Lone Hand Western - Old West History

The Covered Wagon

Joel Palmer Below is a chapter from the book " Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains"  written by Joel Palmer and published in 1847.  Palmer was one of the first pioneers to document the journey form St. Louis, Missouri to Oregon.  His book became a guidebook for the thousands of pioneers who made the journey to Oregon.



Articles required for a pioneer to make the trip to Oregon.

FOR BURTHEN WAGONS, LIGHT FOUR HORSE OR HEAVY TWO horse wagons are the size commonly used. They should be made of the best material, well seasoned, and should in all cases have falling tongues. The tire should not be less than one and three fourth inches wide, but may be advantageously used three inches; two inches, however, is the most common width. In fastening on the tire, bolts should be used instead of nails; it should be at least 5/8 or 3/4 inches thick. Hub boxes for the hubs should be about four inches. The skeins should be well steeled. The Mormon fashioned wagon bed is the best. They are usually made straight, with side boards about 16 inches wide, and a projection outward of four inches on each side, and then another side board of ten or twelve inches; in this last, set the bows for covers, which should always be double. Boxes for carrying effects should be so constructed as to correspond in height with the offset in the wagon bed, as this gives a smooth surface to sleep upon.

Ox teams are more extensively used than any others. Oxen stand the trip much better, and are not so liable to be stolen by the Indians, and are much less trouble. Cattle are generally allowed to go at large, when not hitched to the wagons; whilst horses and mules must always be staked up at night. Oxen can procure food in many places where horses cannot, and in much less time. Cattle that have been raised in Illinois or Missouri, stand the trip better than those raised in Indiana or Ohio; as they have been accustomed to eating the prairie grass, upon which they must wholly rely while on the road. Great care should be taken in selecting cattle; they should be from four to six years old, tight and heavy made.

For those who fit out but one wagon, it is not safe to start with less than four yoke of oxen, as they are liable to get lame, have sore necks, or to stray away. One team thus fitted up may start from Missouri with twenty-five hundred pounds and as each day's rations make the load that much lighter, before they reach any rough road, their loading is much reduced. Persons should recollect that every thing in the outfit should be as light as the required strength will permit; no useless trumpery should be taken. The loading should consist of provisions and apparel, a necessary supply of cooking fixtures, a few tools, &c. No great speculation can be made in buying cattle and driving them through to sell; but as the prices of oxen and cows are much higher in Oregon than in the States, nothing is lost in having a good supply of them, which will enable the emigrant to wagon through many articles that are difficult to be obtained in Oregon. Each family should have a few cows, as the milk can be used the entire route, and they are often convenient to put to the wagon to relieve oxen. They should be so selected that portions of them would come in fresh upon the road. Sheep can also be advantageously driven. American horses and mares always command high prices, and with careful usage can be taken through; but if used to wagons or carriages, their loading should be light. Each family should be provided with a sheet-iron stove, with boiler; a platform can easily be constructed for carrying it at the hind end of the wagon; and as it is frequently quite windy, and there is often a scarcity of wood, the stove is very convenient. Each family should also be provided with a tent, and to it should be attached good strong cords to fasten it down.

The cooking fixtures generally used are of sheet iron; a Dutch oven and skillet of cast metal are very essential. Plates, cups, &c., should be of tin ware, as queensware is much heavier and liable to break, and consumes much time in packing up. A reflector is sometimes very useful. Families should each have two churns, one for carrying sweet and one for sour milk. They should also have one eight or ten gallon keg for carrying water, one axe, one shovel, two or three augers, one hand saw, and if a farmer he should be provided with one cross-cut saw and a few plough moulds, as it is difficult getting such articles. When I left the country, ploughs cost from twenty-five to forty dollars each. A good supply of ropes for tying up horses and catching cattle, should also be taken. Every person should be well supplied with boots and shoes, and in fact with every kind of clothing. It is also well to be supplied with at least one feather bed, and a good assortment of bedding. There are no tame geese in the country, but an abundance of wild ones; yet it is difficult procuring a sufficient quantity of feathers for a bed. The Muscovy is the only tame duck in the country.

Each male person should have at least one rifle gun, and a shot gun is also very useful for wild fowl and small game, of which there is an abundance. The best sized caliber for the mountains is from thirty-two to fifty-six to the pound; but one of from sixty to eighty, or even less, is best when in the lower settlements. The buffalo seldom range beyond the South Pass, and never west of Green river. The larger game are elk, deer, antelope, mountain sheep or bighorn, and bear. The small game are hare, rabbit, grouse, sage hen, pheasant, quail, &c. A good supply of ammunition is essential.

In laying in a supply of provisions for the journey, persons will doubtless be governed, in some degree, by their means; but there are a few essentials that all will require.

For each adult, there should be two hundred pounds of flour, thirty pounds of pilot bread, seventy-five pounds of bacon, ten pounds of rice, five pounds of coffee, two pounds of tea, twenty-five pounds of sugar, half a bushel of dried beans, one bushel of dried fruit, two pounds of saleratus, ten pounds of salt, half a bushel of corn meal; and it is well to have a half bushel of corn, parched and ground; a small keg of vinegar should also be taken. To the above may be added as many good things as the means of the person will enable him to carry; for whatever is good at home, is none the less so on the road. The above will be ample for the journey; but should an additional quantity be taken, it can readily be disposed of in the mountains and at good prices, not for cash, but for robes, dressed skins, buckskin pants, moccasins, &c. It is also well for families to be provided with medicines. It is seldom however, that emigrants are sick; but sometimes eating too freely of fresh buffalo meat causes diarrhea, and unless it be checked soon prostrates the individual, and leaves him a fit subject for disease.

The time usually occupied in making the trip from Missouri to Oregon city is about five months; but with the aid of a person who has traveled the route with an emigrating company the trip can be performed in about four months.

Much injury is done to teams in racing them, endeavoring to pass each other. Emigrants should make an every day business of traveling—resting upon the same ground two nights is not good policy, as the teams are likely to ramble too far. Getting into large companies should be avoided, as they are necessarily compelled to move more tardily. From ten to twenty-five wagons is a sufficient number to travel with safety. The advance and rear companies should not be less than twenty; but between, it may be safe to go with six. The Indians are very annoying on account of their thieving propensities, but if well watched, they would seldom put them into practice. Persons should always avoid rambling far from camp unarmed, or in too small parties; Indians will sometimes seek such opportunities to rob a man of what little effects he has about him; and if he attempts to get away from them with his property, they will sometimes shoot him.

There are several points along the Missouri where emigrants have been in the practice of fitting out. Of these Independence, St. Joseph, and Council Bluffs, are the most noted. For those emigrating from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and northern Missouri, Iowa and Michigan, I think St. Joseph the best point; as by taking that route the crossing of several streams (which at the early season we travel are sometimes very high) is avoided. Outfits may be had at this point, as readily as at any other along the river. Work cattle can be bought in its vicinity for from twenty-five to thirty dollars per yoke, cows, horses, &c., equally cheap.

Emigrants should endeavor to arrive at St. Joseph early in April, so as to be in readiness to take up the line of march by the middle of April. Companies, however, have often started as late as the tenth of May; but in such cases they seldom arrive in Oregon until after the rainy season commences in the Cascade range of mountains.

Those residing in northern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, &c., who contemplate traveling by land to the place of rendezvous, should start in time to give their teams at least ten days rest. Ox teams, after traveling four or five hundred miles in the states, at that season of the year, would be unfit to perform a journey across the mountains; but doubtless they might be exchanged for others, at or near the rendezvous.

Farmers would do well to take along a good supply of horse gears. Mechanics should take such tools as are easily carried; as there are but few in the country, and those are held at exorbitant prices. Every family should lay in a good supply of school books for their children.

In case of an emergency, flour can be bought at Fort Hall, and Fort Bois, two trading posts of the Hudson's Bay Company, at twenty dollars per hundred; and by forwarding word to Spalding's mission, on the Kooskooskee, they will pack out flour to Fort Bois, at ten dollars per hundred, and to the Grand Round at eight dollars, and will take in exchange dry goods, groceries, &c.; but at Forts Hall and Bois, the company will take nothing in payment but cash or cattle. At Dr. Whitman's station, flour can be bought at five dollars per hundred, corn meal at four dollars, beef at six and seven cents per pound, potatoes, fifty cents per bushel. It is proper to observe that the flour at Spalding's and Whitman's stations will be unbolted. Emigrants however, should be cautious, and lay in a sufficient supply to last them through.

The following excerpt from the book "The Prairie Traveler" By Randolph Marcy details what would be considered the proper clothing and other accoutrements needed for the trip west.

 Items required by the pioneers in the old west.


A suitable dress for prairie traveling is of great import to health and comfort. Cotton or linen fabrics do not sufficiently protect the body against the direct rays of the sun at midday, nor against rains or sudden changes of temperature. Wool, being a non-conductor, is the best material for this mode of locomotion, and should always be adopted for the plains. The coat should be short and stout, the shirt of red or blue flannel, such as can be found in almost all the shops on the frontier: this, in warm weather, answers for an outside garment. The pants should be of thick and soft woolen material, and it is well to have them re-enforced on the inside, where they come in contact with the saddle, with soft buckskin, which makes them more durable and comfortable.

Woolen socks and stout boots, coming up well at the knees, and made large, so as to admit the pants, will be found the best for horsemen, and they guard against rattlesnake bites.

In traveling through deep snow during very cold weather in winter, moccasins are preferable to boots or shoes, as being more pliable, and allowing a freer circulation of the blood. In crossing the Rocky Mountains in the whiter, the weather being intensely cold, I wore two pairs of woolen socks, and a square piece of thick blanket sufficient to cover the feet and ankles, over which were drawn a pair of thick buckskin moccasins, and the whole enveloped in a pair of buffalo-skin boots with the hair inside, made open in the front and tied with buckskin strings. At the same time I wore a pair of elkskin pants, which most effectually prevented the air from penetrating to the skin, and made an excellent defense against brush and thorns.

My men, who were dressed in the regulation clothing, wore out their pants and shoes before we reached the summit of the mountains, and many of them had their feet badly frozen in consequence. They mended their shoes with pieces of leather cut from the saddle-skirts as long as they lasted, and, when this material was gone, they covered the entire shoe with green beeve or mule hide, drawn together and sewed upon the top, with the hair inside, which protected the upper as well as the sole leather. The sewing was done with an awl and buckskin strings. These simple expedients contributed greatly to the comfort of the party; and, indeed, I am by no means sure that they did not, in our straitened condition, without the transportation necessary for carrying disabled men, save the lives of some of them. Without the awl and buckskins we should have been unable to have repaired the shoes. They should never be forgotten in making up the outfit for a prairie expedition.

We also experienced great inconvenience and pain by the reflection of the sun's rays from the snow upon our eyes, and some of the party became nearly snow-blind. Green or blue glasses, inclosed in a wire net-work, are an effectual protection to the eyes; but, in the absence of these, the skin around the eyes and upon the nose should be blackened with wet powder or charcoal, which will afford great relief.

In the summer season shoes are much better for footmen than boots, as they are lighter, and do not cramp the ankles; the soles should be broad, so as to allow a square, firm tread, without distorting or pinching the feet.

The following list of articles is deemed a sufficient outfit for one man upon a three months' expedition, viz.:

2 blue or red flannel overshirts,
open in front, with buttons.
2 woolen undershirts.
2 pairs thick cotton drawers.
4 pairs woolen socks.
2 pairs cotton socks.
4 colored silk handkerchiefs.
2 pairs stout shoes, for footmen.
1 pair boots, for horsemen.
1 pair shoes, for horsemen.
3 towels.
1 gutta percha poncho.
1 broad-brimmed hat of soft felt.

The foregoing articles, with the coat and overcoat, complete the wardrobe.

1 comb and brush.
2 tooth-brushes.
1 pound Castile soap.
3 pounds bar soap for washing clothes.
1 belt-knife and small whetstone.
Stout linen thread, large needles, a bit of beeswax, a few buttons, paper of pins, and a thimble, all contained in a small buckskin or stout cloth bag


The bedding for each person should consist of two blankets, a comforter, and a pillow, and a gutta percha or painted canvas cloth to spread beneath the bed upon the ground, and to contain it when rolled up for transportation.

Every mess of six or eight persons will require a wrought-iron camp kettle, large enough for boiling meat and making soup; a coffee-pot and cups of heavy tin, with the handles riveted on; tin plates, frying and bake pans of wrought iron, the latter for baking bread and roasting coffee. Also a mess pan of heavy tin or wrought iron for mixing bread and other culinary purposes; knives, forks, and spoons; an extra camp kettle; tin or gutta percha bucket for water—wood, being liable to shrink and fall to pieces, is not deemed suitable; an axe, hatchet, and spade will also be needed, with a mallet for driving picket-pins. Matches should be carried in bottles and corked tight, so as to exclude the moisture.

A little blue mass, quinine, opium, and some cathartic medicine, put up in doses for adults, will suffice for the medicine-chest.

Each ox wagon should be provided with a covered tar-bucket, filled with a mixture of tar or resin and grease, two bows extra, six S's, and six open links for repairing chains. Every set of six wagons should have a tongue, coupling pole,* king-bolt, and pair of hounds extra.

Every set of six mule wagons should be furnished with five pairs of hames, two double trees, four whipple-trees, and two pairs of lead bars extra.

Two lariats will be needed for every horse and mule, as one generally wears out before reaching the end of a long journey. They will be found useful in crossing deep stream's, and in letting wagons down steep hills and mountains; also in repairing broken wagons. Lariats made of hemp are the best.

One of the most indispensable articles to the outfit of the prairie traveler is buckskin. For repairing harness, saddles, bridles, and numerous other purposes of daily necessity, the awl and buckskin will be found in constant requisition. 


Every man who goes into the Indian country should be armed with a rifle and revolver, and he should never, either in camp or out of it, lose sight of them. When not on the march, they should be •placed in such a position that they can be seized at an instant's warning; and when moving about outside the camp, the revolver should invariably be worn in the belt, as the person does not know at what moment he may have use for it.

A great diversity of opinion obtains regarding the kind of rifle that is the most efficient and best adapted to Indian warfare, and the question is perhaps as yet very far from being settled to the satisfaction of all. A large majority of men prefer the breech-loading arm, but there are those who still adhere tenaciously to the old-fashioned muzzle-loading rifle as preferable to any of the modern inventions. Among these may be mentioned the border hunters and mountaineers, who can not be persuaded to use any other than the Hawkins rifle, for the reason that they know nothing about the merits of any others. My own experience has forced me to the conclusion that the breech-loading arm possesses great advantages over the muzzle-loading, for the reason that it can be charged and fired with much greater rapidity.

Colt's revolving pistol is very generally admitted, both in Europe and America, to be the most efficient arm of its kind known at the present day. As the same principles are involved in the fabrication of his breech-loading rifle as are found in the pistol, the conviction to me is irresistible that, if one arm is worthy of consideration, the other is equally so. For my own part, I look upon Colt's new patent rifle as a most excellent arm for border service. It' gives six shots in more rapid succession than any other rifle I know of, and these, if properly expended, are oftentimes sufficient to decide a contest; moreover, it is the most reliable and certain weapon to fire that I have ever used, and I can not resist the force of my conviction that, if I were alone upon the prairies, and expected an attack from a body of

Indians, I am not acquainted with any arm I would as soon have in my hands as this.

The army and navy revolvers have both been used in our army, but the officers are not united in opinion in regard to their relative merits. I prefer the large army size, for reasons which will be given hereafter.

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