American Chuck Wagon

American Chuck Wagon

Chuckwagon History

There is a majestic beauty viewing over the massive grazing lands that run from Texas north through the Dakotas reaching into Canada. These plains expanded westward into Colorado meeting the rocky mountains and northwest to the Cascade Mountain Range. Scenic hills covered in tall Buffalo grass that whispers its historic past as one might sit silent reflecting upon the romantic images of the American West. As the wind blows through the wild blades of green stems that still flourish today, the sounds of the cowboys yawp can nearly be heard as they command their livestock on the long cattle-drives. Today, no other item best reflects the images of those cowboys who worked the cattle drives than the “Chuck Wagon”. 

The Chuck wagon was perhaps used in some form before its true invention. As many ranches moved cattle using a supply wagon during the drive. While the famous cattle drives begin in 1866 after the civil war, Longhorn cattle had been driven too Louisiana before Texas became the Great Republic in 1836.

Prior to the Chuckwagon, Cowboys often relied on eating what they carried in their saddle bags such as dried beef, corn fitters or biscuits. However, little demand for selling beef beyond locate markets did not come about until the end of the American civil war. Philip Danforth Armour opened a meat packing plant in Chicago, Illinois that became known as the Armour and Company. Additionally, demand for beef was growing throughout the eastern states which brought sells at $40 a head and the demand to move cattle from Texas.

1866, cattleman Charles Goodnight knowing the importance of logistics for his crew to drive cattle required daily meals, bedrolls, extra gear and supplies. A humble Cowboy could work harder on a full stomach and a good night sleep. The trail would often last two or more months moving cattle several miles each day. Some drives lasting up to five months. Goodnight took a surplus Army Wagon made by Studebaker an added a large Pantry box to the wagon rear with a hinged door that laid flat to create a work table. The cook would then have everything he needed at arms length to prepare food. Shelves and drawers were added to the inside of the pantry to carry supplies and cooking gear. The larger pots, cast iron skillets and utensils would be carried in a box mounted below the pantry called the boot. The Army wagon merely was a light supply wagon of that period with Goodnight’s added design creating the invention of the CHUCK WAGON. During the Civil war, kitchen boxes were used by both the Armies of the North and South. They were set up with legs providing a work table and storage which may have lead to influenced the Goodnight design. Goodnight also called for heavier running gear to stand up to rugged country side. This design became so popular that Studebaker created a model called the “Round – Up” wagon by 1880. Several other wagon manufacturing businesses built similar type wagons where as the chuck wagons found there way operating in the United States and Canada.



The name “Chuck” derived from 17th Century England as meat merchants who referred to their lower priced goods as “Chuck”. By the 18th Century, the term "chuck" was communicated towards good hearty food. It is of no wonder to take the name chuck for Goodnight’s simple creativity that revolutionized the cattle industry.

The Chuckwagon would be equipped with the wide array of supplies needed to make the journey. While mostly thought of is the food and cooking gear, the supplies would include Farrier and Blacksmith tools for horseshoeing or making repairs to the wagon and horse tack. Sewing needles for mending clothing or saddles, first aid and alcohol tonics used for medicinal purposes. Bedrolls and rain slickers for the working cow hands along with the crew’s personal items. One side would be equipped with a large wooden water barrel to carry a two day supply for the working crew. The other side often had a tool box, as well a smaller attached wooden box in front called the jockey box. Additionally, the wagon would have a canvas cover called a Bonnet that had been treated in linseed oil to repel rain keeping items in the wagon dry. To allow headroom in the wagon, bows where added raising the canvas and providing securing points. Other wagon types used covers too such as the Conestogo for freight and the Prairie Schooner commonly used to move early pioneers across the United States as those who followed the Oregon Trail. Chuck wagons normally would be built from standard farm supply or feed wagon designs merely outfitted with the pantry box known as the “Chuck box” and water barrel.

Some outfits would supply large tenting that could be extended from the wagon providing cover over the cooking area and gathering of the cowboys around the fire. Additional wood poles would be carried to prop the ends up erecting the canopy shelter. Furthermore, an additional single axle wagon could be trailer to the chuck wagon called a “pup” or “hoodlum” for larger crews requiring larger supplies. The average crew for a trail drive would include the trail boss, the cook about 15 hands to work the cattle of about 1,200 head along with 100 horses. The horses were changed out often sometimes three times in a day while working the cattle.

Wood was a necessity for the daily cooking. With limited storage, the cow hands working the drive would pick dried logs and chop them as needed. A storage area called the possum belly was attached below the center of the wagon to the back axle. Thou sometimes made from canvas, it often was made from the hide of a buffalo or steer that could store extra fire wood much like a hammock. Dried Buffalo chips along the trail would also be used to burn on camp fires when wood was not readily available. To make minor repairs to a wagon, axes and wood saws of various types would be carried along with wood shaving knives. Should a wheel break, spares rarely were carried and the outfit would have to be innovated. A jack was always among the tools used for lifting one side of the wagon should a wheel become damage. Additionally, another tool known as a “Come-along” was taken to assist pulling wagons over high terrain, off a rock or out from mud should it become stuck. The come-along was a block and tackle rig using hemp rope that worked between two pulley blocks.

Wagons could be pulled using oxen, mules or horses. Most wagon teams would be worked as paired units using two or four animals. This varied more over by the freight load and need for extra weight-hauling capacity. Mammoth Jacks (half donkey and half horse breed) were frequently used because of their strength hauling the wagon.

The chuck wagon would be managed by the cook whom frequently received the nickname “cookie”. He performed all the needs for the camp sites along the cattle drives. Additionally, he would be second in charge of the outfit to the trail boss. Due to his importance and position, the cook received pay around $45 per month while the wranglers and cow punchers received $25 to 30 dollars each month on a trail drive. They earn even much less working the many ranches. The Cowboys worked in shifts to watch and protect the cattle 24 hours a day. The herd would be moved in the daytime. At night cowboys watched over the cattle to prevent stampedes and deter rustling. Shifts lasted about four hours at night rotating to allow as much sleep before daylight operations. Although the cook never watched the cattle at night as he had other duties calling on a long day. Besides cooking, he was making repairs to equipment or nursing sick workers whom might have taken ill during the long drives. Cookie also was expected to act as Barber, Banker, Doctor, Dentist, letter writer and sometimes referee in camp should tensions flair amongst the hired hands. His normal day started hours before others. Getting up around three in the morning he started by grinding roasted coffee beans to make his blend of coffee. The hand grinder normally would be mounted to the outside of the pantry box. Then pinching some sourdough from the crock stored in the pantry as he blended this with more flour and water to make a large serving of biscuits. Fresh eggs or vegetables sometimes would be available as the trail boss may authorize trading a steer with some farmer along the trail drive. Though the daily norm was dried pork, beans and bread with the choice of water or coffee to drink. Beef was always readily available, thou ranchers did not care much for feeding their crew money on the hoof. The trail boss would be selective to what cattle might be cut from the herd and never was the prime stock selected. Normally it might be a steer that had difficulty staying up with the herd or some wild game.

Coffee was brewed throwing in a handful of grounds to one cup of water. The enamelware coffee pot was large holding at least 20 or more cups. The coffee was always boiling hot and black. This coffee was known as “Six shooter” coffee strong enough to float a six gun pistol. When ready to serve, the cook poured a cup of cool water into the pot to settle the grounds to the bottom. Egg shell also could be added to the pot as many believe this would abet any bitter taste though it truly was to assist the grounds to sink to the bottom of the pot as does the effect of cold water. The coffee was always available and anyone free to pour them self a cup. Early trail drives carried green coffee beans which required roasting before grinding. In 1865, two brothers, Charles and John Arbuckle, who were grocers in Pittsburgh, Pa. patented a process for roasting coffee beans. They roasted beans with a mix of egg white and sugar to preserve freshness. Pre Roasted coffee was so successful that this process is still used today. While pouring a cup, someone might yell, ”Man at the Pot” indicating you need to pour everyone in desire a fresh cup.

Plates were licked clean and the cook always had a wash bowl set out to put your empty plate in it after you finished your meal. Cookie’s job after having breakfast made for the crew would be cleaning up and packing the wagon to move forward finding the next stop along the trail drive. Then setting up camp and having another hot meal ready for dinner. Cookie’s held many responsibilities yet none as important as cooking a hearty meal. Most meals were cooked using cast iron skillets or Dutch ovens. Enamel wear was used mostly for plates, bowls, cups and utensils. Flour, sugar, vinegar, salt, pepper, potatoes, onions and beans made up most of the daily meals. Although can food items slowly found their way on the later trails drives as can foods were just being introduced and pricey. Sometimes, dried fruit or preserved fruits may make up some of Cookie’s pantry.

The Chuck Wagon was home on the range for the hands. Sometimes the only home these hard working men ever really knew. Besides receiving hot meals smelling the aroma of smoke from the camp fire as it cooked down some tough beef, the rich hot coffee, and the fresh air of outdoors, the camp was where you socialized sharing stories of the day or one from the past. Surely some tall tales likely were spoken and perhaps one might be blessed with some natural musical talent. Nevertheless, the camp always had rules to follow and only a greenhorn might make error of breaking a camps unwritten law. Some things were merely common sense, other perhaps polite etiquette. Rules, like always ride your horse down wind of the wagon as not to kick up dust. No horse playing “being reckless” in the camp. Never tie any horse to the wagon. Cookie maintained the order. When time permit and if Cookie was feeling kind, he might bake deserts like peach cobbler or an apple pie. While near a river bank the hands took time for a bath removing the dirt from the dusty trail. Although, shaving gear and personal toilets were kept at the wagon. Cookie finished his day cleaning up and being ready to start out his morning repeating his normal routine. Lantern wicks turned out and cowboys climbed into their bed rolls. Only the sounds of perhaps a coyote in the hills, or an owl might sing into the night under the starlit sky.

Thou Cookie would always have a pot of fresh beans soaking in a pan of water making ready for cooking the next day. Meat did not preserve well as there was no refrigeration. Beef cuts would be wrapped during the day and unwrapped to cool during the night air. Beef stew was one of the most common served dinners known as Son of a bitch stew. Although, referred to as son of a gun stew and other names when around soft ears; young folks or ladies.

The trail drive attracted men from all walks of life. Some restless after the civil war, others looking for a new start in life. Since early cattle development of the west began under the Spanish control Mexico during the 1700’s, many cowboys working the trail drives were Mexican-Indian decent known as vaqueros. Black Americans were also drawn to cowboy life. There was not quite as much discrimination in the west as in other areas of American society at the time. Regardless of ethnicity, most cowboys came from lower social classes and the pay was poor.

As the railroad developed, cattle soon were transported in Stock Cars ending the era of the long cattle drives. Ranchers would not have to move their herds hundreds of miles to ship. Nevertheless, the chuck wagon continued to be useful during round up for large ranches as they made ready their cattle for market. The chuck wagon even made its way in use with logging camps. Thou present day the chuck wagon may appear more novelty feeding guest or holding large barbecue events at Ranches, Rodeos and trail ride’s, it still brings a warm hearty feeling to any crowd as they dine savoring sourdough biscuits’. Today, the Chuck Wagon so historically represents the era of the trail drives and the Cowboys whom worked the cattle that it was Honor as the Texas State Vehicle and continues operations on many ranches nearly 150 years after its invention. It is no surprise to view a chuck wagon and immediately think of those nearly forgotten trails and the cowboys who drove over 10 million head of cattle to market. Trails of majestic beauty where you can nearly hear the wind echo a ringing camp bell and Cookie calling out, “Come and get it. Get it while its hot”.                

Story by R. Edison

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3 comments:

  1. Chuck Wagon History and Cooking......Your excellent guidelines will be of great help to many. Nice post. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks!

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  2. Brilliant write up, Thank you, My Mother and I had got to talking about Chuckwagon food and I needed some answers and here they were and so much more, again, well done :)
    Scott
    Apple Valley Ca.

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    1. Scott, Glad you enjoyed the web site and found some of the answers you were looking for. Another great place sharing the legacy of the chuck wagon and many great recipes is the CHUCKWAGON COOKING Group on facebook. Come check it out. https://www.facebook.com/groups/202192249819741/

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