15 Survival Lessons from The Pioneers
HappyPreppers – Preppers can learn much from the pioneers. From the pioneer provision list, to their
cooking equipment and recipes, preppers are wise to take note of techniques and
tools used by the pioneers who “bugged out” West from 1840-1890 along the
Oregon Trail. Pioneers were the emergency preparedness and food storage masters
of their time.
Preppers are hungry for good information about these people and many books
- Forgotten Skills of Self Sufficiency
- The Encyclopedia of Country Living
- The Modern-Day Pioneer: Simple Living in the 21st Century
Fifteen Lessons from the Pioneers
How did pioneers survive life along the Oregon Trail? Here is the short list of lessons
to learn from them…
Pioneer Lesson #1: Make a provision list.
Pioneers knew they could not depend on foraging for food or hunting alone along
the trail, so before heading on the journey, pioneers relied on the knowledge of fur
trappers to guide them on foods and supplies to bring.
Pioneer women didn’t write much about food along the trails, as they felt food was a
rather mundane topic. Thankfully, however, men found food a worthwhile to write
about, so we know pioneers packed plenty of dried goods, including dried meats,
sugar, molasses, salt, and spices, as well as flour, cornmeal, oats, dried apples,
coffee and tea. The following is an actual provision list.
Provisions for the six-month journey included:
- 200 lbs. flour (preppers today pack hard wheat and grind it themselves)
- half a bushel of corn meal (corn meal doesn’t last long, preppers pack
- half a bushel of oats
- half a bushel of corn, parched and ground (about 14 pounds)
- half a bushel of dried beans
- 75 lbs. bacon (the pioneers called it “sowbelly“)
- 30 lbs. hard tack (hard bread, today’s equivalent is pilot bread)
- 25 lbs. sugar
- 10 lbs. rice
- 2 lbs. saleratus (today’s equivalent is baking soda)
- 10 lbs. salt
- 15 lbs. coffee (children drank coffee too, usually at every meal)
- 2 lbs. tea
- bushel dried fruit (mostly apples and peaches)
- Keg vinegar (pioneers drank vinegar in a mixture of water, honey or
molasses and ginger)
- Spices and lemon extract
- 50 lbs. Lard
- Brandy, rum and whiskey (5-10 gallons unless the emigrant was
opposed to alcohol). To extend whiskey, pioneers would add molasses
to the drink.
Lesson #2: Fire and cooking.
Take heed when cooking over an open fire. Cooking over an open fire was
dangerous for pioneer women and the children who gathered around the fire!
Pioneer women by design wore their hair tightened in a bun and wore heavy wool
clothing to protect themselves from flying sparks.
- Tip: Gather long hair into a pony tail before starting a fire. Secure loose
clothing, such as sweatshirt strings, so that when leaning into the fire they
don’t get caught up in the embers.
What method did the pioneers cook their food? There were several methods
pioneers cooked their foods. Mostly, pioneers cooked from cast iron pots over open
fires. Kids were assigned the task of collecting dung from oxen or buffalo to fuel the
fire. It became a bit of a sport to fling dung like a Frisbee.
Pioneers baked bread daily in a fire pit by digging a shallow trench, which sheltered
the flames from the wind. If they had wood, pioneers used it for fuel, but in the flat
terrain of the prairie filled with short grass, they found little wood, so they soon
discovered buffalo dung was a source of fuel
- Charcoal making. Pioneers brought with them charcoals for their next stop
along the trail. Here’s how to make charcoal, so you’ll have an endless supply.
- Fire pit and a dutch oven. At minimum, pioneers along the Oregon trail
baked bread over a campfire in a dutch oven, a cast iron pot with three legs
and a lid. (Well, a few minors brought only their gold mining equipment, which
also served as a cooking pot.)They did this almost daily by digging a shallow
trench, which sheltered the flames from wind. If they had wood they used it
for fuel, but in the flat terrain of the prairie filled with short grass, they found
- Wood fired iron cook stoves. The wealthiest few brought cast iron cook
stoves; however, this proved too heavy for oxen to carry for the entire 2000-
mile journey, so often families had to depart leaving their cook stove at the
- Reflector oven. Those lucky enough also brought along a “reflector“oven,
which was simply a medium sized container made of tin with a hooded dome
and shelves to bake pies and breads.
- Cook with dung? No silly, don’t cook with cow dung unless you must! But do
ensure you have enough fuel (gas, kerosene, charcoal, or wood/biomass), as
well as a rocket stove, a solar cooker and cast iron cookware.
Lesson #3: Know you “knead” to have bread.
Baking bread is an essential survival skill. Get a dutch oven and learn to make hard
tack, biscuits, bread, cornbread and pancakes:
- Learn to bake bread in a fire pit.
Grain was an important food source in pioneer life, and bread was the primary
grain eaten. Pioneers enjoyed several varieties of breads on the trail as
- Hard tack (pilot bread). Baked in advance of the journey, pioneers
brought along hard tack, which could last almost indefinitely. Hard tack
is essentially flour, salt and water a baked into a thick cracker. If
moisture got into the supply, it wasn’t much of a problem: the pioneers
just broke off the moldy pieces. The pioneers ate this extremely dry
bread by dipping it in coffee to get the bugs out, frying it up with lard to
flavor it, or dipping it into their soups to moisten it. Sometimes they
added water to the hard tack and baked it again over a fire to make a
“fresh bread.“ Here’s how to bake your own hard tack.
- Quick bread. The pioneers baked quick breads (flour mixed with water)
over the fire by wrapping the wet dough around a stick when the day
was getting short and bellies needed filling. A quick biscuit was made
with a quart of sour cream and a spoonful of saleratus and just enough
salt and flour to make the dough stiff.
- Biscuits and bread. If they had time, pioneers kneaded yeast biscuits
and breads on the trail, by supper the bread had risen and was ready
to bake in a cast iron dutch oven over the fire. Dry yeast wasn’t
available until 1870, so they made their own yeast. To make their
yeast, they brought saleratus (the pioneer version of baking soda,
which made the bread rise). Saleratus needed to mix with an acidic food
or chemical, such as cream of tartar to activate the leavening process.
- Corn bread. Much more like pancakes made with ground corn meal,
pioneers made Johhny cakes. Here’s a homestead recipe on how to
make pioneer style corn bread.
Pioneer Lesson #4: Get a Grain mill.
Bread was an extremely important staple for the pioneers; however, grinding the
grains was a difficult and tiresome job made easier at the town’s grist mills. A water
wheel helped turned the gears and rods. Who did the work? A miller of course. You
can “mill” your own grains with the use of grain mill. The grain mills on the right are
just as good for grinding hard wheat into flour as they are for grinding your coffee
beans. Get a year supply of grain from Emergency Essentials, pictured above, right.
Pioneer Lesson #5: Stock up on 50-75 lbs. of fats and oils per
Bacon, (called sowbelly) was the food most consumed by pioneers (next to bread, of
course), so pioneers brought plenty of it along their journey. Bacon and lard was an
excellent provision choice for pioneers because it burned at very high temperatures
and with less smoke than other oils. Bacon, a prepper favorite, is a surprisingly
healthful cooking fat.
- Here are ten reasons why bacon fat is good for you! Even if you don’t have a
hog you can enjoy bacon in an off-grid world: Try Yoder’s canned bacon.
Crisco, arguably not the healthiest ingredient in a prepper’s pantry, has an indefinite
shelf life and so it has a place in the prepper’s pantry to help survive a long term off-
grid scenario. If not to eat it, then to burn it as a fuel for a candle.
Pioneer Lesson #6: Add oats to your pantry.
Third on the list of pioneer foods were oats. Pioneers ate mostly steel-cut oats (not
the flat rolled stuff). The proportions were 2 tablespoons oats to 2 cups water! It
was an arduous process to cook and stir, but the result was a creamy, silky smooth
porridge, and not the nutty flavor you might expect. As corn gained in popularity,
porridge made from oats became less a part of the diet. Pioneers then preferred
Pioneer Lesson #7: Stash corn and cornmeal, but avoid GMO.
Pioneers along the Oregon trail packed parched corn (for soups) and corn meal (for
mush porridges eaten with milk for supper). Cold mush was sliced and fried in brown
butter. As a simple meal, Pioneers baked skillet cornbread with six slices of bacon
Of course none of it was genetically modified. Today, preppers have many other
options! Popcorn is an easy to store food. Consider also polenta (Italian corn that’s
often baked or fried), and masa harina, (flour for making corn tortilla). These corn
products offer essential vitamins. At all costs, however, avoid GMO corn.
Pioneer Lesson #8: Take a close look at your inventory of imported
Pioneers loved brown sugar, molasses, coffee, salt and spices. These imported
goods were certainly treats, and for this reason are top priority items to stockpile.
Many of these products are not something homesteaders can grow in North America,
and they simply won’t be available for purchase. For this reason, it’s important to
- Sugar. Stock sugar in food grade bucket. Consider molasses as it can help
you make your own BBQ sauce and more.
- Salt. Stock up on salt for preserving.
- Spices. Spice up your prepper’s pantry with spices
- Coffee. The pioneers who drank coffee were the ones to survive the 2000-
mile journey!Contaminated water brought water-borne disease of cholera
with symptoms of high fever, vomiting and diarrhea. Pioneers prevented
sickness by drinking coffee. It was the process of boiling water that helped
purify the water.
Coffee was important to many. If no coffee was available, pioneers made a
coffee-like substance from acorns, dandelion roots or chicory. During the civil
war the soldiers made substitutions with cotton seed or peanuts.
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