by Zoe Ann Stoltz, Montana Historical Society Reference Historian
We would be hard pressed to find a topic more iconic of Montana’s cattle history than the Chuck Wagon. Used during cattle drives as well as roundups, the camp cook and his provisioned chuck wagon were responsible for sustaining crews of hardworking cowboys for days, if not weeks. Camp cooks were only able to accomplish this task if they were adept at planning and packing the right provisions.
Cowboys of the 1860s and 1870s often carried their own food supplies, including biscuits or cornbread, salt, coffee, and salted meat. Due to the weight of skillets, they packed large tin cups to warm water, and used sticks to cook meat and bread over camp fires. Texas rancher and freighter, Charles Goodnight, reportedly designed the first “Chuck” wagon around 1866. Although Goodnight’s original design consisted of a basic compartmentalized wooden cupboard, it served as the inspiration for later designs and improvements.
|Mex John Making Pies, 1880-1900?, L.A. Huffman photo (Montana Historical Society Photo Archives 981-254)|
Larger drives often included "bed wagons" to carry additional gear, such as tents and portable cook stoves, which became necessities with the industry’s exposure to cooler northern climates.
By the 1880s, the crude “chuck” boxes had evolved into sophisticated centers for food storage and preparation. They provided accessible storage for frequently-used spices, utensils, crocks, and pots. The remainder of the wagon was organized into storage for bulk foods, water, kindling, skillets, pots, ropes, tool box, portable wood cook stoves, and so much more. When dropped open, the hinged end created a work table.
By 1883, Northern plains culture, evolving social conventions, and the development of better food preservation methods had redefined camp cooking. The 1892 journal left by XIT trail boss Ealey Moore recorded the supplies used for a crew of 10 men during the thirteen weeks it took to drive 2500 cattle from Channing, Texas to the confluence of the Yellowstone River and Cedar Creek north of Miles City. The inventory included both traditional as well as recent additions to the cowboy diet. The cook, Sam Williamson, ground and brewed almost 2 pounds of coffee beans a day, going through 3 coffee mills. Each day he cooked 10 pounds of bacon. During the 13 week drive, the crew consumed
- 40 pounds of rice
- 160 pounds of beans
- 9 gallons of sorghum
- almost 300 pounds of fruit, including dried currants and prunes as well as dried, fresh, and canned apples and peaches
- 1750 pounds of white flour
- 405 pounds of white sugar
|Cook and Pie Biter At Work, 1886?, L.A. Huffman photo (Montana Historical Society Photo Archives 98-253)|
Moore’s inventory confirms many of the reminiscences and recipes associated with cattle drives and roundups. Teddy Blue Abbott raved about the amount of “white bread” eaten by Montana cowboys. Early photographer L.A. Huffman listed “hot biscuits” and “pudding with raisins” as mainstays. Robert Rice, Powder River Country cowboy, remembered being well fed. The offerings included, “several kinds of dried fruit stewed, bacon, beans, fried potatoes (or spuds), canned vegetables, biscuits or bread, usually made of sour dough, beefsteak, . . . all washed down with strong black coffee . . .” Traditional recipes also reflect inventory ingredients. They included suet pudding with raisins (also called S.O.B. in a Sack), vinegar dumplings or pie, biscuits, bacon and beans, potatoes and pan gravy, and fruit pies.
Imagine carrying enough varied and nutritious foods and cooking supplies in the back of a wagon to feed a hungry cowboy crew for days!
Abbott, E.C. ("Teddy Blue") and Helena Huntington Smith. We Pointed Them North; Recollections of a Cowpuncher. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939.
Beach, Maude L., comp. and Robert L. Thaden, Jr.,ed. Faded Hoof Prints--Bygone Dreams: Stories from Montana’s Greatest Livestock Frontier, Powder River Country, from the Montana Writer’s Project, of the Work Projects Administration, from the 1860s to the 1920s. Broadus, MT: Powder River Historical Society, 1989.
Huffman, L.A. “Last Busting at Bow-Gun,” Montana, the Magazine of Western History 1 (Autumn 1956): 15.
Moore, Ealy ed. by J. Evetts Haley. A Log of the Montana Trail / as kept by Ealy Moore. Amarillo: Russell Stationary Co., 1932.
Price, B. Byron. National Cowboy Hall of Fame Chuck Wagon Cookbook: Authentic Recipes from the Ranch and Range. New York: Hearst Books, 1995.