pioneer provision list and lessons

Pioneer Lessons
Forgotten Lessons of Self-Sufficiency from the pioneers

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 abound:

Fifteen Survival 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 packed dent corn)
  • half a bushel of oats
  • half a bushel of corn, parched and ground (about 14
  • 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

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 buffalo dung.

  • 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. With a campfire reflector oven, pioneers could
    bake using an open fire and capturing the radiant heat. The
    modern day reflector oven, pictured left, is a cooking
    method enjoyed by scouts.

  • 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 staple:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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. A grain
mill is good for grinding hard wheat into flour as they are for
grinding your coffee beans. A wheat grinder (grain mill).

Pioneer Lesson #5: Stock up on 50-75 lbs. of fats
and oils per person.
Preppers should find the best cooking oils for long term storage.
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.

Other healthy oils to consider in addition to bacon are coconut oil
and olive oils. Olive oils can last up to three years. Purchase
olive oil in cans to protect the oil from light. 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 corn mush!

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
chopped inside.

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,
GMO corn.

Pioneer Lesson #8: Look at your inventory of
imported goods.
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 stock up.
  • 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. Coffee was important tin survial.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 did their best to prevent sickness by drinking
    coffee. It was the process of boiling water that helped purify
    the water!  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.

Pioneer lesson #9. Get a butter churn and some
powdered milk
Got powdered milk? Pioneers brought with them a milking cow or
two for fresh milk along the trails. They'd put the milk in the
back of the wagon and allow the wagon to movement to churn
the milk into butter. Left is a clever device designed to create
home-made butter: a butter churn.  Your family will love
the prepping upgrade of adding fresh butter to your meals.

Pioneer Lesson #10 Consider drying your meat and
Meat spoiled quickly, so the settlers smoked, dried and salted
the meat prior to leaving on their journey. Not as tasty as beef
jerky, because it tasted more along the lines of shoe leather, but
it was nutritious just the same.

Pioneers hunted and trapped wild game (venison) and small
animals (squirrel, hare and in lean times mice) to supplement
the dried meats they hauled in their covered wagons. They
hunted a variety of fowl from partridge and pigeons to geese and
ducks. They also caught fish as they travelled rivers and lakes.
They ate a lot of sowbelly, which is what we call bacon today.

Pioneer Lesson # 11: Dry fruits and forage for them
Pioneers subsisted on mostly dried peaches and apples, but
along the trail they also foraged for berries and dandelions.

  • Apples. Apples were a staple and were routinely dried to
    last the Winter months. An apple peeler helped make the
    job easier. From apples came applesauce and apple butter.
    From dried apples came stewed apples and apple pasties
    (small apple pies). While nothing could be more American
    than Apple Pie, the pioneers actually loathed the thought of
    eating yet another bite of dried apple pie, especially
    towards the end of their journey.  They would sing, "Spit in
    my ears and tell me lies, but give me no more dried apple

    Apples will likely return as a staple in an off grid world, as
    they grow easily in North America and they can dry easily.
    An industrial apple peeler will be useful if your property or
    neighboring ones have apples to harvest. Pack plenty of
    dried fruits in other varieties so as not to tire of them the
    way the pioneers did.

  • Berries. Back home, the pioneers foraged for strawberries,
    blueberries and blackberries, which were all ideal for jams
    and jellies. Along the trail, pioneers gathered berries;
    however these treats were few and far between.
    Blackberries were treasured finds in the forests; however,
    the dangers were bears who were foraging for them as well!
    They also found wild grapes, gooseberries, cranberries and
    salalberries for their pies. Blackberries and blueberries are a
    good foraging choice. In Hawke's Special Forces Survival
    Handbook, Mykel Hawke has this to say about berries: "90%
    of purple, black and blue are good for you...50-50 on the
    reds, could be good, or could be dead!" (page 126).

  • Dandelions. Flowers are fruit in disguise, and a favored food
    to forage along the trails! Fighting scurvy was an issue for
    pioneers, as they had a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables on
    their journey. Fresh greens, including dandelions provided
    healthy doses of calcium and iron. Dandelions also provided
    the pioneers with folic acid, riboflavin, pyridoxine, niacin,
    and Vitamin E, along with the all important scurvy
    preventing dose of Vitamin C. What's more, dandelion roots
    are as high as 14% protein! Who knew? Pioneers often
    tossed dandelions into soups and stews for flavorings. Eat
    dandelion greens and dandelion roots and make them part
    of your preps! In addition to offering iron, protein, and
    calcium dandelions are loaded with antioxidants and
    minerals. Why wait until an apocalypse?

  • Plums. Plums sweetened many dishes. They brought sacks
    of sugar plums. Stewed prunes was popular.

Lesson # 12: Establish a root cellar.
Back home, pioneers grew carrots, onions and potatoes and
stored them in a root cellar. Along the trail the pioneers gathered
herbs and roots and berries.

  • Potatoes. Potatoes filled stew pots and soups. An apple
    peeler helped make the job easier. Eat potatoes and butter!
    A healthy diet of potatoes supplemented only with milk or
    butter, which have the two vitamins not in potatoes,
    (vitamins A and D) is all a human body needs to sustain
    proper nutrition. Preppers have three options:

Lesson # 13: Learn how to distill and purify water.
Water is the most important lesson of any survival skill overview.
Often pioneers had no choice but to drink water made by human
and animal waste. Coffee made it taste better. They could either
drink foul water or die of dehydration, which wasn't much of a
choice. They "cured" sickness and disease with peppermint,
whisky and rum. Vinegar was also a medicinal tonic to help ease
their health woes. What a life!

One in ten travelers died the journey. Clean water was hard to
find and the pioneers often died of dehydration or the perils of
bitter alkaline water (too high ph), parasites in water and
disease borne mosquitoes.

Lesson #14: Bring or store what you can, and barter
for the rest.
Know that your provisions are also bartering items! Learn the art
of bartering, so you can extend this resource. You see, pioneers
filled their wagons with food and precious belongings. Some even
brought pianos! The prairies were littered with these treasures
and heirlooms as they soon realized that the weight was too
much for the oxen to bear. Since the pioneers didn't have much
money, they bartered quite a bit back home, trading their extra
crops for goods. Pioneers put their skills to use with Native
Americans who welcomed them along the Oregon trail. They
sometimes traded their wares for food. A popular trade for their
wares, such as a mirror or a knife, was dried meat,or acorn bread
baked with crickets. Of most value to pioneers (items not up for
barter) included:
  • Weapons, including a rifle, shotgun or pistol. A Colt revolver
    and a Winchester were customary possessions.
  • Knives, including a good hunting knife, a butcher knife, a
    skinning knife, and a small antique paring knife.
  • Farm implements taken on the trail included a plow, shovel,
    scythe, rake, and a hoe.
  • Carpentry tools, such as a broad axe, a mallet, and a saw.
  • Seeds for corn, wheat and other crops.

  • NOTE: Your bugout bag should be around a third of your
    weight. If you have the luxury of transportation, don't over
    pack. Food and water should be your top priority.

Lesson #15: Make your own.
Whatever supplies you don't have and can't barter, make your
own or make do without. If you sew, then sew your own clothes
and even menstrual pads. The following are some pioneer
created items you can learn to make:

  • Pioneer wool. While men and boys often did the sheep
    shearing, the woman washed the wool and spent hours
    carding, spinning, dying, making cloth, then fashioning the
    wool into garments.

  • Pioneer candles. Tallow (lard or rendered fat) from a hog
    created the basis of pioneer candles (and then sometimes
    the drippings from these candles would be recycled into
    creating soaps). Pioneers also sometimes made candles
    from beeswax.

  • Pioneer Soaps: Before they left on their journey, pioneers
    made soap from wood ashes (a homemade charcoal), lard
    (animal fat from cattle, sheep and hogs), and lye water.

When it comes to provisions for food, preppers and pioneers
have lots in common. Advanced preppers who are homesteaders
are much like the pioneers who grew their own fruits and root
vegetables (mostly carrots, onions and
potatoes). They farmed
their own
grains (mostly corn, oats and wheat). They raised pigs
as they enjoyed salt pork (and it preserved well). They kept
chickens, ducks and rabbits, and ranched cows and goats for
meat and dairy. Pioneers also hunted and foraged for herbs,
berries and roots. Drying and cellaring these foods helped keep
them through the Winter months. As a prepper, you may have a
pantry of similar provisions. You may like to reference our
modern day provision
list of 37 shelf stable foods to hoard to see
how your supplies stack up.

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