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What Did Pioneers Eat on the Oregon Trail?

The food on the Oregon Trail included bacon, bread and bison. What more could you want?

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covered wagon against a mountain landscape oregon trailAnnzee/Shutterstock

Love road trips? Now think about going on a road trip across five states with all of the food you need in the trunk of your car. Also, your car weighs 2,000 pounds—and it’s a wagon.

Pioneers didn’t have access to coolers or grocery stores, so food on the Oregon Trail had to survive a six-month journey. But what exactly did the pioneers eat? We did the research.

For another history lesson, learn what foods passengers ate aboard the Titanic.

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Delicious artisanal whole smoked slab bacon on a cutting block.Foodio/Shutterstock

Bacon

Thank goodness, the pioneers had bacon. Cured meat was popular on the Oregon Trail as it lasts a long time. And more importantly, it’s delicious. They would cook bacon for breakfast, add it to bean-based dishes or fry it up for a mid-afternoon snack (some things never change).

Check out some of our best bacon recipes while your mouth is still watering.

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Yeast free, no knead, unleavened healthy organic rye wheat half sliced homemade bread loaf with sesame on a round desk at wooden tableProstock-studio/Shutterstock

Homemade Bread

Flour was essential, and pioneers brought along thousands of pounds of it for the journey. While driving, pioneers rarely took the time to bake, but during stopping points—days where people and animals would spend the day resting—they’d make bread.

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Thailand Rice in Wooden BowlAgri Food Supply/Shutterstock

Rice

An incredibly easy grain to store and cook, rice was popular among travelers on the trail. Pioneers could quickly whip up a large batch to feed their families, or they could take time to cook a more complex meal with meats, vegetables and spices found along the way.

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Coffee cup and coffee beans on tableportumen/Shutterstock

Coffee

Most of us can’t imagine leaving the house without our morning coffee—can you picture driving a wagon for 12 hours without it? Pioneers knew how essential this energy booster would be, so they packed tons of it. And—fun fact—they fed it to the animals, too.

Ever heard of Scandinavian coffee?

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Cranberry apple lattice pieTaste of Home

Pies

These are another rest-day special. Pioneers churned their own butter by attaching buckets of milk to the bottom of wagons and riding throughout the day—on rest days, they could use that butter in pie crusts to serve to fellow travelers. No two pies would be the same, as they’d use local fruits and berries to form the fillings.

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Healthy food: rice with red beans in a bowl close-up on the table. AS Food studio/Shutterstock

Beans and Rice

Dried beans were very common among travelers. An outdoor favorite, beans don’t require much work to cook. While pioneers enjoyed beans on their own for supper, they happily combined ’em with rice for a more filling dish.

Today, we have convenient canned beans. Here’s how to use them.

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Mix of dried and sun-dried fruits, dried fruits in a wooden box on a white wooden background.All for you friend/Shutterstock

Dried Fruit

Fresh fruit was lovely when travelers stumbled upon it, but would have been impossible to pack and carry. Dried fruit, however, is a perfect snack for the road. So perfect, in fact, that many road trippers and plane travelers still reach for this staple during present-day adventures.

Find the perfect snacks to bring to the airport.

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Cornmeal pancakesTaste of Home

Cornmeal Pancakes

Like flour, pioneers brought along tons of cornmeal for the trail. Cornmeal was easy to make and transport, so travelers got creative with how they used it in their meals. A favorite food on the Oregon Trail was cornmeal pancakes, which could easily be fried up over the campfire.

Watch us make cornmeal pancakes and see how it’s done.

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Freshly baked buttermilk southern biscuits or scones from scratch with rolling pin and basting brush on a baking sheet.Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock

Biscuits

These delicious breakfast favorites were made from both flour and cornmeal—depending on the day. Much like homemade bread, pioneers tended to whip up batches of biscuits during downtime, and enjoyed them with freshly whipped butter and crispy fried bacon.

These biscuit recipes go with everything.

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Maize, meal and ceramic bowl on wooden tableDimiSotirov/Shutterstock

Cornmeal Mush

This one may not sound too appealing, and to be quite honest, it probably wasn’t. It’s exactly what it sounds like—water mixed with cornmeal. It’s like oatmeal, but cold and moderately flavorless. Pioneers didn’t focus too much on flavors and cooking methods—they needed energy and sustenance.

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Slow cooker beef stewTaste of Home

Soup

Do you ever look around your kitchen, eyeball the leftover meats and vegetables from the week, and think, “This is perfect for a stew”? So did the pioneers. Soups and stews were a great way to serve a hot and tasty meal without too much effort. And thankfully, soups can be made from a wide variety of ingredients, making it the ideal trail dinner.

We love these hearty stew recipes.

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Homemade cheese whole grain squared crackers on slate trayzirawka/Shutterstock

Hardtack

This one sounds like something sticky, or perhaps like an exotic type of fish. But really, it’s just crackers. Hardtack is a crunchy biscuit made from flour, water and salt—so essentially bread without yeast. Pioneers would chomp on these crackers dry, or soak them in water for a bit to add moisture.

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Beef Jerky. Selective focus.alisafarov/Shutterstock

Dried Meat

Jerky is another road-trip staple that has remained popular over the years. The pioneers were big fans of dried meats, as it provided them that delicious protein without causing them to worry about spoiled food. Bison was a popular meat to preserve.

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Saddle of venison on wooden board with big knifeFirma V/Shutterstock

Fresh Game

When dried meat didn’t do the trick, pioneers hunted local game. Hunting didn’t happen often on the trail—usually, it would take place during those rest days or at specific points on the trail so as not to slow down the caravan. Meat from the hunt would be dried, used in stews or cooked over the fire.

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Raw salmon fillets pepper salt dill lemon and rosemary on wooden tableMarian Weyo/Shutterstock

Salmon

Many families packed fishing gear in their wagons so they could catch fish during the journey. While pioneers enjoyed freshly caught fish, they also traded Native Americans for fish and supplies. Salmon was a favorite among Oregon Trail travelers, and we can’t blame them. It’s one of our favorite dishes to make, too.

Kate Ellsworth
Kate is an avid baker, knitter and writer. Her passions include Star Wars, stress baking and—of course—chocolate. When she's not chasing her partner around the house asking him to try her latest recipe, Kate is probably knitting (another) sweater.