Apr 19, 2014

Chuck Wagons, Trail Drives and American Traditions

Deadwood 1877
The American West is not just a major part of American history, but it remains a special culture that is admired in certain European countries, like in Denmark country & western music combined with its unique dancing style, or in Germany and Italy. Indeed, there are cowboy ranches still in existence in Italy.

The staple food for a hearty meal for mountain men, pioneers and cowboys had been stew.At the end of this article is a Pioneer Stew recipe.
Today's cowboys are no different. Trail cooks or chuck-wagon cooks know the value of stew – easy to make and anything available is used for ingredients. It is as popular as chili stew.
Grazing lands of the Old West still exist, thanks to ranches that have survived through the generations and runs from Texas through the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana on into Canada. It was first by mountain men who made peace with the indigenous first Americans whenever possible, followed by pioneers who either took up farming or built up ranches that would become legends. 
Some stopped before reaching the rocky mountains and the Cascade Mountain Range while others continued on to California, Oregon and what would be the state of Washington. Buffalo grass grew tall, still growing today and the bison herds would shake the ground as they ran across the plains after being spooked. Today the herds of bison have reached reasonable numbers after almost being wiped out by the buffalo hide market and irresponsible passengers shooting them from trains that crossed the West on into the Rockies and to the Pacific Coast – just for “sport”. It was a sad sight to see by Native Americans of the Plains who had lived with and lived off the Buffalo for many centuries before Europeans came to “tame the West”.
H.R. Locke photo 1890s
Cattle drives were a means to get the herd of cattle to market or the nearest depot where trains would take them to the stockyards of Chicago and Saint Louis, so easterners would have beef on their tables. Moving cattle for long distances, cowboys needed to have food other than jerky and other prepared foods in their saddle bags; and there is nothing like a hot freshly cooked meal to eat after a long day on the trail. Thus, the Chuck Wagon (sometimes spelled Chuckwagon) was invented and a good cook was in invaluable part of the cattle drive.
The most famous cattle drives occurred after the Civil War, beginning in 1866, where Longhorn cattle was driven to Louisiana before Texas became the Great Republic in 1836.
Before the Chuck Wagon, Cowboys had to rely upon eating whatever foods could be carried in their saddle bags – dried beef, corn fritters, and/or biscuits.
When Phillip Danforth Armour opened a meat packing plant in Chicago, Illinois, it became known as Armour and Company. The demand for beef was growing where eastern states were paying $40 a head, so there was a demand to move cattle from Texas and other western ranches.
In 1866, Charles Goodnight, a cattleman who knew the importance of his crew to have daily meals, bedrolls, extra gear and supplies on the long trail was important. Cowboys worked better and were happier with a full stomach and a decent night's sleep when the cattle drive would last two or more months moving cattle several miles per day. Some drives were recorded that lasted five months.
So, being the resourceful rancher he was, Goodnight took a surplus Army wagon made by Studebaker (yep, the same company that would later make cars) and added a large pantry box to the rear of the wagon with a hinged door that laid flat as a work table. Shelves and drawers were added to the inside of the pantry for cooking supplies and gear. The larger, heavy cast-iron pots and skillets with utensils would be stored in a box mounted below the pantry which was called the boot.
The Army wagon was used as a light supply wagon, but Goodnight redesigned it, inventing the first Chuck Wagon, although similar designs were used in the Civil War by both the North and South armies that featured what was called kitchen boxes.
Goodnight beefed up the wagon so it would be able to take the rugged trail drive. His creation became so popular that Studebaker created a special wagon model called Round-Up in 1880. Several other wagon manufacturing businesses built similar wagons and soon they could be found not just in the United States, but in Canada where cattle ranchers would use them in the same manner.
The cowboy wagon was named “Chuck” from 17th Century English meat merchants who referred to their lower-priced, lower grade beef as “Chuck”. By the 18th Century, “chuck” meant good hearty food.
Billy Hathorn photo, Wikipedia
To prepare for the long trail drive, the cowboy cook would be equipped with a myriad of supplies, which would not only be food and cooking gear, but Farrier and Blacksmith tools for horseshoeing and repairs. Sewing needles for mending clothing or saddles, first aid supplies and medicinal tonics. Bedrolls and rain slickers were also stored for the cow hands. There was a tool box and a smaller wooden box called the jockey box. One side of the wagon was equipped with a large wooden water barrel that carried a two-day supply, refilled whenever a water source was reached. There was a canvas cover called a Bonnet, much like the pioneer wagons called the Prairie Schooner. The canvas was treated with linseed oil to repel the rain. Wooden bows provided the necessary headroom in the wagon.
Mead Schaeffer 1946
Some outfits would add a large tent that extended from the back of the wagon, which covered the cook while preparing meals as well as long enough to cover the campfire to prevent rain from putting the cook fire out. Extra wooden poles were carried to use with the extended canvas shelter. Sometimes a single axle small trailer wagon was attached to the rear of the Chuck Wagon, which was called a pup to carry enough supplies for a large crew. The average crew on a trail drive would include the trail boss, cook and about 15 cowboys to work about 1,200 head of cattle with a string of 100 horses. Horses were changed three times per day on the average, because horses worked hard on the cattle drive.
There was a limitation in storing firewood because prairies had limited access to timber, but whenever possible the wood supply was supplemented by picking out dry logs and chopping them for the fires so as not to use up the stocked firewood. A canvas storage bag was carried below the center of the wagon to the back axle, called the possum belly, a hammock for storing firewood.
Spare wheels were rarely carried because of the weight, so repair parts were carried along with a jack for lifting the wagon to change or repair a wheel. There was also a tool called a Come-along, which was used to help pull wagons over high terrain, off a rock, or out of mud. The come-along was a block and tackle rig using hemp rope that worked between two pulley blocks.
Cowgirls are familiar sight in today's West [American Cowboy photo]
Wagons were heavy and were pulled by oxen, mules, or horses; most having pairs of two or four animals, depending if a pup wagon was towed behind. Most commonly a half mule and half horse breed called Mammoth Jacks were used because of their strength or draft horses that pulled mining wagons.
Cody Museum photo archive
Of course, the Chuck wagon was managed by the cook, who was often called by the nickname Cookie. He was responsible for all that was required of the camp site and because of his importance and responsibility, the cook was paid more than the wranglers, about $45 per month versus the $25 to $30 per month paid to cowpunchers.
Working and protecting the cattle on the drive was a 24-hour job and at night, cowboys would take turns at night watch. The Cookie was a jack-of-all-trades and was the barber, banker, doctor, dentist, letter writer for those cowhands who could not write, farrier, blacksmith and sometimes a referee when tension on the drive flared tempers between trail hands.
The cook was up before everyone else, about 3am and started with grinding coffee beans with the hand grinder mounted on the pantry box, starting a pot of coffee. Enamelware coffee pot was filled, 20 cups or more, with a handful of grounds to one cup of water. It was boiled until black, and called six shooter coffee – strong enough to float a pistol. When the coffee was ready to serve, the cook poured a cup of cool water into the pot which settled the grounds to the bottom. This was before the coffee strainer percolator pot was invented. Egg shells, when available, were added to the pot because it was believed that they tamed the bitter taste and help the grounds to settle to the bottom. Coffee was always available and anyone could stop by and pour a cup.
Before 1865, green coffee beans were brought on the trail, which meant it had to be roasted before grinding. The same process of roasting beans invented by Charles and John Arbuckle, grocers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that the patented process is still used today.
Cody Museum archive drawing
After the coffee was prepared, the cook pinched some sourdough from the crock in the pantry and blended flour and water to make biscuits. If fresh eggs were available and vegetables, breakfast would be the standard scrambled with veggies mix in. The normal meal was dried pork, beans, and bread with water or coffee to drink. Of course, beef was always available, though ranchers did not like butchering cattle on the trail; so no prime stock was selected. Normally it would be a steer that could not keep up with the herd or wild game hunted along the trail.
Plates were licked clean or cleaned up with biscuits so as not to waste the stew or chili juice and there was always a wash bowl available to put empty plates in. Cookie would clean up and pack the wagon in order to move forward to the next stop on the trail ahead of the cowpunchers and cattle. Most meals were cooked in a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven. Enamel-coated metal plates, bowls, cups and utensils were used. Most of the meals were made with flour, sugar, vinegar, salt, pepper, potatoes, onions, and beans. When can foods were introduced, this was added to the Chuck wagon food supply. Sometimes dried fruit or preserved fruit was brought along so Cookie could bake a treat in the Dutch oven. If Cookie found the time and wanted to make something special, peach cobbler or an apple pie was well received.
Gene Autry statue, Singing Cowboy, Wells Fargo Museum
There was nothing more satisfying for a cowboy to smell the aroma of smoke and hot meals after a long day on the trail. After the meal, they would sit with a cup of coffee and conversation; and if one among them was talented, some music from a guitar, harmonica, fiddle or banjo.
There were camp rules, unwritten laws that greenhorns had to learn. Most of the rules were common sense, while others was just polite etiquette. Such rules were: always ride your horse down wind of the wagon so no dust would kick up. No rough housing in camp. Never tie one's horse to the wagon.
When near a river or other such water source, cowboys took a bath to remove the crusted trail dust. Shaving gear and personal toilet supplies were kept at the wagon. After the clean up of the meal, Cookie prepared for the next day's breakfast, soaking beans in water for the next day, and turned in for much needed sleep. Lantern wicks were turned down and if it was not their turn to perform night watch, they burrowed themselves in their bedrolls. All would turn quiet and only the coyote or owl would be the sound of the star-filled night.
Al Martin Napoletano painting
Meat did not preserve well raw, so beef cuts were wrapped during the day and unwrapped at night to keep them cool.
Beef stew was a common dinner dish, most called son of a bitch stew, or son of a gun stew if there were children and ladies around.
As the railroad developed and expanded across the West to the Pacific Coast, cattle were transported in stock cars. At first the development lessened the length of the cattle drive, but eventually ended cattle drives altogether by the time the Industrial Age got into full swing.
Yet, the chuckwagon was still used during round up for large ranches and the chuckwagon transferred to logging camps. Today, chuckwagons can be found at dude ranches, where a regular citizen pays a fee and lives like a cowboy for a week or two.
The chuckwagon has become such a symbol of American heritage that Texas declared it the official State Vehicle. After 150 years, it is still used on ranches and the familiar bell or metal clanging coming from a triangle and steel bar by Cookie and the raised voice breaking the air with “Come and get it” matches the beauty of the American West.
Pioneer Stew

1-pound beef, venison, elk, or any game meat
4 cloves garlic, minced or mashed
2 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 teaspoon onion powder or chopped onion
4 small potatoes, cut into chunks
1 cup broccoli, chopped
½ cup kernel corn (optional)
1 cup red wine, Chianti or Merlot wine (trail cooks would have added whiskey)
1 cup beef broth
1/8 teaspoon Sage
1/8 teaspoon Thyme
1/8 teaspoon Rosemary
½ teaspoon Parsley
1/8 Basil
1 Bay leaf, chopped or 1/8 teaspoon Bay powder
1/8 teaspoon Sea Salt
½ teaspoon Black Pepper
1/8 teaspoon Cayenne or a few drops of Louisiana Sauce (traditional cowboy addition)
½ teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
1 cup mushrooms
Butter, olive oil, or Bacon fat to sauté fresh mushrooms and meat
Slow-Cook Crock Pot, large (trail cooks would use a cast-iron cooking pot
  1. Brown meat in two tablespoons of butter, bacon grease, or olive oil over a medium-high heat in a skillet. Sear/brown meat and add to crock pot. Using same skillet, sauté the mushrooms in 1 or 2 tablespoons of butter (or oil) until mushrooms turn darker in color, minute or two. Put in crock pot with meat.
  2. Add garlic, chopped bay leaf or powder, chopped celery, potatoes, broccoli, corn, and carrots. Mix.
  1. Add wine and stir. You can set the crock pot for low-heat slow cooking at this time.
  2. Add rest of seasoning ingredients to crock pot (sage, thyme, salt, rosemary, parsley, pepper, cayenne and Worcestershire) - mix.
  3. Add wine and mix. Cover crock pot and slow cook 4 to 6 hours, until meat is tender to your taste.
If you want a thicker stew, add flour or one package of brown gravy mix in the last thirty minutes of cooking and stir and stir again after fifteen minutes. Serve with hot biscuits or home-baked bread.
If you would like, you can mix beef, pork and game meat together for a meat variety stew. If you want to give the dinner a real trail-hand atmosphere, serve on metal enamelware plate.The traditional "son-of-a-bitch" stew was copied from the native on the Plains who used meat and organ parts from fresh game to make their stew. 

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