Overland Trail

The overloading of wagons and pack animals prior to Overland Trail journeys resulted in the abandonment of worldly possessions along the trail. An overload of supplies, especially tools and agricultural implements, rapidly exhausted the irreplaceable mules and oxen and threatened breakdown in the wilderness. The standard solution was to leave things behind. This jettisoning process began in a mild way a few miles out of Independence or St. Joe. It began in a serious way at Fort Kearny and continued to its climax at Fort Laramie.

Overland journals, quoted in Merrill Mattes’s Great Platte River Road, suggest the variety of items abandoned along the trail:

“Bacon, salt, iron nails, boxes, barrels, wagon bodies . . . clothes, tobacco, trunks . . . mattresses, quilts, beef, bacon, rice, augurs, handsaws, planes, shoes, hats, thread, spools, soap, scythes . . . a splendid set of blacksmith tools.-Dr. T., 1849

“Chains, ropes, saddles, crow-bars, and a complete outfit for a sawmill . . . mining augur, sheet iron, gold-washers.-R. C. Shaw, 1849

“We passed eleven wagons that had been broken up, the spokes of the wheels taken to make pack-saddles, and the rest burned or otherwise destroyed. The road has been strewn with articles . . . thrown away. Bar-iron and steel, large blacksmith’s anvils and bellows, crow-bars, drills, augurs, gold-washers, chisels, axes, lead, trunks, spades, ploughs, large grindstones, baking-ovens, cooking-stoves without number, kegs, barrels, harness, clothing, bacon, and beans. . . . The carcasses of eight oxen, lying in one heap by the roadside this morning, explained a part of the trouble.-Stansbury, 1849”

Emigrant diaries also describe mounds of property left along the trail with a posted sign, “Help Yourself.” Some, however, destroyed goods they couldn’t use themselves. Equipment of well-organized companies was slimmed down to start with, or resolutions were passed enroute to reduce the poundage per person. Clearly, those emigrants who carried the lightest load were the most likely to reach their destinations.

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