A Little History on the Chuck Wagon

Maybe it’s all the goofiness that’s going on in the world today, but lately I find I’ve been feeling drawn to historic living topics. Today I encountered a blurb about a chuck wagon school and it set me off on a search to learn about and understand what life for a trail drive cook was like. This is not because I want to become a “Cookie”, but just because it’s fascinating to see how people coped with having to do everyday things without the conveniences we enjoy today.

The name “chuck wagon” was derived from 17th Century England meat merchants who referred to their lower priced goods as “Chuck”. By the 18th Century, the term “chuck” was taken to mean basic but hearty food.[1]

chuck wagon
Picture courtesy of Maroon Weekly

The chuck wagon became an indispensable tool on the cattle drives that took place between the end of the U.S. civil war in the 1860’s and the 1890s, when railroads began being built. During this time a massive expansion of settlement moved westward across the North American continent. This expansion created a large market for beef. Beef that existed, on the hoof, in the southwest; primarily in Texas.

To meet this need, dozens of cattle drive operations were moving millions of cattle from Texas to markets in the mid-west. This resulted in a shortage of cowboys and there was tremendous competition in recruiting good trail hands.

To gain the recruiting advantage, Civil War veteran, Texas rancher, and co-founder of the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail, Colonel Charles Goodnight decided to improve the quality of meals served along the trail. What he needed was a good cook and a mobile kitchen.

In 1866, Goodnight purchased an army surplus Studebaker wagon for use on the trail drive. The Studebaker proved itself sturdy enough to withstand trail drives that could last up to five months. Goodnight designed and added a chuck box and a boot to the rear of his wagon; this innovation became the prototype for all future chuck wagons. The wagon’s box (between driver’s seat and chuck box) was used to carry the cowboys’ bedrolls, guns, personal effects, bulk food supplies, feed for the horses, and other supplies.[2]

During the long trail drives, a 12-man crew could manage a herd of 2,000 to 3,000 head. The trail boss was the ultimate authority on the drive and was paid $100 to $125 a month. Of the rest of the crew, the cook was the most important, earning about $60 per month.[3] The chuck wagon was the headquarters and social center of every cattle outfit on the range. The cowboys ate their meals around it and it was a natural gathering place at the end of the day for exchanging “windies” (or tall tales), listening to music (if there happened to be a musician in the group), or just recounting the experiences of the day.

Among the trail hands, the chuck wagon cook was the king. He ruled the wagon with an absolute hand. Because the morale of the men and the smooth functioning of the camp depended largely upon him, the cook’s authority was unquestioned. Even the trail boss walked softly in the vicinity of the chuck wagon cook. The quality of food they would receive in the days to come depended largely on his mood!

The nature of a trail cook’s job required that he get up around 3:00 AM to have a hot breakfast ready for the cowhands.  When the outfit was on the move, he had to drive ahead to be at the next appointed camp, set up, and have a hot meal ready to serve on time.

Fuel (for the fire) and water were often in short supply. He had to battle wind, rain, sand, mud, insects, and even rattlesnakes while preparing his meals. In addition to providing food, Cookie was also barber, doctor, banker, and sometimes mediator in disturbances among the cowboys.

A chuck wagon usually included an awning stretched from the rear of the wagon to give the cook some protection from rain and sun while he worked his magic. The food tended to be simple but hearty: a meat dish (such as stew), potatoes or beans, bread or biscuits and a desert of some type such as cobbler or pie. As a general rule, the larger the crew he had to feed, the simpler the food was!

The trail cook’s greatest treasure was his selection of spices. Without those, he could not make tasty food from simple ingredients and he sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to keep them safe.

In 1997, the American Chuck Wagon Association was started. Members participate in Cook off competitions, demonstrations, catering, charity events, school visits and many other activities. Today there are members in 31 states, Canada, Germany and France with over 146 wagons registered with the association.

The Chuck Wagon was adopted as the Texas state vehicle on May 27, 2005.

The videos below give some insight into the way a chuck wagon was used and how a trail cook lived. Enjoy!

Around the Chuck Wagon

Authentic Chuck Wagon Tour

I hope you’re enjoyed this look back on the days of cattle drives and trail cooks.