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.
PROVISIONS FOR THE TRAIL
Crossing the continent to settle in Oregon was not a journey for the faint of heart, and neither was it a journey for the poor. It required a minimum of about $500 to outfit for the trip, and this could easily become $1000 or more if an emigrant needed to purchase a wagon and draft animals. The food and other provisions needed to sustain a family on the Oregon Trail for six months took up most of the room in their wagon — though the overlanders’ wagons were structurally capable of carrying as much as two tons when in good repair, the conventional wisdom at the time was not to carry more than 1600-1800 pounds of cargo. A typical emigrant wagon started out from Missouri loaded down with flour, sugar, bacon, coffee beans, lard, spices, dried fruit, beans, rice, and perhaps even a keg of pickles (a popular and tasty choice for warding off the dangers of malnutrition). Add to that the weight of cast iron pots and pans, a kettle or two, a Dutch oven, and even more food for large families, and you can see why some wealthier families brought two wagons… one for the food and one for everything else!
“You want light wagons of the very best materials and workmanship, extra irons. The beds should be water tight. … cover of good drilling, doubled. Tent of the same (single) of the Military or wall style. Tent poles ironed. Tools: Ax, Hatchet, 1/2, 3/4, 1, and 1 1/2 inch augurs, Inch chisel, Drawing knife, handsaw, and a few wrought nails. … you will want a spade and a long one inch rope, say one hundred feet. …” – William N. Byers
Prices in the mid-1800s fluctuated from month to month and from town to town. The cost of manufactured or imported goods rose in step with the distance to the nearest steamboat landing, as hauling cargo over land by wagon was very expensive compared to shipping it by boat. Conversely, prices for farm produce were usually lower in the countryside than in towns and cities because it was costly for farmers to get their crops to market.
The prices listed below were gathered from a number of sources, including diaries, bills of lading, estate appraisals, and accounts from general stores back East. This price list is a broad generalization of the cost of outfitting for the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and early ’50s; it should not be interpreted as representing the cost of food and goods in any particular town at any particular time. If you would like to estimate the cost of items not listed here, you can make a rough adjustment for 150 years of inflation by dividing the price by 20.
ox: $30-35 minimum of 4-6, but it would be wise to have more
milk cow: $70-75
cattle: $8-20 priced by age (typically 1-3 years old)
pack horse: $25
riding horse: up to $75
bridle & blinders: $3
tack & harness: $5
mule collar: $1.25
horse blanket: $2
pack saddle: $2.50
saddle & saddle bags: $5
covered wagon: $70 there’s no evidence that wagons made for the emigrant trade held up any better than ordinary farm wagons
farm wagon: $25-30
wagon bows: $3/set for converting a farm wagon to a covered wagon
cloth cover: up to $1/yard; some emigrants bought heavy canvas sailcloth, while others wove their own linen wagon covers and waterproofed them with beeswax or linseed oil
grease: potentially free; before petroleum could be distilled, animal fats were used as lubricants; the tallow was usually mixed with pine resin, or sometimes beeswax thinned with turpentine
SUNDRIES & CAMP EQUIPMENT
woolen blanket: $2.50
tent: $5 – 15 prices varied with size
nails: $0.07 per pound
soap: $0.15 per pound
sheet iron stove: $15 – 20
coffee mill: $1.00
coffee pot: $0.75
frying pan: $1.50
stew kettle: $0.50
bread pan: $0.25
butcher knife: $0.50
tin table settings: $5 includes flatware, plates, and cups for a family of eight
candles: $0.15 per pound
10-gallon wash tub: $1.25
bucket: $0.25 “tar buckets” for storing axle grease had tight-fitting tops to keep flies out and cost $1
hand tools: $2.50 such as augurs, planes, and saws
rope: $2.50 50′ – 75′ coil of 3/4″ hemp rope
rifle: $15 double barreled rifles were sometimes seen on the frontier, as repeating rifles were not widely available until after the Civil War
shotgun or musket: $10 there were also double barreled shotguns, as well as hybrids fitted with one rifled barrel and one smooth-bored shotgun barrel
Colt revolver: $25
single-shot pistol: $5
powder & shot: $5 shot was generally sold by the pound
hunting knife: $1
flour: $0.02 per pound. Recommended for each adult: 150 lbs. of flour, 20 lbs. of corn meal, 50 lbs. of bacon, 40 lbs. of sugar, 10 lbs. of coffee, 15 lbs. of dried fruit, 5 lbs. of salt, half a pound of saleratus (baking soda), 2 lbs. of tea, 5 lbs. of rice, and 15 lbs. of beans
“To the above may be added as many nicknacks as you see fit, always remembering that such things do not lose their good taste by being brought on the plains.” – William N. Byers
corn meal: $0.05 per pound
bacon: $0.05 per pound
sugar: $0.04 per pound
coffee: $0.10 per pound
dried fruit: $0.06 per pound
salt: $0.06 per pound
pepper: $0.08 per pound
lard: $0.05 per pound
vinegar: $0.25 per gallon
saleratus: $0.12 per pound
tea: $0.60 per pound
rice: $0.05 per pound
beans: $0.06 per pound
ON THE TRAIL
Some examples of expenses the emigrant encountered while en route…
Indian moccasins: $0.50 many emigrants wore out several pairs of shoes on the road to Oregon
tanned buffalo hide: $4.00
tolls for crossing bridges: from $0.15 to $0.50 per wagon; prices for bridges and ferries were generally negotiable, and additional charges per head of livestock were common
ferrying rivers: $2 – $5 per wagon
resupplying: once beyond the frontier, prices at trading posts along the Oregon Trail were typically at least twice those back East and could be much higher
PRICES IN OREGON (1852)
oxen and cows: $50 – 100. The first herds of cattle in Oregon were Mexican longhorns driven up from California, but the American settlers considered them to be an inferior breed and were willing to pay top dollar for cattle of known breeds which survived the journey to Oregon, while the longhorns went for as little as $9 a head
wagon: $100 – 200
bacon: $0.25 per pound
pork: $0.125 per pound
beef: $0.10 per pound
tallow: $0.15 per pound
lard: $0.25 per pound
butter: $0.60 per pound
flour: $0.06 per pound
coffee: $0.20 per pound
sugar: $0.10 – 0.16/lb
rice: $0.06 per pound
dried peaches: $0.12 per pound
apples: $0.12 per pound
saleratus: $0.25 per pound
salt: $0.03 per pound
wheat: $1.03 per bushel
oats: $1.25 per bushel
onions: $2.50 per bushel
potatoes: $0.75 per bushel
beans and peas: $1.50 per bushel
chickens: $1 prices for chickens and turkeys are for whole, living birds
turkeys: $2 – 2.50
nails: $0.17 per pound
tobacco: $0.25 per pound
candles: $0.75 per pound
plow iron: $62.50
lumber: $25 per thousand board feet; lumber prices varied somewhat according to how it was cut and what sort of tree it used to be
Prices in Oregon were typically subject to even more fluctuation than those back East, as the local economy was very much in flux. Labor costs were a major headache for entrepreneurs in Oregon, as gold strikes throughout the 1850s drove wages sky-high. Prices for farm produce were low during the summer and fall and rose during the winter and spring; prices for imported goods dropped when several ships carrying such cargo arrived within a few weeks of one another, but would then rise again as the supply dwindled. Traditional boom-and-bust cycles (in which a commodity in limited supply commands high prices, thereby inspiring people to make so much of it that the price collapses) were also a serious problem in Oregon’s early economy. Additionally, there was a constant shortage of capital in the economy even after the gold strikes, as most of the gold soon found its way out of Oregon to pay for imports. Barter remained a fairly common means of transacting business until after the Civil War, though cash on the barrelhead was preferred.
“The gold mines have ever been a curse and a drawback to this country. Prices of labor do not correspond with the prices of our produce… How can farmers afford to pay $40 per month for second rate hands, fifty dollars for common two horse harness, two hundred dollars for a common two horse wagon, twenty-five dollars for a two horse plow, twelve cents a bushel for threshing grain — and sell their wheat at 75 cents, oats 40 cents, potatoes 25 cents, pork 5 to 6 cents, onions $1, peas 75 cents, etc. etc. I pay sawyers on my mill $60 per month, log choppers $40 to $50 per month, teamsters the same, and yet I sell good flooring, fencing, ceiling, and weatherboards at $12 per thousand feet! Hence many, very many, will vote for Slavery in order to cheapen labor!”
- David Newsom, 1857
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