How did the pioneers eat? (PART 2 of Pioneer Series)

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

Hi, everyone! Welcome back to the pioneer series! Happy to have you on the homestead with me. Today I want to cover how pioneers fed themselves! Yes, of course, they had a garden and they hunted, but I want to dive a little deeper into exactly what they were growing and how they grew it.

The pioneers had little resources outside of what they were taught by their parents, which, often times, was enough. Their parents would have taught them secrets passed down from generation to generation and centuries-old animal husbandry practices.

One thing I like to keep in mind, is that a pioneer traveling from Pennsylvania to Utah would have experienced two completely different climates, growing seasons and environments. They would have encountered animals while out hunting completely foreign to them, like buffalo and antelope. I can’t imagine seeing a buffalo in the wild for the first time in my life, with no precedent to what this strange animal is.

They brought their knowledge of gardening and raising animals with them, but many of them were very much on their own in a new environment. All of a sudden, there’s still snow on the ground when you’d normally be planting, the methods you use to hunt whitetail deer are proving hard against buffalo and it is much colder than you expected, with snow drifts piling against your door.

Yes, they grew gardens and hunted, but many people returning to the land today are facing many of the same challenges, only we at least still have stores to turn to. These people had very little resources when they reached their destination. Some may have brought seed, but it would have been essential to purchase seed on the trail, trade for it, or acquire some seed along the way, somehow.

I have no doubt many homesteaders would have relied heavily upon hunting and foraging their first season. Many brought along a milk cow, but the cow didn’t always make the journey, or was butchered for meat along the way. I imagine, some would have butchered the cow to survive the winter, but many were not fortunate enough to have one. Those that were starving would have eaten off their oxen, or horses, but at the end of the trail, little home-brought resources remained for many.


During this time, buffalo would have been wanted for hide, fat and of course, meat. The fat created a sweet-smelling candle, while hides could be used for additional wagon covering, or blanketing. Pioneers would have hunted deer, jack rabbits, antelope and fished when they could.

Depending on the pioneer’s needs, a few types of guns used for hunting would have been:

Slant-Breech Sharps Carbine- Several models of this gun were made, but would have been a popular buffalo hunting gun.

Double Barrel Shotgun- Thousands of models were made for an all around weapon for defense and hunting.

There were choices between thousands of guns, but these are some good examples of how pioneers would have hunted.

Here’s how pioneers made ammunition! (YouTube video)


When the pioneers arrived to their destination, the following spring they would have planted. This being new territory, with strange weather and growing conditions, a first year garden was essential to survival, but difficult to master that first year. With no stores to run to, failure was not an option.

Pioneers would not have been planting vegetables only, but flowers, medicinal herbs, seasonings, along with their family’s need of fruits and vegetables.


Women had domain over the garden, and typically planted nearby their own kitchens. This was convenient for them to grab whatever they needed, when they needed it. They surrounded their gardens with homemade fencing, until commercially-made fencing became available.

Manure was used as a fertilizer, when it was available. Most homesteaders had few horses and cows, so fish were used to supplement fertilizer demands.

Wells were used to water gardens, but a successful year depended largely on the competency of a homesteader. If a crop failed, they would have faced starvation, or largely depended on a friendly neighbor’s garden.

DIY Off-Grid Well

Preserving Food

Canning did not become wide spread until the early 1900’s, so homesteaders used alternative methods of preserving food through the winter. Pickling, drying and salting were the most common ways for homesteaders to preserve food.

DIY Pickling from an Old Fashioned recipe (YouTube video)

DIY Dehydrating Off-Grid (YouTube video)

Meat was salted and cold-smoked for hours to preserve.

DIY Meat Smoking for Preservation (YouTube video)

Thank you all for stopping by! Hope to see you all next week to continue THE PIONEER SERIES! Don’t forget, I’m posting on Wednesdays and Fridays until the end of all 12 posts!


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