Gold rush wagon trains

The forming of the great wagon trains of the 49ers was a mighty spectacle and, for almost all who went west with them, a tremendous experience well worth the toil, hardship and danger they encountered. Nothing like this had happened before and it was unlikely that it would ever happen again. It was something a man would remember, and talk about, for the rest of his life. For endless miles, as far as the eye could see and farther still, long lines of canvas topped wagons moved west through the sands, horsemen, people walking, and herds of cattle all traveling alongside. At night their campfires blazed bright from one horizon to the other. Dusty and trail worn, they pressed on often well past dark, looking much like an army on the move, an army bent on building a better life for themselves in the gold fields of California.

Wagon ruts, Phil Konstantin

These were often rough, coarse men. They called their wagons “prairie schooners” and many embellished them with mottoes such as “California or bust” and “no return tickets by this line.” Almost everyone had a nickname that was as likely as not taken from the state or town from where they had come, or perhaps from some marked peculiarity in their personality. They ate an unrefined diet of salt pork or bacon supplemented by buffalo meat, venison, prairie hens, beans, a baked dough sometimes honored by calling it bread, and the ever popular flapjack. A stalwart of the early mining days in the gold country, flapjacks were made of flour and water with a little salt and baking soda and were fried in bacon fat until one side had a crust, then flipped high into the air and caught in the pan with the uncooked side down. The tossing of flapjacks was considered an art and no man would be considered a skilled miner who could not flip a flapjack adroitly. Cooking itself was a prized skill. The man who could make something edible out of the limited materials at hand was an important person during the gold rush.

Nooning on the Platte

At night, around their campfires, the travelers entertained themselves by telling stories. Practical jokes were common. When the weather was pleasant and grass and water plentiful there was laughter and cheerfulness, and when things were otherwise then grumbling and discontent were the norm, but still the men moved forward as fast as they could.  There were great rivalries among the parties not only to reach the gold fields first, but also to find good pasture for the cattle, a prime consideration as the journey continued. Yet even at the very beginning men had pushed on as fast as possible so that they could outrun the cholera outbreaks that had already felled many in Missouri and pursued the caravans across the plains like a pack of ravenous wolves. Some have estimated that four thousand men and women died along the trail and were buried in shallow graves beside the road. Yet more always came to take the place of the fallen and the great train moved on.



  1. Sue Erickson says

    Just found your website from Frontier Tales, I like it!!!!!

  2. G. Pedro Kinner says

    My ancestors were in the first wagon train with James Clyman as their guide to meet the Morman Battalion in 1848 at ragtown or thereabouts, I am trying to find more info on my family and have come across several references in many old books but Clyman stopped writing diaries on this trip as far as I can find. He ended up marrying the McCombs daughter Hannah who was 30 years younger than himself, I guess that’s why he wasn’t writing anymore. Please let me know if you have seen any references to the McCombs train led by James Clyman in 1848. Clyman also warned the Donner Party not to cross in 1846 but I’m sure you already know that. Thanks, love your articles will pick up the book.

  3. Even after the trains made their way across the nation, people were still traveling by wagon. There was a reference in the local paper after 1873 and I think it was the 1880’s where a small wagon train came through Colorado Springs.

    • People still used wagons way after cars and trucks were around. I grew up in the south and was always riding around on country roads with my dad. I saw a lot of farm wagons back then. He even took me to see the goat man once. The guy had a wagon that looked like he swiped it from gypsies, pulled by goats and followed by more goats. I guess he roamed around the back roads selling goat milk and cheese.

  4. Just came across this site of yours by happenstance at Far West on Facebook. So glad you posted it there. I’ll be picking up your books; I can already hear some new songs coming.
    This is truly Americana and we must keep it alive. My great-grandmother came out west in a covered wagon. She had 3 boys by the time she was 18. She lived until almost 99 years old. These stories will help me understand her story more.
    Natasha James

  5. About two thirds of the emigrants to California arrived by ship. Speaking of cooking, here’s a brief note about shipboard cuisine.

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