A Tale: Breakfast on a Cold Wilderness Morning — Ernest Ingersoll, c. 1880

Because I write about travel to Yellowstone Park in the Nineteenth Century, I’m always on the lookout for travelers’ accounts of their trips there. I have no problem finding descriptions of unusual sights like geysers and canyons or dramatic events like bear hunting and winter storms. But few writers tell about mundane activities like pitching tents or cooking meals. Ernest Ingersoll is one of the few who does.

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 2.16.42 PMIngersoll was a naturalist and journalist who signed on as a zoologist with expeditions led by the famous Yellowstone explorer Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Apparently Ingersoll was not a member of Hayden’s Yellowstone expeditions in 1871 and 72, but he knew what life must have been like for the people who were. Here’s Ingersoll’s description of camp life and having breakfast on a frigid morning.


Dr. Hayden’s survey was divided into several working divisions of five to seven persons, each of which had a cook, and spent the season in a field of work by itself. Whether or not one thinks these cooks had a hard time of it depends on one’s point of view. It seems to me they had, because they had to rise at such an unearthly hour in the morning; but, on the other hand, they were not obliged to climb snowy and backbreaking peaks, nor to half freeze on their gale-swept summits in” taking observations,” nor to chase a lot of frantic mules and horses that chose to be ugly about being caught up. However, upon having a fairly satisfactory cook depends a large portion of your good time.

The camp cook presents himself in various characters. There are not many colored men in the West in this capacity, and few Frenchmen; but many Americans have picked up the necessary knowledge by hard experience, not one of whom, perhaps, regards it as a ” profession,” or anything better than a make-shift. It is considered by the ordinary mountaineer as a rather inferior occupation, and, as a rule, it falls to the lot of inferior men, who have tried and failed in more energetic, muscular and profitable pursuits. Of course there are exceptions, but, as a rule, they are men who are not even up to the level of picturesque interest, and are worthy of small regard from the observer, unless he is hungry. We are hungry, therefore we pursue the subject.

Roads being non-existent in the days whereof I am speaking—to a great extent it is still so—and it often being necessary to go boldly across the country without any regard for even Indian trails, the cuisine, like everything else, had to accommodate itself to the backs of the sturdy mules, on whose steady endurance depends nearly all hopes of success. The conditions to be met by kitchen and larder are, ability to be stowed together in packages of small size, convenient shape, and sufficient strength to withstand, without injury, the severest strain of the lash-ropes, and the forty or more accidents liable to happen in the course of a thousand miles of rough mountain travel.

The only sort of package that will meet these requirements is the bag. When it is full it is of that elongated and rounded shape which will lie well in the burden. As fast as it is emptied space is utilized and the weight remains manageable. In bags, then, are packed all the raw material except the few condiments, in bottles and flasks, for which, with other fragile things, a pair of paniers is provided. Even the few articles of iron-ware permitted to the camp cook are tied up in a gunny-sack.

Concerning the preparation of breakfast, I must confess almost entire ignorance. My first intimation of the meal was usually a rough shake, with a loud “Breakfast is just ready, sir. Sorry, sir, but you must get up.”

Oh, those mornings! If Ben Franklin and all the rest who so fluently advise early rising could have spent a few nights under the frosty stars of the high Rockies, they would have modified their views as to the loveliness of dawn. (Sunset glories for me!) The snow, or the hoarfrost, is thick on the grass beside your couch, and possibly your clothes, carefully tucked under the flap of your canvas coverlid last night, have been elbowed outside and are covered with as much rime as the beard of St Nicholas, while your boots are as stiff as iron, and twice as cold.

Having groaned your way into them, you hobble to the neighboring stream, duck your head in icy water, and wipe your face on a frozen towel. Usually, you must next seize a rope that has been trailing all night through the frosty grass and painfully tie up your horse, which has just been brought in, so that by the time you do kick a boulder loose and lug it up to the table for your breakfast-chair, your teeth chatter until you can hardly take a voluntary bite, and your fingers are too numb to pass the bacon to the next invalid.

This frigid condition of things was not invariable, but it was in this way that most of our breakfasts were eaten among the peaks. The matutinal meal over, we felt more limber. Overcoats were thrown aside, and every one hastened to roll up his bedding, strike the tents—if any had been erected—and help saddle and pack the mules. By the time this was accomplished the cook had washed his dishes, strapped up his “munitions of peace,” and announced that he was ready for the kitchen mule, which was the last one to be packed. This completed, he mounted the bell-mare and started off, the train of pack animals filed along behind, and we began another morning’s work before the day was well aired.

This is the little I can remember concerning breakfast.


 — Excerpt abridged from Ernest Ingersoll, “Rocky Mountain Cookery,” Scribner’s Monthly 29(1) 125-132 (May 1880).

— Illustration from Ingersoll’s book, Knocking Around the Rockies. Harpers: New York, 1882.

— You might also enjoy Ingersoll’s description of preparing a camp supper.

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