Fueling the Journey

Wood, water and buffalo chips

Life on the road west was marked by difficulty and danger, it is true. But there was another, even more dominant characteristic — boring monotony. For many emigrants, the monotony was at least partially the result of an unavoidable fact. Even though they were hundreds of miles from “civilization,” cooking food and finding fuel and water were as necessary as if they were still in the “States.”

But there was, as Helen Carpenter pointed out in 1856, some variation in the manner in which camp work was divided. “Some women have very little help about the camp, being obliged to get the wood and water (as far as possible), make camp fires, unpack at night and pack up in the morning — and if they are Missourians, have the milking to do, if they are fortunate enough to have cows. . . . (I am) lucky in having a Yankee for a husband, so am well waited on.”

Mrs. Carpenter later noted another difficulty — the general absence of firewood — as well as the method for dealing with it. The “method” involved the use of a natural product found in the North Platte Valley – buffalo chips.

“… various chip gatherers may be seen, bag in hand, intent on getting enough to cook the evening meal — it would be amusing if it were not dire necessity which drives them to it. Hale made a gather this evening, and reported. . . he got “some good fresh ones.”

Distasteful though chip-gathering might be, wagon train women became inured to it through necessity and, according to Enoch Conyers (1852), could “be seen roaming over the prairie with sacks in hand, searching for a few buffalo chips with their bare hands.” Conyers went on to note that, when both wood and buffalo chips ran out, “we used wild sagebrush instead, which is indeed a splendid substitute, making a very hot fire and excellent for cooking purposes.”

The “excellence” of sagebrush as fuel, was, however, questioned by some. Mrs. Elizabeth Geer (1847) expressed her reservations thusly, “Still we have sage to cook with. I do not know which is best, it or ‘buffalo chips.’ Just step out and pull a lot of sage out of your garden and build a fire in the wind and bake, boil and fry by it, and then you will guess how we have to do.”

Because of the proximity of the Platte River for much of the first half of the trip, water was usually readily available. The water which flowed down the Platte was not, however, exactly the epitome of purity. In 1852, Mrs. Cecelia Adams described it as “a very muddy stream,” but went on to add, “We can settle it with alum so that it is very good. Generally get a pint of mud out of every pail of water.”