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In the 1840s, many thousands of families left their homes and headed west searching for California gold or a plot of cheap but good Oregon farmland. It was usually the man of the family who got “Western fever” and made the decision to uproot the rest of the family. They loaded up their possessions, stocked up on supplies, and piled into their covered wagon, waving good-bye to loved ones, sometimes forever, and hitting the trail.

Women on the trail had plenty to keep them busy. Charlotte Stearns Pengra, who traveled west in 1853, kept a journal of her trip. One entry read:

I hung out what things were wet in the wagon, made griddle cakes [pancakes], stewed berries, and made tea for supper. After that was over, made two loaves of bread, stewed a pan of apples, prepared potatoes, and meat for breakfast, and mended a pair of pants.”

No matter how bad the weather or how tired the women were, the women always were in charge of preparing everyone’s meals. They cooked over simple stoves or open fires – which required fuel. Twigs and boughs were easy fuel to find for the first week or so on the trail. When they moved into tall-grass country, women and children collected grass – prairie grass, slough grass, or hay – and twisted it into “cats,” which burned well when dry, though it produced a blinding smoke.

A pioneer woman and child gather buffalo chips for fuel for the evening campfire

A pioneer woman and child gather buffalo chips for fuel for the evening campfire

Once the wagon had moved out onto the open prairie, there were no trees and seldom even grass, and the pioneers had to look for an alternate fuel. They found themselves forced to rely upon buffalo dung for fuel. The women and children walked alongside the wagon and gathered the dung in large sacks or gathered it in wheelbarrows. Few women took readily to the task of picking up animal droppings, as evidenced in this excerpt from a popular trail song:

Look at her now with a pout on her lips
As daintily with her fingertips
She picks for the fire some buffalo chips.

The chips – which they called “meadow muffins” – were placed in shallow trenches over which pots were hung on a pole set on two forked sticks. To the pioneers’ surprise, the burning chips produced a hot, clear, and virtually odorless flame. Even better, the lighted chips drove off the mosquitoes. A bushel could be gathered in a minute’s time and three bushels made a good fire. By the time  the pioneer family had traveled farther west and was out of the range of  buffalo herds, the women found themselves wishing the animals had roamed further west, since chips were much preferable to sagebrush, the next available fuel on their journey. Sagebrush burned too quickly for a decent fire.

Peavy, Linda and Smith, Ursula. Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

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