I like to call myself this not only because we share the back yard with an occasional mountain lion and frequently with elk, deer, coyotes, and foxes, but also because I’ve evaded the 20th and now the 21st century whenever I can, out of delight in the 19th century. I’ve lived in cabins in the woods: “off the grid” was nothing compared to the pioneer life style, when I started with grains of wheat, ground the flour, and baked bread in a wood-burning stove. When the bread came out right, I felt I was mistress of any given stove. I’ve built my own shelters, felled a dead tree, cut my own firewood, and started my own fires. You know what? Grandma was right when she said the house stayed cool in summer–till it was time to fire up the stove to cook supper.
The achievements of the pioneers have always awed me. Just imagine, parking your covered wagon out in the middle of the Great Plains or the mountains or prairie and making a life out of what you brought with you.
You’d use the wagon for shelter till you could build a cabin or sod house, but first, you’d need to get some food crop in the ground, unless you were able to bring provisions to last through the winter. If your journey took longer than expected, or you met with accidents along the way, you might arrive too late in the year for planting. In that case, you’d have to depend upon hunting and whatever wild plants you could find. You’d hope the animals didn’t migrate from your location and require long treks through the snow to bring down the game you needed to survive.
You’d have brought farm tools from your former home: shovels and hoes, hopefully a plow. You’d probably have an axe and hatchet and some files to keep them sharp, To save weight and space in the wagon, you’d have brought only the iron parts, expecting to cut and shape handles out of the local wood. You’d use that wood for many things: logs to build your cabin, firewood, simple furnishings such as stools, benches, and a bed frame attached to the cabin wall, and for farm and home implements such as a well sweep, sledges, fencing, buckets, a butter churn, and tableware.
The oxen that pulled your wagon will also pull the plow, haul logs (you take the wagon box off and use the running gear), and, in extreme necessity, provide meat. Maybe you drove along a milch cow for milk, butter, and cheese, as well as building your herd, and a coop of chickens tied to the tailgate of your wagon.
The more you could bring with you, the easier your start would be, but remember, the wagon could only hold about 2,000 pounds or about 240 cubic feet, if you didn’t intend to kill your oxen on the trail by overworking them. For each grown person, according to Randolph B. Marcy’s The Prairie Traveler, you’d bring 150 pounds of flour, 25 pounds of bacon or pork, 15 pounds of coffee, 25 pounds of sugar, saleratus or yeast powder for baking, and cattle on the hoof to slaughter for beef. After these necessities, you’d choose what else is most important for your journey and new life.
Now, wasn’t the settlement of the American West an astonishing achievement!