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Provisions for the Trail

Crossing the continent to settle in Oregon was not a journey for the faint of heart, and neither was it a journey for the poor. It required a minimum of about $500 to outfit for the trip, and this could easily become $1000 or more if an emigrant needed to purchase a wagon and draft animals. The food and other provisions needed to sustain a family on the Oregon Trail for six months took up most of the room in their wagon -- though the overlanders' wagons were structurally capable of carrying as much as two tons when in good repair, the conventional wisdom at the time was not to carry more than 1600-1800 pounds of cargo. A typical emigrant wagon started out from Missouri loaded down with flour, sugar, bacon, coffee beans, lard, spices, dried fruit, beans, rice, and perhaps even a keg of pickles (a popular and tasty choice for warding off the dangers of malnutrition). Add to that the weight of cast iron pots and pans, a kettle or two, a Dutch oven, and even more food for large families, and you can see why some wealthier families brought two wagons... one for the food and one for everything else!

You want light wagons of the very best materials and workmanship, extra irons. The beds should be water tight. ... cover of good drilling, doubled. Tent of the same (single) of the Military or wall style. Tent poles ironed. Tools: Ax, Hatchet, 1/2, 3/4, 1, and 1 1/2 inch augurs, Inch chisel, Drawing knife, handsaw, and a few wrought nails. ... you will want a spade and a long one inch rope, say one hundred feet. ...

- William N. Byers

Prices in the mid-1800s fluctuated from month to month and from town to town. The cost of manufactured or imported goods rose in step with the distance to the nearest steamboat landing, as hauling cargo over land by wagon was very expensive compared to shipping it by boat. Conversely, prices for farm produce were usually lower in the countryside than in towns and cities because it was costly for farmers to get their crops to market.

The prices listed below were gathered from a number of sources, including diaries, bills of lading, estate appraisals, and accounts from general stores back East. This price list is a broad generalization of the cost of outfitting for the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and early '50s; it should not be interpreted as representing the cost of food and goods in any particular town at any particular time. If you would like to estimate the cost of items not listed here, you can make a rough adjustment for 150 years of inflation by dividing the price by 20.

ox $30-35 minimum of 4-6, but it would be wise to have more
milk cow $70-75
cattle $8-20 priced by age (typically 1-3 years old)
mule $10-15
pack horse $25
riding horse up to $75
bridle & blinders $3
tack & harness $5
mule collar $1.25
horse blanket $2
whip $1
pack saddle $2.50
saddle & saddle bags $5

covered wagon $70 there's no evidence that wagons made for the emigrant trade held up any better than ordinary farm wagons
farm wagon $25-30
wagon bows $3/set for converting a farm wagon to a covered wagon
cloth cover up to $1/yard some emigrants bought heavy canvas sailcloth, while others wove their own linen wagon covers and waterproofed them with beeswax or linseed oil
grease potentially free before petroleum could be distilled, animal fats were used as lubricants; the tallow was usually mixed with pine resin, or sometimes beeswax thinned with turpentine
bucket $1

woolen blanket $2.50
tent $5 - 15 prices varied with size
nails $0.07 per pound
soap $0.15 per pound
sheet iron stove $15 - 20
coffee mill $1.00
coffee pot $0.75
frying pan $1.50
stew kettle $0.50
bread pan $0.25
butcher knife $0.50
tin table settings $5 includes flatware, plates, and cups for a family of eight
candles $0.15 per pound
10-gallon wash tub $1.25
bucket $0.25 "tar buckets" for storing axle grease had tight-fitting tops to keep flies out and cost $1
axe/shovel/hoe $1.25
hand tools $2.50 such as augurs, planes, and saws
rope $2.50 50' - 75' coil of 3/4" hemp rope

rifle $15 double barreled rifles were sometimes seen on the frontier, as repeating rifles were not widely available until after the Civil War
shotgun or musket $10 there were also double barreled shotguns, as well as hybrids fitted with one rifled barrel and one smooth-bored shotgun barrel
Colt revolver $25
single-shot pistol $5
powder & shot $5 shot was generally sold by the pound
hunting knife $1

flour $0.02 per pound Recommended for each adult: 150 lbs. of flour, 20 lbs. of corn meal, 50 lbs. of bacon, 40 lbs. of sugar, 10 lbs. of coffee, 15 lbs. of dried fruit, 5 lbs. of salt, half a pound of saleratus (baking soda), 2 lbs. of tea, 5 lbs. of rice, and 15 lbs. of beans

To the above may be added as many nicknacks as you see fit, always remembering that such things do not lose their good taste by being brought on the plains.

- William N. Byers
corn meal $0.05 per pound
bacon $0.05 per pound
sugar $0.04 per pound
coffee $0.10 per pound
dried fruit $0.06 per pound
salt $0.06 per pound
pepper $0.08 per pound
lard $0.05 per pound
vinegar $0.25 per gallon
saleratus $0.12 per pound
tea $0.60 per pound
rice $0.05 per pound
beans $0.06 per pound

Some examples of expenses the emigrant encountered while en route...
Indian moccasins $0.50 many emigrants wore out several pairs of shoes on the road to Oregon
tanned buffalo hide $4.00
crossing bridges from $0.15 to $0.50 per wagon prices for bridges and ferries were generally negotiable, and additional charges per head of livestock were common
ferrying rivers $2 - $5 per wagon
resupplying once beyond the frontier, prices at trading posts along the Oregon Trail were typically at least twice those back East and could be much higher

oxen and cows $50 - 100 the first herds of cattle in Oregon were Mexican longhorns driven up from California, but the American settlers considered them to be an inferior breed and were willing to pay top dollar for cattle of known breeds which survived the journey to Oregon, while the longhorns went for as little as $9 a head
wagon $100 - 200
bacon $0.25 per pound
pork $0.125 per pound
beef $0.10 per pound
tallow $0.15 per pound
lard $0.25 per pound
butter $0.60 per pound
flour $0.06 per pound
coffee $0.20 per pound
sugar $0.10 - 0.16/lb
rice $0.06 per pound
dried peaches $0.12 per pound
apples $0.12 per pound
saleratus $0.25 per pound
salt $0.03 per pound
wheat $1.03 per bushel
oats $1.25 per bushel
onions $2.50 per bushel
potatos $0.75 per bushel
beans and peas $1.50 per bushel
chickens $1 prices for chickens and turkeys are for whole, living birds
turkeys $2 - 2.50
nails $0.17 per pound
tobacco $0.25 per pound
candles $0.75 per pound
plow iron $62.50
lumber $25 per thousand board feet lumber prices varied somewhat according to how it was cut and what sort of tree it used to be

Prices in Oregon were typically subject to even more fluctuation than those back East, as the local economy was very much in flux. Labor costs were a major headache for entrepreneurs in Oregon, as gold strikes throughout the 1850s drove wages sky-high. Prices for farm produce were low during the summer and fall and rose during the winter and spring; prices for imported goods dropped when several ships carrying such cargo arrived within a few weeks of one another, but would then rise again as the supply dwindled. Traditional boom-and-bust cycles (in which a commodity in limited supply commands high prices, thereby inspiring people to make so much of it that the price collapses) were also a serious problem in Oregon's early economy. Additionally, there was a constant shortage of capital in the economy even after the gold strikes, as most of the gold soon found its way out of Oregon to pay for imports. Barter remained a fairly common means of transacting business until after the Civil War, though cash on the barrelhead was preferred.

The gold mines have ever been a curse and a drawback to this country. Prices of labor do not correspond with the prices of our produce... How can farmers afford to pay $40 per month for second rate hands, fifty dollars for common two horse harness, two hundred dollars for a common two horse wagon, twenty-five dollars for a two horse plow, twelve cents a bushel for threshing grain -- and sell their wheat at 75 cents, oats 40 cents, potatoes 25 cents, pork 5 to 6 cents, onions $1, peas 75 cents, etc. etc. I pay sawyers on my mill $60 per month, log choppers $40 to $50 per month, teamsters the same, and yet I sell good flooring, fencing, ceiling, and weatherboards at $12 per thousand feet! Hence many, very many, will vote for Slavery in order to cheapen labor!

- David Newsom, 1857

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