A Tale: Making Camp Along the Yellowstone River — George W. Wingate, 1885

Wingate Camping

In 1885, General George W. Wingate decided to take his wife and 17-year-old daughter to Yellowstone Park. Although coach tours and luxury hotels were available by then, the Wingates decided to travel on horseback and camp out. That way they could travel at their own pace and see sights skipped by the rushed five-day tours.

In his accounts of the trip, General Wingate not only described the sights, he also told about the adventures of his companions and their travel routines. Here’s his description of setting up camp.


The routine of camping was always the same, and with experience soon became rapid. During the day we would decide where we would camp for the night, the selection depending first on getting good water, and next upon finding suitable grazing for the stock. As we approached the place selected, Fisher (the guide) would gallop on and reconnoiter, while we followed more slowly. We would find him waiting for us on what he considered the best spot.

“Well, what do you think of this?” he would ask, as we rode up. “This is all right,” I would answer. “Pitch our tent there, fronting the east; halt the wagon there, and place the table there.” These brief directions given, we would dismount, throwing the reins over our ponies’ heads. This is almost equivalent to tying them, as they step on tbe reins and hurt themselves with the curb, if they attempt to walk.

The ladies seek the nearest shade and lay themselves flat on their backs, the true way to rest (an idea which they had extracted from Mrs. Custer’s Boots and Saddles), without much regard to the character of the ground, while Fisher and I would unsaddle the ponies, piling the saddles in a heap, and throwing the saddle blankets over them to air and dry.

The wagon by this time would be up, and would swing into the designated position and unharness. Horace (the driver) would lead the horses to the best grass. Those most inclined to stray would be picketed, the others hobbled. In picketing, a horse is fastened to each end of a rope sixty feet long, by a bowline knot around the throat. To the middle of this rope another is fastened, and attached to a stout stake, tree or rock. This is decidedly preferable to picketing each animal separately.

The horses are more quiet in each others company, and if they do break away from the picket pin and stray off, are apt to bring up by the cross rope catching in a tree or rock. Besides, the rope makes a trail which is easily followed. In hobbling, a leather strap about eighteen inches long is fastened to each foreleg. I prefer picketing to hobbling, as the latter affects a horse’s gait.

While the horses were being put out, Sam (our cook) would start his fire and put on his Dutch oven. This was a cast-iron kettle, with a cover of similar material turned up at the edges so as to hold embers, and proved to be a most indispensable article. While it was heating, he would wash his hands with great ostentation (for the benefit of the ladies), retire into the wagon, and mix his biscuit. By the time this was done,

Horace would be back from the horses. He would put on more wood, fish out and grease the oven. The dough would then be put in, the cover put on, and the whole affair placed in a bed of hot embers, which were also heaped over it. A large gridiron, two feet square, would then be set over the fire, on which the other kettles and pans would soon be simmering.

Sam flying around from one side of the fire to another, with an intense air of preoccupation, and occasionally uttering a droll remark regarding his experiences in cooking under the various circumstances of his checkered life. As soon as the bread was on the fire, our tent would be put up. We first pegged the corners and put up the pins for the corner guy ropes.

Then the tent was spread, one of the men crawling into it and adjusting the poles (presenting a most ludicrous appearance as he did so), raised it, tightened the corner guys and drove the other pins, and put a few stones on the flaps if the weather was cold, so as to keep the wind from blowing under it.

The bedding was then unrolled, a large waterproof spread upon the ground, with two buffalo robes, and then our three mattresses placed over it. The blankets were next spread, one over each mattress, and four for a cover. If the mosquitoes threatened to be troublesome, some sticks were put at the head of the beds, and our mosquito nets tied to them; but this precaution was but seldom necessary.

The hand-bags were now carried into the tent, and the camp was completed, the whole operation not occupying fifteen minutes. The men had an A. tent, which they only pitched when it was cold or threatened to rain. Usually they slept on the saddle blankets, and used the tent as an extra covering.

Sam would have his bread baked in twenty minutes. He would then take it out, clean out his Dutch oven, put in whatever he had to roast, and put it back into the tire. By this time the tent was up, the ladies had become sufficiently rested and would begin to either sketch or read, until the melodious banging of a tin pail, and Sam’s eloquent cry of ” din-nur-r,” would rouse all to their feet. No one was ever late to dinner on that trip.


— Text and illustration from George W. Wingate, “My Trip to Yellowstone,” American Agriculturalist.  45(5): 204-205 (May 1886).

You might also enjoy General Wingate’s stories:


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