where the surrounding country in all directions can be seen. Their cattle are then continuously within view from the camp, and can be guarded easily.”

Captain Randolph B. Marcy, 1859

Once they’ve spotted a decent campsite, the travelers circle the wagons, forming a corral, and set up camp. The humble horseshoe of linked wagons formed a nigh-impenetrable fence with a 20-yard opening that could be closed with a couple of ropes to keep the animals contained.

It is a strong barrier that the most vicious ox cannot break, and in case of an attack of the Sioux would be no contemptible entrenchment.”

Jesse Applegate, 1843

Freshly unyoked, the animals are let out to graze on the plains, but under watch. Indian attack is always on their worried minds. Occasionally, Indians would ride through the herds, causing stampedes and pilfering a few cattle or horses.

6 p.m. – Suppertime

The men tend to the animals and wagons, making any necessary repairs.

The women unpack, forge their makeshift hearths, and start supper. Children fish or gather berries, wild onions, and buffalo chips.

Meals are simple – cobbled together from whatever can be hunted, caught, gathered, or made from a family’s meager supplies.

The journey overland is a great leveler of the classes – even if a family can afford more than the bare necessities, their team likely won’t be able to pull it, so most end up hauling more or less the same pantry.

replica oregon trail wagon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Captain Marcy recommends 110 days’ worth of food. A family of four requires 600 pounds of flour, 120 pounds of biscuits, 400 pounds of bacon, 60 pounds of coffee, 4 pounds of tea, 100 pounds of sugar, and 200 pounds of lard, as well as rice, beans, and dried fruit.

A few fortunate families herd fresh milk, cream, and butter along as well, trailing the family milk cow behind the wagon. Some travelers enjoy fresh eggs, thanks to a small flock stowed in their schooners or purchased from farmers along the eastern wing of the trail. If they don’t bring their eggs with them “on the hoof,” the women tuck dozens of them safely into barrels of cornmeal or flour.

The emigrants, many of whom nearly starved, were thankful for whatever food they could find, be it varmints or roadkill.

In 1854, Tabitha Brown wrote:

The Canyon was strewn with dead cattle, broken wagons, beds, clothing, and everything but provisions of which we were nearly destitute. Some people were in Canyon two and three weeks before they could get through; some died without any warning from fatigue and starvation; others ate the flesh of the cattle that were lying dead by the wayside.”

Covered Wagon Women, Volume 1: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849

Another traveler writes of the joy of harvesting fresh meat, meager as it was.

Hauled the seine, and caught a number of suckers and trout. Captured several fat black mice and had a pie.”

Joseph Goldsborough Bruff, August 12, 1849

7 p.m.- Evening ‘Round the Campfire

After supper, the women and children wash the dishes and do evening chores. The men smoke and talk, while their wives mend frayed hems and visit. Some make notes in a diary or write letters back East and tuck them into apron pockets to be mailed at the next fort.

A fiddle and dancing light up the prairie nights, and sometimes the travelers even celebrate a wedding.

It was a pretty sight, the circular correll [sic] of white topped wagons and tents scattered here and there, the blazing fires shining through the trees, the busy men and women hurrying to and fro, and the quiet moon looking down over it all.”

Ellen Gordon Fletcher, 1866

Most nights, the animals are left out to graze on the prairie and then rounded up again in the morning. Occasionally, if Indians threaten to attack or steal their stock, the pioneers keep their animals corralled all night, then let them out before sunrise to graze again.

8 p.m. – Lights Out

In preparation for another long day of marching over mountains and meadows, travelers go to bed early. The first night watchmen take to their posts.

Midnight – Changing of the Guard

The second night watch takes over.

Daily Struggles on the Oregon Trail

On a good day, Oregon Trail emigrants logged 18-20 miles, but the average day’s journey was about 15 miles. Some days, they gained no ground – in an unsettled land, it was easy to get lost and have to double back.

According to historian Aubrey L. Hanes, the trail “was hardly a thoroughfare in the modern sense, but more of a ‘travel corridor.’” Two different parties could be traveling parallel in the same Westward direction, but with miles between them.

Directions were sketchy and feeble maps hand drawn. Many time-pressed pioneers embarked on untested “short-cuts,” including the notorious Donner Party, most of whom perished in the snow-packed Sierra Mountains – but not before being forced to resort to cannibalism.

Often, travelers spent less time traveling and more time fording rivers, hunting, or rounding up lost animals. Every now and then, the waggoners spent a day or two “laying by,” washing clothes or letting their animals recuperate, especially before a long stretch of desert.

Young pioneer Sarah Royce was advised to cut and dry hay for their oxen’s dry journey ahead, as well as to fill up every last container she had with water. Sarah’s party used up every last bit of hay and water as they crossed 40 miles of desert east of the Great Salt Lake. Not only that, Sarah had to tear open their straw mattresses and feed them to the oxen.

Most parties marched seven days a week, despite the most devout begging for a Sabbath’s rest. However, time and experience proved that six good days of travel was much more efficient than seven wearied and ragged ones.

Three Daily Tasks of Life on the Oregon Trail

Regardless of how far they traveled in a day, all pioneers were consumed by three main daily concerns: finding grass for their animals, gathering enough fuel for a fire, and searching for clean water.

The further west they traveled, the tougher the terrain became.

oregon trail map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Large gaps between streams forced a more desperate daily quest for water. Travelers faced a crippling conundrum: a fresh water source was frequently lacking, and even when they found one, they couldn’t haul much because it was too much of a strain on their oxen. They had to keep moving forward, trusting and hoping that there would be enough water somewhere up ahead.

Even when they had water, it was – as Alonzo Delano wrote – “execrable.” All pioneers, even young children, relied on coffee. It was often the only way to stomach the bitter, alkali water.

Travelers frequently drink muddy water by placing a cloth or handkerchief over the mouth of a cup to catch the larger particles of dirt and animalcula.”

Captain Randolph B. Marcy, 1859

It’s obvious that traveling on the Oregon-California Trail was no picnic, but nobody captures the essence of the daily drudgery like ‘49er Luzena Stanley Wilson.

Day after day, week after week, we went through the same weary routine of breaking camp at daybreak, yoking the oxen, cooking our meager rations over a fire of sagebrush and scrub-oak; packing up again, coffeepot and camp-kettle; washing our scanty wardrobe in the little streams we crossed; striking camp again at sunset, or later if wood and water were scarce. Tired, dusty, tried in temper, worn out in patience, we had to go over the weary experience tomorrow. No excitement, but a broken-down wagon, or the extra preparation made to cross a river, marked our way for many miles.”

Luzena Stanley Wilson

Now, nearly 200 years later, our overloaded to-do lists may seem endless – but they’re not 2,000 miles long. And (thankfully) they usually don’t include mouse pie or buffalo chips.


Read more about American expansion across the West:

Molly Jacobson is a freelance journalist based near Miles City, Montana, where she wrangles five babies, twenty chickens, and one emotionally unstable dog. She has a B.A. in Psychology from Gonzaga University and writes for mental health blogs, history websites, two local newspapers, and anyone else who doesn't mind her flagrant abuse of the maximum allowed word count.

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