Settlers were the epitome of self-sufficiency, at least when they first arrived until a community was established. Therefore what they ate was very much dependent on the locality and the season, their ingenuity, and their farming efforts.

Certain staples came with them on the journey and would be replenished as soon as possible. These included bread flour, dried beans, coffee, sugar, molasses, cornbread, and corn for the horses.

The man or men of the family would probably hunt along the way, using their guns. Once they were settled, they could lay traps as well – different sorts for the different sizes and habits of game. In wooded country, there were bears, deer, squirrels and wild turkeys to be had, while on the open prairies it was mostly prairie hens and jack rabbits.

Cows provided milk and meat to a surprisingly varied diet
Cows provided milk and meat to a surprisingly varied diet

Every part of an animal was used. The skin was tanned to use as a rug, or might become a warm winter coat with the fur facing inwards. Even the guts were buried in the ground to act as fertiliser for fruit trees. A successful hunt resulted in a feast as well as meat to salt and cure in the smokehouse. There might even be enough for bartering to obtain something else.

Nature gave the pioneer families other things besides meat. They gathered berries and nuts of various kinds, and they cooked wild greens, becoming more adventurous if Native Americans showed them what they themselves ate. If they found a colony of wild bees, they could smoke them out and feast on honey, which would find its way into cakes and give them an extra treat.

The crops which the settlers grew were vital for their livelihood, as evidenced by the difficulty they had recovering from locust infestations, drought and other natural disasters. They grew potatoes, corn, rye, beans, pumpkins and squash, the latter three sometimes under the tutelage of indigenous inhabitants. They traded in order to get a plough, which if they were lucky was the new style of plough with steel blades, able to rip through the prairie sod and make their lives easier. The children as well as the women helped with the sowing or planting and then with the harvest.

Apart from the field crops, there was almost always a vegetable garden which usually fell to the women and girls to maintain. They might have peas, turnips (for their greens as well as their roots), carrots, onions, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, water melon, parsley and various herbs. The vegetable garden would be close to the house so they could pop out for the odd thing to boost a stew, soup, roast or fried dish.

Chickens provided eggs and meat as well as an alarm clock!
Chickens provided eggs and meat as well as an alarm clock!

Hens provided an important element in the diet, both in the form of eggs and the odd slaughtered bird. Also a cow for its milk and the possibility of butter, cheese and buttermilk.

Dairy products would have been important to boost the calcium intake of women whose lives and lifestyle put them in danger of osteoporosis. Custom dictated the wearing of long sleeves and bonnets when out-of-doors in order to keep a pale complexion, which meant that they rarely exposed their skin to sunlight and as a consequence might well suffer from a shortage of Vitamin D – the main deficiency responsible for osteoporosis along with that of calcium. A self-sacrificial attitude would not have helped these women either, but they often gave preferential treatment to their husband and children and didn’t look after themselves properly.

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