Shirleen Davies

Surviving the Frontier Winter

Pioneer families worked hard in the summer and fall to gather supplies of food. Then, they canned, smoked, and salted as much of it as they could and stored it away for winter. Survivor Pass, book five in the Redemption Mountain historical western romance series, provides a small glimpse of living in the harsh Montana winters.

How Did the Pioneers Prepare for Winter?

Families bought or bartered sacks of flour from a trading post or general store. Then they’d stack them on a low platform raised off the floor to keep the flour safe from moisture and pests. For added protection from vermin, they’d keep the flour in barrels, though they still stored them on a slightly elevated platform.

Grain Sacks

Dried beans were another staple typically stored for winter. They were an excellent source of protein, resistant to pests, and if stored in sacks and raised off the floor, they lasted for years. Many pioneers also stored away a few sacks of rice.

A small sack of salt was essential for seasoning and preserving perishable foods. Though sugar was expensive and used sparingly, pioneers usually kept a sugarloaf and then cut off pieces as needed with sugar nips or pincers.

Root vegetables like beets, carrots, potatoes, and turnips could last for months if stored in wooden bins or barrels in a cool root cellar. Shelves in the cellar were also used to store canned goods and other supplies.

Sugar Loaf

When families harvested fruit, corn, and green vegetables in the fall, they did a lot of canning. So, by winter their pantries were crammed with hundreds of jars of preserved food. The pioneers also air-dried fruits like apples by slicing them thinly, arranging them on a rack, and leaving them for several days to dry. They’d cover the racks with cheesecloth to keep bugs and birds away from the fruit, and they’d turn the slices over now and then, so they dry evenly. Once the moisture evaporated they’d store the slices in jars in the pantry or root cellar.

In fall, they’d slaughter older animals or pigs or extra bulls or any livestock that wasn’t worth the fodder and effort of keeping it alive through the winter. Then they processed the meat to preserve it for winter. Thin-sliced beef would be air dried into jerky. They’d rub beef and pork with warm salt then pack it in barrels, adding more salt to fill the gaps as they added layers of meat. Also, they might pack the meat in barrels then fill it up with heavily salted brine. Salted meat lasted for months, but they had to soak it before cooking to wash off the excess salt.

Example of Root Cellar

In the fall when they killed a pig, they butchered it into hams, shoulders, bacon, and more, then when it was cold, they rubbed warm salt into the meat until no moisture came out. Sometimes a little sugar was added. Then it was ready to be smoked. Pioneers who didn’t have their own smokehouse would trade a share of their meat with a neighbor with a smokehouse. They’d hang it up by cords from the ceiling and they used corncobs for fuel since they created a lot of smoke. The meat was ready after it was smoked for three days.

Dairy products are highly perishable but the pioneers were able to preserve hard cheese with paraffin wax. They melted the wax then brushed two coats of it onto the cheese. Cheese stored in wax could last for long periods if kept in a cool place.

Many folks stored eggs for the winter months. They’d melt lard or shortening and when it started to solidify they’d dip each egg into it and set them on a cloth to dry. They stored the eggs in a flat box, covered it with a towel, and put them in the cellar. The eggs lasted as long as six months.

Log Cabin with Thick Chinking

The thick walls of log cabins helped to insulate the pioneers against the cold, but they still had to fill the cracks between the logs with mud, rags or paper to keep the cold air out. Also, light was essential for winter since log cabins had few windows. Lanterns and candles were the main source of light on dark days and long winter nights. The pioneers made candles from beeswax during the summer. Although kerosene could be bought for lamp fuel, its smoky blackness — and expense — made it unpopular. Many pioneers used fat from their animals for soap and for lamps.

The families also made sure they had plenty of warm woolen clothes on hand. They also had to have a good stock of tonics and folk remedies in case anyone got sick in the winter. They couldn’t pop out to the doctor or the pharmacist.  

It was rough being stuck in a small cabin with who-knows-how-many family members. To prevent cabin fever they’d tell stories, recount the family history, sew clothes, play games like checkers or some families might be lucky enough to have had a musical instrument they’d use to entertain themselves.

How Did They Care For Horses or Cattle

Pioneer families needed plenty of bales of hay to see their horses and cattle through the cold winter months. Digesting roughage helps keep horses and cattle warm, so they needed lots of hay to munch on.

Herding Cattle during Frontier Storm

They also need fresh water. The families had to chop the water that would freeze into ice as much as twice a day, so the horses, cattle, goats, or sheep could drink.

Barns were good for keeping horses and cattle in during winter. The pioneers had to clean the barn out as often as they could before the freezing weather came, since it would get filled up with animal leavings fast.


Families that didn’t have a barn, and even those that did, could build wooden windbreaks into a winter corral. Keeping cattle in a pen during winter gave the pasture a chance to rest and wooden panels provided shelter for the cows. The corrals were near the cabin, so the families could check on them. The pioneers also unrolled hay for the cattle to lay on since it was warmer than lying directly on the wet, muddy, or snow-covered ground.

Worst Storms Between 1865 And 1886

1880 – 1881

Laura Ingles Wilder wrote about the Long Winter of 1880 to 1881 that she lived through with her family in the Dakotas. The first blizzard hit in October and lasted three days. The trains had stopped running by Christmas. It was reported that several pioneer families died from the cold, many who survived got by on turnips and wheat that they ground up in their coffee mills. By spring, men with picks had to dig down as much as twenty feet to the steel rails to get the snow out of the ground. And in spring there still wasn’t any food in town except a little wheat and the trains still weren’t running into town. A lot of the west was affected by that storm, it even caused a rare snowstorm in Brownsville Texas in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.


The disastrous winter of 1886 to 1887 had a big impact on the West and the cattle industry. The prairies were scorched from a hard summer, so the cattle were already starving when the first snow fell in early November. In January, a blizzard covered the Great Plains with 16 inches of snow and temperatures dropped to 50 below.

Great Cattle Die-Up 1886

With the summer they had, most farmers didn’t have much hay stored. The cows that didn’t freeze to death, died from starvation. The prairie was covered with carcasses of dead cattle that even clogged up rivers and spoiled the drinking water. Lots of ranchers were ruined. It was called “The Great Die-Up.”

Great Cattle Die-Up

After that, most ranchers abandoned the open range for smaller, fenced in grazing land. The winter of 1886-1887 heralded the beginning of the end of the Wild West.

Thank you for reading the post. I’d love to hear your insights or comments about 19th century frontier survival.

Survivor Pass, book five in the Redemption Mountain historical western romance series, is set in the Montana Territory during the winter of 1868.



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2 thoughts on “Surviving the Frontier Winter”

  1. It was interesting to read all of these facts. As for the root cellar – I well remember going down into the one at my Grandmother’s and getting some potatoes, etc. for her to use in making a meal. It was so cool in there (and dark – had to take a flashlight- as my Grandmother was Pilgrim Holiness and had no electricity/running water). It didn’t take us long to discover that it was a great place to tell “spooky

  2. Avatar
    Kim Hampton

    Very interesting read. I’ve always been interested in pioneer times and how people lived in those days. I just finished reading “Pioneer Girl” which was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original memories about her life, handwritten on tablets from the store. Her books were based on them, but there was sometimes additional information, and some things were very different in real life than in the books.

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