What they ate on the way to the California gold fields | Civil Eats

What they ate on the way to the California gold fields

When news of the discovery of gold in California spread around the world, thousands flocked to the West to try to strike it rich. In 1849 alone, 42,000 people traveled overland, 1,500 took a route across Panama, 6,000 Mexicans came north, 41,000 took the long sea route around Cape Horn. A sleepy little village in 1848, over the next few years San Francisco exploded in population and wealth, becoming the capital of the West.

There were three ways to get to California: overland on the California Trail across the plains, two mountain ranges and the Nevada desert; traveling by ship to Panama, trekking across the isthmus, then taking a ship north to San Francisco; or traveling by ship around the southern tip of South America. Each trip took many months and subjected the travelers to numerous hardships.

Joseph Conlin’s Bacon, Beans and Galantines: Food and Foodways on the Western Mining Frontier (University of Nevada Press, 1987) provides a fascinating and detailed look at the food eaten by emigrants and miners during the California Gold Rush and subsequent rushes of the 19th and early 20th century. Naturally, part of the book explores what people ate during their journey.

By Land

There were few places to resupply after starting the trip, so any traveling party would need to pack enough food for the entire journey of four or five months, plus some extra to avoid the fate of the Donner party of 1846. Fortunately, guidebooks written at the time provided potential travelers with descriptions of the journey and suggestions for provisions. Conlin presents work done by historian John Mack Faragher, who surveyed several guidebooks and compiled a composite list of the food supplies required for a four person party. Faragher estimates that a basic set of provisions consisted of the following:

600 pounds flour120 pounds biscuit
400 pounds bacon200 pounds lard
200 pounds dried beans120 pounds dried fruit
60 pounds coffee40 pounds salt
8 pounds black pepper8 pounds saleratus (a chemical evener)
4 pounds tea

Assuming a 125 day crossing, a daily ration would be something like 1.2 pounds of flour, 0.8 pounds of bacon, 0.4 pounds of lard, 0.4 pounds of dried beans, and a quarter pound of dried fruit, which Conlin estimates to be about 7,000 calories per day, of which 2,200 came from bacon and 1,600 from lard (Conlin reports 10,000 calories per day but his appendix appears to have some calculation errors that lead to a few thousand extra calories). Keep in mind, however, that lard was also used as axle grease and as fuel for lamps. For reference, the USDA estimates that the average American diet in 2004 consisted of 3,900 calories per day.

To add some variety to the rather monotonous diet, emigrants brought whatever preserved fruit, jams, and alcoholic drinks they could fit into the wagon, and along the way caught fish where they could and hunted for bison, prairie dog, squirrel and various other animals. From other travelers and Native Americans, they learned which berries and plants were edible. Although the diet is particularly lacking in vitamin C, Conlin argues that scurvy (a debilitating and often fatal disease caused by lack of vitamin C) was rare along the trail, probably because the dried fruit contained a small amount of the needed vitamin and because it takes many months of a low vitamin C diet to become scorbutic. Scurvy didn’t start to appear until a bit later, after the emigrants had been in the mines for a few months.

By Sea

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

The Panama route started with a four-week journey, during which the food received relatively good reviews in the diaries consulted by Conlin. A late December menu from the Tennessee was seven courses and included such delicacies as vegetable soup, pickled salmon, corned beef, pork, baked macaroni, roast lamb, sweet potatoes, and a variety of dessert pastries. The food on the trek across the isthmus did not receive many mentions in diaries, but also no mentions of hunger or shortages — but a bit of complaining about the prices. The Pacific part of the trip — typically a four week journey — generally featured good food and sufficient amounts of it.

Sailing around Cape Horn took more time than the other methods, about six months on average. Some groups organized themselves into joint stock corporations and obtained a ship, provisions and crew for the journey. Along with basic provisions like salt beef and ham, they carried goods that could be sold in California for profit. Others went to California as fare-paying passengers on transport ships that ran as profit-making enterprises and therefore had incentive to keep costs as low as possible. Consequently, the passengers often griped about the food. Conlin writes of companies playing a bait and switch game, advertising lavish meals and then delivering far less.

In the Gold Fields

The daily diet of a miner was not too different from that of an overland trekker — “…hard bread which we eat half-cooked, and salt pork, with occasionally a salmon which we purchase of the Indians. Vegetables are not to be procured,” is how one miner wrote home about his diet. However, not having to make camp every night and pack up every morning meant that small luxuries like slow-baked beans could be part of the diet.

Dried apples were particularly scorned. One poet of the mines put his feelings to verse:

I loathe! Abhor! Detest! Despise!
Abominate dried apple pies;
I like good bread, I like good meat;
Or anything that’s good to eat;
But of all the poor grub beneath the skies
The poorest is dried apple pies.
Give me toothache or sore eyes
In preference to such kind of pies.
(quotation is from p. 112 of Conlin)

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

In the towns and cities, the food situation rapidly improved as provisions flowed in from around the world as some people thought it easier to make money by “mining the miners” through sale of provisions instead of digging or panning in the backcountry. Ships brought such things as honey, vinegar, jams, fruit syrups, and plenty of Champagne, whiskey and brandy. Although there were periods of extraordinary prices, like eggs or oysters selling for a dollar apiece, or a woman selling the pears from her tree right after they blossomed and affixing a name tag to each one, sometimes the flood of new supplies was far greater than the need. Like mining, the provisions business was boom and bust.

When in town, miners had no problem spending extravagantly on their meals — weeks on a diet of bacon, beans and bread can do that to a person. And with many striking it rich, either in the mines, in the dry goods, or stock speculation, San Francisco and other mining towns had plenty of high-class restaurants ready to help lighten a customer’s wallet. This early desire for fine food set down a foundation that helped San Francisco evolve into one of the world’s great dining cities.

Marc Rumminger lives in Berkeley, California. On-line, he writes the Mental Masala blog and contributes to the The Ethicurean and Eat Local Challenge. Off-line, he writes the "Eating by the Numbers" column for Edible San Francisco. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from



Snow Geese fly over Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit: Yiming Chen, Getty Images)

Bird Flu May Be Driven By This Overlooked Factor

In this week’s Field Report, we examine what happens when industrial animal operations encroach on wild waterfowl habitat, plus a new bill that supports wildlife on private lands, and gear that could protect farmworkers from avian flu.


Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)

Across Farm Country, Fertilizer Pollution Impacts Not Just Health, but Water Costs, Too

An Illinois farmer fertilizes a field before planting. (Photo credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

New School Meal Standards Could Put More Local Food on Students’ Lunch Trays

A student at Ashford Elementary School in Houston fills up on local food in his school lunch. (USDA Photo by Lance Cheung)

Should Bioplastics Be Allowed in Organic Compost?

A curbside green waste bin in San Francisco, California, collects compostable plates and packaging for use in organic compost. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)