“Piles of most beautiful bacon”: Lists of Jettisoned Goods on the 1849 Oregon Trail

by Leslie Myrick

In a previous post, I examined outfitting and provisioning lists compiled by travelers in preparation for their trek along the northern route to California in 1849, the opening season of the rush for Californian gold. Those going by ox- or mule-drawn wagon (as opposed to by pack mule) were particularly prone to overpacking, and thus overburdening their stock. Guidebooks and previous travelers to the west recommended a load limit of 2500 pounds per wagon, but the exigencies of travel over muddy or sandy roads and unbridged rivers made the lightening of loads necessary, sometimes as early as the first day out of camp. Factors such as the cold, rainy spring in 1849 with its late appearance of grass, along with rumors of scarcity of wood, grass, and water further along the trail, led to a true “gold rush” in which wagons competed to reach the front of the pack. To this end much desperate unloading took place at Fort Kearney and Fort Laramie, where travelers hoped, usually in vain, to sell excess provisions and wagons, as well as at various points of difficult passage: at river crossings, in the Sierras, or in stretches of desert. In this post I will examine several lists compiled by travelers of goods they found jettisoned by the side of the road in the process of the flurry of load lightening.

Travelers’ narratives record lists of provisions, tools, and other necessities tossed aside; many diaries and letters provide short inventories of the array of articles found in dumps left by other travelers: everything from gold washers to boots to books to barrels of liquor. Occasionally items of great value had to be left behind. A few optimistic and crafty adventurers appear to have left caches of important items (e.g. medical instruments, law books, or brandy) in graves marked with their names, for later retrieval. Anxieties arising from the enormity of the enterprise, as I argued previously, were often reflected in or projected onto the compilation of enormous, sometimes comical, lists, and realized in groaning wagonloads of bacon, flour, and beans. The impulse to overpack was also compounded by merchants in hometowns and at the jumping off points, who played upon these anxieties with persuasive marketing for crowbars, extra ox-chains, gold washers, even forges and anvils.

The unloading of goods was so monumental that hardly a diary from that year does not note the piles of bacon, empty wagons, and frivolous items left behind. Some of the garbage dumps called for lists or inventories in order to try to make sense of the mountains of waste. A general approach to organizing these lists, based on a small sample, was to proceed from the most impressive items to the most pathetic or absurd. What fellow travelers might have considered absurd ranges from provisions and other necessities, such as boots, to sundries that, in any given person’s opinion, had no place in a transcontinental trek.

Joseph Henderson, in a letter to an unidentified friend, dated 29 May [1849], Indian Territory, 450 mi from the Missouri River (Pittsburgh Post, 9 July 49, 2) gives a matter-of-fact assessment of the problem, and an inventory of one company’s solution:

When we left St. Joseph we did not dream of the difficulties we would have to encounter; the chief causes of which were on account of our wagons being entirely too heavy, the mules being only about half broke, and the very wet weather … There are thousands of dollars’ worth of provisions and stuff of one kind or another strewn all along the road. To give you some idea of it I will give you an inventory of things which we saw laying where a company had encamped over night: There were 2 trunks, 2 boxes, 3 gold washers, a set of wagon hounds, about 10 bushels beans, a pile of coffee, another of rice, dried fruit, tools of different kinds, boots and shoes, and a variety of sundries.

Similarly, Elmon S. Camp, from Marshall, Michigan, records another inventory of jettisoned goods (Detroit Free Press, 12 September 1849, 2): “…stoves, trunks, cooking utensils, iron, steel, barrels, boxes, black smith tools of almost all kinds, broken chains and provisions. Yesterday we passed several piles of most beautiful bacon …”

Missourian D. H. Moss, in a letter to his relatives, dated Sacramento, 7 August 1849 (Paris (Missouri) Mercury, reprinted in the St Joseph Adventure, 2 November 49) attempts to express the infinite range of possible goods left behind:

We saw where quantities of bacon, flour, salt, beans, saleratus, coffee, sugar, tools of every description, such as picks, spades, shovels, axes, saws, augurs, chisels, planes &c, gold washers and cooking stoves in abundance, log chains, powder, lead and any number of guns, dry goods, law books, novels, and a little of everything else, I believe.

Some diarists were great cataloguers of the natural splendors they encountered in the vast new stretches of territory, whether geological specimens, the varieties of game available for hunting, or wildflowers and wild-growing fruits and vegetables. William J. Watson, a member of  a group of emigrants to Oregon from Jacksonville, Illinois, was one such cataloguer. In one diary entry he juxtaposes two seemingly incongruous lists (17 June 1849):

Since leaving Wolf Creek, beyond Big Blue, we saw where the emigrants had every day to lighten their loads: flour by the cwt., bacon by the thousand weight, beans by the barrel, and various other articles in proportion, such as spades, shovels, picks, boxes, barrels, trunks, wagon wheels, tires, and even wagons, were to be seen every few miles. Many birds of familiar voice were heard, such as mocking birds, turtle doves, black birds, ravens, wrens, woodpeckers, and various other of the little feathered songsters, which with their sweet and familiar tones and looks cheer the heart and revive the spirits of the weary traveler.-Fourteen miles.

The strangeness of such a juxtaposition might have been inspired by a meditation upon Matthew 6. 26: “Behold the birds of the heaven, that they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them.” But it seems more likely that the two lists were products of two separate episodes of writing during the day, since Walker’s attitude towards proper preparation for such a trip is pragmatically laid out in yet another list later on in his journey (29 June).

Several correspondents reporting on the emigration were journalists or literary aspirants, whose letters to newspapers sometimes added artful or even humorous elements. A regular correspondent to the Boston Traveler, writing over the Native American pseudonym Tal-Lah-Hah (Boston Traveler, 13 August 1849) gives the following rhetorically sophisticated account, where huge piles of jettisoned items are ranged against the most insignificant, even ridiculous, item that someone thought to pack, a temperance certificate awarded in Hartford, Connecticut:

While hunting we came upon an old camp ground where a party had lightened. The following is an inventory of articles found on the spot: Two gold washers, of sheet iron, large size, but injured by having acted in the capacity of targets; 4 large jugs, which smelt suspiciously of whiskey, but unoccupied; 2 half barrels, do [ditto]. do.; 3 traveling trunks, containing a “valuable” collection of yellow-covered literature; 1 life-preserver; 5 bottles of gold tests; a sausage-filler; 1 pick-axe; and a certificate that Miss J.P.S. was a full member of the Daughters of Temperance Society, dated Hartford, Conn., Nov. 23d, 1848. This was carefully enveloped within the folds of a ruffled night cap, and placed in a pet tea-pot with a dislocated nose. In addition, was some corn meal, several bushels of beans, and a large assortment of clothing, adapted to every variety of climate.

Another newspaperman, Cyrus Rowe, late editor of the (Belfast, Me.) Republican Journal, lists the horrors of his journey as a paying customer of the ill-fated Pioneer Line (“Correspondence of the Journal,” [Belfast, Me.] Republican Journal, 21 December 1849, 1). His letter is a virtual list of lists of privations, most of which use the figure of anaphora “I have seen.” Like Tal-Lah-Hah he uses bathos to set off the most consequential of the left items against the most insignificant:

I have seen thrown away upon the road more than 25,000 ox chains, and I have seen guns, pistols, and knives thrown away to lighten the emigrant wagons. I have seen thousands of bushels of beans, and hundreds of sacks of flour … I have seen every kind of thing thrown away that one would think of bringing over the mountains. I have seen silk handkerchiefs that only weigh a few ounces each thrown away to make loads lighter. I myself have thrown away a dozen shirts, a dozen towels, pantaloons, vests, handkerchiefs, stockings, given away my rifle, with a full set of leather pouches and cartridges and six hundred caps …

Elmon S. Camp, who bemoaned the “piles of most beautiful bacon” left by the roadside, identified the source of the lapse in judgment that led to the wholesale abandonment of necessities along with frivolities, whether of lace, paper, or iron: “If any of the companies fail of reaching their destination it will be those who have thrown away their provisions to make greater speed. They have become foolishly alarmed, and are now rushing ahead like man men.” Still, many other travelers stopped to take at least cursory inventories of the massive garbage heaps left behind and comment upon them, leaving a peculiar mirror image of the careful outfitting and provisions lists that characterized the beginning of the enterprise.

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