Outfitting for the Trail

Big business for merchants from St. Louis to Omaha

Outfitting the western travelers was big business for merchants along the banks of the Missouri River from St. Louis to Omaha.

It is believed that over 200 steam-powered riverboats sank in the Missouri River during the mid-Nineteenth Century. Two of them were excavated in 1988. One, the Bertrand, was brought to light 120 years after sinking in what is now part of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Omaha. The other, the Arabia, was dug out of a soybean field near Independence more than 130 years after it went down.

The Arabia was supplying the covered wagon trade of Independence and Westport. Its cargo, right down to an unfortunate horse tethered to the deck, was brought up intact, preserved by the suffocating mud of the Missouri. The Bertrand was heading to Council Bluffs with a load of supplies and tools to outfit gold miners following the latest rush to Montana. Salvage crews back in 1868 removed a small treasure of gold bound for the banks in Council Bluffs, but they left its cargo of picks, shovels, bottles, clothing, medicines, and similarly mundane supplies for Twentieth Century treasure hunters.

Outfitting the western travelers was big business for merchants along the banks of the Missouri River from St. Louis to Omaha. The Oregon-bound emigrants were generally poor families who had sold everything they owned (or at least what the bank had not yet repossessed) and booked passage out of town on the same steamboats that were bringing in supplies for their local general stores. While outfitting for the journey, early pioneers were told they needed to purchase everything necessary to sustain them along the Trail for up to six months, as well as farming and building supplies for when they arrived in Oregon — in other words, everything they would need for the rest of their lives.

Later Oregon emigrants had easier decisions to make. As time went on, the Trail and its environs were thoroughly documented and explored, and the route was improved by the passage of thousands of wagons beating the land flat, entrepreneurs operating ferries at the major river crossings, and the discovery of alternate routes that shaved days off the trip. As the road was more developed and the trip took less time, emigrants could carry heavier loads in their wagons. The need to bring seeds and tools for use on arrival in Oregon vanished, as stores in Oregon City were now supplied with goods brought around Cape Horn by ship. However, they still needed food, gear, medical supplies, and clothing for at least four months on the road.

The first item needed was, of course, a wagon and team. Some brought their old farm wagons from home, while others purchased one at their chosen jumping off point. Dozens of blacksmiths made good money fixing up and manufacturing wagons for the overlanders. The big, sloped Conestoga wagons of the freight trade were too big for the Rocky Mountains, so a smaller wagon with a 10 to 12 foot flat bed capable of carrying up to 2500 pounds was developed from the basic farm model. A canvas bonnet stretched over 5 to 7 curved bows protected what was to be stored inside, and the sideboards were beveled outward to keep rain from coming in under the edges of the bonnet.

The choice of draft animals for the journey was an important decision. Horses were not satisfactory for pulling wagons across the plains, as the forage was not good, insects drove them to distraction, and tepid waters left most draft horses ill. A team of 8 or 10 tough mules would definitely be faster, but they were hard to control, given to mayhem in storms, and reduced to walking skeletons by the hard pull. The first choice of most emigrants was a team of 4 or 6 oxen, paired in yokes. The beasts were sure, patient, steady, and obedient. They showed adaptability to prairie grasses and were less expensive than horses. The emigrants correctly concluded that while oxen would not get them to Oregon in record time, they would, indeed, get them to Oregon.

Whichever animal was chosen, shoes were required, as the journey was long enough to wear away the animals’ hooves. Teams heading to California, even oxen, required snowshoes as well. It was desirable to buy animals already broken in on prairie grasses, accustomed to yokes, and trained to follow instructions. However, such animals were difficult to find and more expensive to purchase when they were available. Thus, most emigrants planned to spend 2 or 3 weeks in Missouri training their teams and packing their wagons before actually setting out for Oregon.

The success or failure of a party depended most heavily on their choice of equipment and supplies for the journey. Every emigrant insisted on taking along some luxuries and items of sentimental value. Chamber pots, lanterns, mirrors, Bibles, school books, clocks, and furniture were crammed into odd spaces in almost every wagon. Emigrants were advised not to overload their wagons, but many underestimated the magnitude of the trek they were setting out on and were later forced to discard nonessential cargo. Hard stretches of the Trail became littered with such castoffs as emigrants lightened the load for their weary animals.

Certain accessories and tools for making emergency repairs to a wagon were necessary to bring along. These included rope, brake chains, a wagon jack, extra axles and tongues, wheel parts, axes, saws, hammers, knives, and a sturdy shovel. Cooking utensils were also required — few overlanders were without a Dutch oven and a good iron skillet — and the trip was simply not possible without a water barrel to get the party and their animals through dry stretches of the Trail. Weapons and kits for casting bullets were essential, as well, though they were far more commonly used for hunting than for fighting Indians.

However, most of the space in the emigrants’ wagons was reserved for food. The endless walking and hard work made even the most delicate appetites ravenous. Hundreds of pounds of dried goods and cured meats were packed into the wagons, including flour, hardtack, bacon, rice, coffee, sugar, beans, and fruit. Coffee, though the emigrants had no way of knowing it, probably saved thousands of lives on the overland trails, as it required that the water be boiled, thus killing any germs (including cholera) that might sicken the emigrants. In addition to their supplies, many emigrants had the family milk cow tied behind the wagon to provide fresh milk at meal time, and some fixed a chicken coop to the side of the wagon, as well. The fresh milk and eggs — and later, meat — were an important source of protein and calories for the overlanders, and they made for a welcome relief from the dried and preserved food that dominated many of their meals.

It was possible to obtain fresh food along the Trail, but often not desirable. Hunting took precious time, though not many overlanders could resist the temptation of taking off after a buffalo herd when one was encountered. Trading posts sold food and other goods, but at high prices that few overlanders could afford.