Outfit for California: Two and a Half Tons of Essentials for the Overland Trail

by Leslie Myrick

The electrifying news of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the winter of 1848 compelled an estimated 80,000 adventurers to pack their bags for California in the following months. How they prepared for the journey—aided by the compilation of lists of provisions and outfitting equipment—depended on their intentions: whether to join the vast majority of travelers who went as itinerant gold hunters, leaving their families at home, or as settlers, picking up and moving with their families, in order to ply their own trade in the land of bonanza, e.g. as doctors or merchants. Preparations also depended upon whether they traveled in a joint stock company, a loose city or regional association, or as a mostly independent family unit. A final constraint in making their lists was their chosen route of travel: the 17,000 mile voyage by ship around Cape Horn; a shorter, but more treacherous voyage by ship to Panama, followed by a short land journey across the isthmus, then another sea journey to San Francisco; or one of the two primary overland routes: the northern route, jumping off from Missouri for a 3-6 month slog through Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho to the mining camps around Sacramento; or the shorter southern trek from Fort Smith, Arkansas, via Santa Fe, to Los Angeles or San Diego.

In general emigrants from the eastern states opted for one of the two sea routes, while residents of what was then called “the West” went overland, each group’s decision partially driven by their attitude towards the dangers involved, the sea in one case, run-ins with Native Americans in the other. Geographic proximity to the coast or Mississippi River played a large role. But another important consideration in selecting a route was expense: whereas the sea voyage was long and generally much more expensive, the overland routes promised to be both considerably shorter and much less costly. Having chosen an overland journey, a traveling family or a mess of four to six persons was essentially limited to as much as would comfortably fit into a single wagon: at most 2500 pounds, according to those who had gone before.[1] This conundrum gave rise to a new type of list (labeled a schedule in contemporary accounts)[2]: essentials for a cross-continental trek. This post will examine outfitting and provisioning lists published in newspapers in the spring of 1849 by two very different companies preparing to travel to the goldfields, using the items they proposed to carry with them to sift for evidence of the intentions, anxieties, and even expectations of gold-seeking emigrants.

In compiling their packing lists for an overland journey, travelers relied on three major sources: outfitters’ advertisements, guidebooks, and newspaper articles written by previous travelers. Of these the least reliable (and at the same time the most tantalizing) source was newspapers advertisements posted by merchants, for whom the gold rush was a merchandizing bonanza. As one major dry goods supplier, Oak Hall of Boston, advertised in the early Spring, they had “made a study of California outfitting,” and were prepared to act as outfitting experts for the citizens of New England about to sail to the gold fields (caveat emptor!). Their printed list of “all suitable items” filled nearly an entire newspaper column, ranging from tents, India Rubber coats, and hammocks to “Clothes, Hair and Shoe Brushes,” from “Feather River” mining coats and red flannel underwear to “Fine Shirts with Linen Bosoms,” encompassing most of the stock of any modern department store. On the other hand, some outfitters, especially those catering to overland adventurers, had more utilitarian suggestions, as in this case, from the New York Commercial Advertiser:

advertiser

Extant trail narratives reveal that occasionally greenhorn adventurers were taken in by overly zealous merchants, but more frequently, in cases of over-buying, a hoarding impulse appears to have compelled companies to purchase dozens of sets of shovels, crowbars, and other iron tools that very soon overburdened the livestock hauling their wagons. Among the more useful items advertised by outfitters were a variety of guidebooks that hit the presses early in 1849.

Emigrants’ diaries and letters refer most often to two guidebooks: Joseph Ware’s Emigrant’s Guide to California, and Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California. The page opening below, from Ware, presents two cost estimates for different outfits: an economy package for a party of four going by mule cart, and a more extensive and costly list for a party of three going with oxen.

estimate

The first list shows surprising omissions, e.g. none of the weaponry for protection or hunting featured in practically every other published list, no provision for sleeping (tent, blankets), and no tools to repair a broken wagon tongue or wheel. As sketchy as this inventory is on other accounts, it adds one life-saving detail to the formulaic diet of bacon-flour-coffee-beans whose monotony fills the pages of trail diaries and letters: dried fruit. Along with cholera, which was ravaging the country in 1849, and various sorts of accidents (accidental gunshots, drowning, being crushed by a wagon), scurvy was a major cause of death among a group that for the most part subsisted on bacon and flapjacks or crackers for several months. The second list, which incorporates a year’s subsistence, approaches a more complete assessment. Taxonomically, it begins with the most expensive and important items: oxen, wagon, weapons, flour, bacon, coffee, but otherwise shows no consistent organization. Lead and powder, for instance, appear to be an afterthought, as are candles and soap. It should be noted that Ware’s guide was speculative—he had not traveled to California in person, but relied on secondary sources such as published reports from John C. Fremont’s first and second Western expeditions (1842, 1843). In the first part of his guide Ware sets up a rather rigid formula, arguing that the best (i.e. cheapest) route for emigrants from New England and the eastern seaboard was by sea, for those in the Midwest by land. The rationale behind compiling these estimates appears to have been primarily to advertise (albeit falsely) how inexpensively mid-westerners could travel overland, not to provide a complete packing list for a journey.

No such set list appears in Bryant’s What I Saw in California, a journal of a trip made in 1846, but he published in the Louisville Times early in the spring of 1849 a detailed inventory for outfitting a mule train, transcribed here as it was printed, in space-saving semi-colon-separated format:

Personal outfit.—Three good fat mules; two for packing and one for riding; two pack saddles, with ropes and other apparatus for packing; one good Spanish saddle, with trappings and bridles; 3 pairs of alforjasses, or large saddle bags; one good canteen, holding a quart of water; triplicate ropes for picketing mules and packing; 120 pounds of flour; 120 pounds of bacon; 20 pounds of coffee; 30 pounds of sugar; 10 pounds of rice (not necessary—a luxury); 10 pounds of dried peaches, &c. &c.; 3 woolen blankets; 1 India-rubber blanket; 1 do [ditto] cape or coat; 1 rifle, shot pouch and powder horn; 2 good holster pistols and a revolver; 3 butcher knives, with scabbard; 1 belt; 1 hatchet; 1 small keg Dupont’s rifle powder; 10 pounds of lead; 2000 percussion caps; patches, &c.

Mess Outfit for four or five persons.—One tent; 1 camp kettle; 3 tin coffee pots; 1 iron tea-kettle; 1 frying pan; 3 large tin pans; 1 India-rubber bucket; 15 pounds of salt; 5 pounds of salaratus; do. pepper; 2 tin plates for each man; 10 tin cups; knife, fork and spoon, for each man; 1 axe; 1 mallet; 1 coffee-mill (provided we cannot get it ground).

Company Outfit.—One light wagon, to be drawn by two mules, and harness; 1 India-rubber boat; 1 medicine and hospital chest; 1 set of mining implements; 1 mineralogical apparatus; a quantity of mule shoes and horse nails; iron drills and hammers; augers, gimlets, shaving knives, chisels, pinchers, nails, &c.

Articles not mentioned above, for use and trade with the Indians.—Needles and thread, shoemaker’s awls; fish hooks and lines; porcelain beads; presents suitable to trade with the Indians; cheap cotton handkerchiefs—a dozen; looking-glasses, &c.; 4 pounds of bar soap for each man.

Bryant’s list, though intended for a train of pack-mules with a single light company wagon, had wider application for any traveling configuration, whether by ox, horse, or mule wagon, or pack-mules. Unlike Ware’s attempts at provisioning lists, this list pays careful attention to details rather than prices. Most notable taxonomically is his tidy division of articles into personal, mess, and company outfits. This form of organization facilitated, among other things, an easy division of responsibilities in procurement. Also noteworthy, from the standpoint of content, is the small arsenal recommended for each man: a rifle, two or three pistols, 10 lbs of lead and 2000 percussion caps, along with three butcher knives and a hatchet for good measure. Fear of attacks from Native Americans was the primary impetus for packing these items, but many companies planned to supplement their Spartan trail diet by hunting buffaloes and small game. The most interesting feature of this list is the final category, which consists of miscellaneous articles for use as well as for trade with Native Americans: looking-glasses, fish-hooks, beads, handkerchiefs. As was the case in 1846, when Bryant first crossed the plains, interactions in 1849 between emigrants on the Oregon-California trail and the plains tribes (primarily the Sioux and Pawnee) were for the most part peaceful, but in many encounters small gifts or tolls were expected for passing through “Indian Territory.” Later that spring Bryant led a mule train from Louisville to the goldfields, packed, no doubt, in accordance with the list published in the Times, and widely reprinted. The Bryant pack train was one of the fastest trains to cross the plains that year (8 May to 3 August), its efficiency and organization reflected in its outfitting list.

The larger organized emigrant companies, many of which were joint-stock ventures, advertised for members in newspapers by publishing some combination of their bylaws and/or a list of items to be supplied by each prospective member or mess. Two such advertisements appear below, one list for a personal outfit and one for a mess of six persons, each offering curious customizations of the standard inventories found in guidebooks and newspapers in the early spring of 1849. The first list, published in the (Washington D. C.) Daily Union, 17 February 1849, 4, was most likely compiled by J. Goldsborough Bruff (1804-1889), the president of the Washington City and California Mining Association, who promised an expedition “well organized to insure security, comfort, and success.”

bruff

Thanks to Bruff’s meticulous journal-keeping and sketching along the way, the Washington City company is one of the best-documented expeditions to the West in 1849.[3] They were also among the most performative companies, dressed in grey and blue uniforms (the details rather fussily specified here). Between the posting of this advert in mid-February and the end of March expenditures were made to standardize their costume: “The uniform is a short gray frock coat, single-breasted, with gilt eagle buttons; pantaloons the same color, with black stripe; glazed forage-cap, with the initials in front: W.C.C.M.A. (Daily National Intelligencer, 29 March 1849, 5).” To commemorate their departure Bruff not only arranged for a parade through the busy thoroughfares of D.C. accompanied by the Washington Light Infantry but attempted (and failed) to secure an impromptu meeting of the entire company with President Taylor at the White House, the latter blunder an indication, perhaps, of a lapse in planning.

Of a piece with Bruff’s color palate recommendations for uniforms in this advertisement is his initial obsession with rain-proofing: his explicit list of seven items made of Indian rubber is unique among extant inventories. Moreover, by the departure date each mess was also equipped with a “gum elastic carpet and tent” and boats of the same material.[4] Also unique is his suggestion that each man supply four pair of boots. In light of these enormities we can read this list as a site of its compiler’s anxieties, triggered by sensationalized reports published in newspapers that winter of the prospective hardships of the trail. Ironically, while most of his company pressed on ahead after a slow and meandering journey, Bruff spent the winter of 1849-50 in a rough camp in the Sierras east of the trail’s end at Lassen’s ranch, hunkering down in his protective gear waiting for wagons to convey his massive collection of natural history specimens, scientific instruments, journals and sketches, along with his library. Bruff’s published list reveals, as does his debilitating end-of-trail cache, a sense of imbalance: excessive concern for military flair and protection from rain, at the expense of more practical considerations. One of his company writing home from California summed up Bruff’s failings as follows: “Captain Bruff was to blame for our misfortune … He was incapable of applying his theoretical knowledge to practice.” (Georgetown Advocate, 19 March 1850, 2).

In contrast, consider the following packing list for a mess of six persons appended to the constitution for the Independent California Company of Cincinnati (Daily National Whig, 12 January 1849, reprinting the Cincinnati Times). This list, which appears to be the product of a thoughtful committee, has taxonomic interest in its organized flow of concerns: from conveyance, to armaments, to protection from the elements, culminating with the plains diet: bacon-crackers-coffee-sugar, followed by two large cheese rounds and 10 gallons of brandy.[5] The generative principle here is foresight, coupled with an eye for small luxuries. The list compilers appear to have read accounts by previous travelers: they include an extra wagon and six saddles (predicting the point where wagons would inevitably be abandoned, and the mules would become pack or saddle animals). In the same vein, each man was to supply a dozen pair of socks and two pair of boots. There is a marked emphasis in this list on comfort in sleeping: great attention is given to provisioning tents and bedding. Whereas many emigrants traded with Native Americans for buffalo robes (as mattresses and/or covers) along the way, this group brought their own to enjoy from the very first night of their journey.

calculations

Note that this list specifies the aggregate weight of these items, just over the recommended 2500 lbs per wagon. Its compilers included some other well thought out details: a first aid kit, money to pay a guide, and the fare to Independence.

While REI’s list entitled “Ten Essentials of Hiking,” discussed in an earlier post, forces a trail hiker to imagine worst-case scenarios that, in most cases, would not arise in a day hike, the rigors of a 90- to 120-day trek across the entire continent held out tremendous possibilities for sickness, accidents, inclement weather, and starvation. By the time both of these groups reached California the worst-case scenarios imagined by these lists were realized in attacks of cholera, wolves, ferocious rainstorms, icy temperatures in the mountains, the breakdown of wagons and animals in the final desert stretches, and other disasters never predicted. Many letters written home from California sent back amended lists based on the writers’ own experiences. The most common suggestion was to considerably limit a wagon’s lading. The first of Ware’s lists above omitted a computation of the total weight for items appropriate for a mule wagon, but it comes dangerously close to the recommended 2500 lbs. His second list, for ox-teams, weighs in just over that amount.  The ultimate source of this recommendation is yet to be uncovered, but the reality of overland travel called for anywhere from 500-1000 lbs less per wagon. Aside from the stock of  picks, shovels, crow bars, assaying kits, gold washers, etc. hawked by merchants everywhere from Boston and New York to the jumping off points in Missouri and Iowa, the greatest culprits were the 150-200 lbs/per person ration of bacon and the equal weight of flour or hard tack. For many overburdened companies the lightening of wagons began almost as soon as they crossed the Missouri River on the first day of their journey.

I’ve suggested in this post that we can see lists as exercises in problem-solving, reflecting the temperaments of the list-makers, whether an individual or a group. By paying attention to what the list makers found important—military finery and excessive rain protection on the one hand, forethought and small luxuries on the other—we have a small, unique window into group dynamics, based on the expectations expressed in their lists.  In another post I will examine several lists of items left behind on the plains which serve as a negative complement to the provisioning list.


[1] This estimate almost inevitably proved untenable due to heavy roads, innumerable river crossings, and the challenges of the final stretch of the trail through large swaths of desert and over the Sierras.
[2]In mid-nineteenth century American sources the word schedule often referred to inventories of the goods in cases of bankruptcy or death. OED: “In a wider sense, any tabular or classified statement, esp. one arranged under headings prescribed by official authority, as, e.g. an insolvent’s statement of assets and liabilities, a return of particulars liable to income or other tax, and the like.”
[3] Gold Rush: The Journals, Drawings, and Other Papers of J. Goldsborough Bruff, Captain, Washington City and California Mining Association, April 2, 1849- July 20, 1851. Edited by Georgia Willis Read and Ruth Gaines. (2 v., New York, Columbia University Press, 1944. Among the appendices to this voluminous edition are several outfitting and provisioning lists compiled later in the journey itemizing in great detail the actual lading of their wagons. The list entitled Cost of Bruff’s Personal Equipment (II: 1167) reveals that he, himself, did not adhere to the list published in February.
[4] One can only speculate what might have been the source of Bruff’s fascination with India Rubber. One factor might be that he had been a sea captain, subject to squalls, before this venture. Also, new methods for processing rubber garments and gear had recently been discovered, making these items a sought-after accessory. In an appendix in Read and Gaines entitled “Camp Equipment and Advice,” most likely written the forlorn winter he spent in the Sierras at the end of the trek, Bruff made an itemized critique of 12 rubber goods, from gun cases (”if the least defective, do more harm than not”), to gloves (“of no use, except to keep the hands cold”) to tent carpets (“Indispensible”) (II:1174-75).
[5] The majority of extant constitutions mandated abstinence from alcohol (with medicinal exceptions).

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