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Wagons West!

The Pioneer Shopping List

The Conestoga Wagon (pronounced "kahn-eh-stoh'-guh")was the new technology that allowed adequate ability to travel west. Conestoga wagons were large, sturdy wagons with high sides. Their strong, broad wheels made them capable of crossing rutted roads, muddy flats, and the non-roads of the prairie. An unusual feature was a curved floor, designed to reduce load shifting -- and Conestogas were capable of loads up to six tons! The Conestoga carried enough goods for a large family at a good speed. They were usually pulled by six horses. It was very sturdy and could handle bad roads. Other wagons could not have made it. Not many of the Conestogas made it!

Conestoga wagons were used along the Monongahela River beginning around 1800. They were made of wood with canvas strethed over wood battens forming a large loop and were as larger than most wagons. They were blue on the lower part and red on the upper part. The canvas on the covering was white. (American auto racing colors are blue frame with red and white bodies). By the 1830's they were used for moving settlers west with their goods.

It was an expensive wagon but worth the price and more. The high price meant that men of some means could make the trip but the arduous trip meant that those who were well off and comfortable stayed where they were or took a ship. The pioneers were therefore an able group, generally.

Conestogas were nicknamed prairie schooners because their high, white canvas tops gave the appearance of sailing ships, especially when traversing the sea of grass of the American prairie.

A typical wagon train would have ten wagons and 50-100 people. Often a fifth of the pioneers were women with children sometimes outnumbering the men. Not all travelers had wagons as some traveled by horse and some shared with other families due to the cost. The wagons, livestock, goods and equipment had a value of as much as $700,000. This was not the value in Missouri nor even in California, but somewhere in between where goods had a high cost of transport. This value was high enough for the Mormons to attack the wagon train in Mountain Meadows and steal everything.

Even with the average of $350-700 per person the actual cash carried was about $1.00 per person. Some Indian tribes charged 25 cents to travel over their lands. To the Indians this seemed a reasonable sum considering all that the pioneers had. To the pioneers it was a major part of their cash on hand. These charges by the Indians and their means of collecting caused much tension for the travelers

The shopping list above represents the food available. There was no refrigeration and canning was not generally available. This food was augmented by the hunters as well as children gathering berries or finding roots such as the Indian Turnip. The hunters mostly found small game but Buffalo was a real treat. For the most part, the travelers ate bisquits or hoe-cakes and beans; three times a day and day-after-day. Other than salt, the only spice was gunpowder.

Coffee was certainly different than getting a latte with nutmeg at the local beanery. Ground coffee was thrown into a pot of stream water and brought to a boil. In a few minutes it was taken from the fire so the grounds could settle (The albumin of egg shells helped the grounds settle, but eggs were not usually available. It is a bracing drink, especially welcome after the sun has set on the prairie.

Some of the wagons had a conveince feature called a "Flapp-a-doodle." This was a box bolted to the rear of the wagon. Part of the rear of the box was a hinged door with hinged wooden legs attached so when the door was lowered the legs would swing by gravity to form legs to hold the door into a horizontal table. (The name "Flapp-a-doodle" probably came from the noise of the flapping legs). Inside the box was a series of shelves with doors. The shelves were filled with food and cooking utensils. The "Flapp-a-doodle" was a combination kitchen table and cupboard.

Fuel was difficult to find, especially on the prairie. If the children could not find sufficient twigs or the men chop down trees, Buffalo piles were burned. Dried naturally in the sun they were good enough to cook with but no one's favorite romantic fire.

There were other staples. Tobacco in the form of cigars were common. Sixes (short and thick) and Nines (longer and thinner) were common. The numbers referred to the quantity in a package, usually with the same weight. (Is this the source of our saying, "At 6's and 9's" for being undecided?) "Stogie" became a slang term for fat cigars because they looked like Conestoga Wagons, long and fat.

Another staple was whisky. This was mostly used for medical purposes. Whisky was distilled to 90% alcohol or 180 proof to keep the weight down and shipped in small kegs. This had no color but was clear as water.

If the whisky was to be drunk it was diluted with a strong coffee or tea to give it color and flavor. Many added snake meat to add flavor.

Usually though, the whisky was used to make an infusion of herbs to make a medicine. It could extract chemicals from medicinal herbs and given to ill patients. Today this "medicine" is still found in Vermouth, Gin, Absinthe and "bitters." Undiluted whisky was applied directly to a wound or a knife to prevent infection.

All of this made pioneering possible because of the advanced technology of Conestogas. Conestogas were the trucks, pickups, and family vans that opened the Great American West. The Conestoga made the trip possible but not easy. We owe a lot to those who did it.

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