Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

Life On The Trail

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Buffalo Chips and Pioneers

Many of the pioneer companies were very dependent on an important buffalo by-product, the "buffalo chips" - dried excrement, which were gathered for cooking fires when wood was scarce. These are similar to what we'd call "cow pies" today. John Nielsen recorded in 1856:

"Our journey took us along the Platte River. There was plenty of grass and, to the best of my recollections, a little wood. Where we could not find wood we burned buffalo chips. As soon as the wagons began to make the circle for camp, the race was on. Many times, just as I stooped to pick up a nice, big chip, I was pushed over and would have to go further on." (_Our Pioneer Heritage_, 7:312)

Frederick Piercy, a young Englishman who was not a member of the Church but traveled with the Saints to visit relatives in Salt Lake City, recorded:

"There were plenty of buffalo chips there [North Bluff Creek]. They are composed of grass, masticated and digested, and dried in the sun. It is a common joke on the Plains that a steak cooked on these chips requires no pepper. It is marvellous the wonders time and circumstances work. Young ladies who in the commencement of the journey would hardly look at a chip, were now seen coming into the camp with as many as they could carry. They burn fiercely and cook quite as well as wood." (Piercy, _Route from Liverpool to Great Salt Lake Valley_ (Harvard, 1962), p. 116)

Another pioneer recorded a description of the frustration often encountered by the pioneers:

"Crossing the prairie there was no fuel other than buffalo chips with which to cook our little meals of bread and meat. Think of cooking your supper, after a long day's walk, over a fire of "chips" with the wind blowing over the great plains, and sometimes rain putting out the fire, and going to bed without any supper, getting up in the morning at daylight to find everything soaking wet and nothing to burn to cook your breakfast with, hooking up the oxen and traveling until noon, trying to find some dry "chips" to make a fire to cook dinner! Such was our life on the plains before we reached the mountain country where we procured sticks to use with the 'chips.'" (_Our Pioneer Heritage_, 8:36)

The women and girls often bore the task of collecting the "chips", using their aprons to carry them. One mother's tender nature, however, resisted the idea:

"To have her little children walking all those long, weary miles, though she and the two babies were in the wagon; to see her little girls carrying the repugnant 'buffalo chips' in their aprons to feed fires while they did the cooking at camp, was repulsive to her sensitive nature." (_Our Pioneer Heritage_, 12:195)

Rachel Simmons recorded an experience in looking for "chips":

"On another occasion while I was gathering buffalo chips, I found they were very thick in a certain place close to the road, which was not often the case, as there were so many ahead of us. I thought I was in luck, but I soon found out the cause. I was picking up as fast as I could when all at once I heard the rattle of a snake. I looked to see in what direction it was and there he was in a hole almost at my feet. I did not stop for any more chips at that time. That was the second escape I had of being bitten by a rattlesnake. 'Those that were born to be King will never be drowned,' is an old saying, but I acknowledge the hand of the Lord in it." (At Winter Quarters, Rachel Simmons, Journal in _Heart Throbs_ 11:160)

Source: Church History Stories Collection Collection by Dave Kenison - a member of the LDS church. Many of the stories detail pioneer experiences through the eyes of members of the Mormon church.