Pale Horse Revelations #13: The Chuckwagon
Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations where we explore the historical elements of my debut novel "Behold a Pale Horse: The Legend of the Pale Rider Part I." In this edition we'll learn a little more about the chuckwagon. While the chuckwagon is relegated to the background of my story, it is, nonetheless, a key element. And its historical importance cannot be ignored. So, what was the chuckwagon and why was it so important? Let's find out together.
The chuckwagon was essentially a field kitchen in the form of a covered wagon. It was used for storing and transporting food and cooking equipment across the plains of the United States and Canada. The term comes from the word "chuck" which was a slang term for food. Chuckwagons were a key component of wagon trains bearing settlers into the frontier as well as the cattle drives that became an iconic element of the Old West.
A Texas rancher by the name of Charles Goodnight, sometimes referred to as the "father of the Texas panhandle," is generally recognized as the inventor of the chuckwagon. He introduced the concept in 1866. It was his answer to the challenge of getting herds of cattle to railheads thousands of miles away so they could be sold at market. The distance that the herds had to travel required cowboys to spend months on the trail. The challenge was figuring out a way to feed the men on their long journey. Charles Goodnight's answer was the chuckwagon.
Goodnight repurposed a Studebaker manufactured covered wagon to suit the needs of the cowboys. The chuck box he added to the back of the wagon included drawers and shelves for storage. The hinged lid provided a flat work surface. Goodnight also added a water barrel. Canvass was hung underneath the wagon to carry firewood. A Wagon box was used to store cooking supplies as well as the cowboys' personal items.
Chuckwagon food consisted of easily preserved items such as beans, salted meats, coffee, and sourdough biscuits. Additional food items would be gathered along the way whenever possible. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs were practically unheard of on the trail. Fresh meat was exceedingly rare. The only time the cowboys got a taste of this treat was when an animal was injured along the way and had to be killed. Typically, the meat featured in their meals consisted of cloth wrapped bacon, salted pork, and dried, salted, or smoked beef.
In a previous post about cattle drives I mentioned that the cook, or cookie, was traditionally a highly respected member of the crew. As it turns out, that is a bit of an understatement. Usually, the cook was the second highest ranking man on the drive, second only to the trail boss himself. In addition to serving as quartermaster most cooks could provide basic medical treatments. Many also served as barbers, dentists, and bankers during the long drive.
That brings us to the end of our brief exploration of the chuckwagon. It should be rather obvious why the chuckwagon was so important. It also sheds new light on the role of the cook. Without the food carried on the wagon and the services provided by the cook the cattle drives that are such a key component of Old West history simply would not have been possible.
As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting background information that may enhance your reading experience while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.
Don't forget - I would love to hear from you, my readers, about topics related to the Old West that you would like to know more about. All you need to do is fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page (www.bmiltonhyde.com) and indicate your suggested topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.
Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.