Supper on the Trail: How Food and Provisions Shaped Nineteenth-Century Westward Migration

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Between the late 1830s and the 1860s, over 350,000 men, women, and children traveled overland along the Oregon and California Trails to the American West. Using primary sources including narratives, diaries, journals, reports, and letters, one discovers that obtaining food was perhaps the most critical concern for westward migrants. That overlanders and their animals had to eat is nothing new or alarming, but their need for food did carry many unexpected implications. Food connected migrants to the land, and in turn the land connected people to each other through competition over resources such as water, grass, and timber. Through their primary role as cooks, women's experiences of the trail centered around the preparation of food. Native Americans and white migrants interacted peaceably by sharing or trading food, while competition over natural resources at the same time strained relations and devastated many western tribes whose land was ravaged by the train of migrants. Food influenced the timing and routes of travel, the health and mood of travelers, and the economic and physical status of settlers upon arrival in the West. The overlanders' need for nourishment serves as the framework for understanding how provisions helped determine the overall experience of westward travel and reveals that food shaped mid-nineteenth-century westward migration.



food, nineteenth-century travel, westward migration, California Trail, Oregon Trail