Food on the Trail: June 24-30

When I talk to 3rd and 4th grade classes about John Bidwell, I usually start with his westward journey. I show them a picture of a small ox-drawn wagon, the kind he would have taken, and ask them what they would pack for a 6-month journey, making sure that they understand that there will be no place to buy food along the way and that all food will have to be made “from scratch.” (Which can be difficult, but fun, for youngsters to imagine.)


They will come up with water, bread (“you’ll have to make your own bread, so take some flour”), and apples, among other things. If someone mentions meat, we talk about no refrigeration — how will you get meat? And then one child (usually a boy) will happily announce that you will need a gun.

Yes indeed, a gun was an essential tool. After the Bidwell-Bartleson Party left Fort Laramie they saw buffalo in abundance as they traveled along the Platte River. They were eating buffalo meat on a daily basis at this time.

But what else was on the menu? Besides the supplies they had in their wagons, what else could they find to eat along the trail?

Bidwell mentions:

many wild pears, likewise an abundance of peas, wild — though the bush was dissimilar to to ours, yet the the pods bore an exact similarity, taste, the same.

I have no idea what this pea-plant was.

James John, in his diary covering the same period, writes of “a kind of mountain turnip.”

They are about as large as hen’s eggs and are tender and good eating; also there is currants and mountain cherries.

(These were maybe chokecherries.)

In Wyoming they also found excellent grass for their animals, and grizzly bears. James John was referring to grizzlies when he wrote:

There are some gray bears there which are monsters. Large, but we have killed none of them yet.

If there are any Euell Gibbons types out there who are familiar with edible wild plants, and can identify these pioneer foods, please let us know.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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