While some types of mobile kitchens already existed, it was Texas rancher Charles Goodnight who, in 1866, is credited with developing the concept of the chuck wagon. “Chuck” was a slang term for food. Goodnight needed a sturdy vehicle from which he could feed cowboys who drove his herds of cattle north from Texas to rail heads in Kansas, Missouri and beyond. Utilizing an army surplus Studebaker wagon as the base, he added a “chuck box” and a “boot” to the rear of his wagon. This design became the prototype for all future chuck wagons. The wagon’s box was used to carry the cowboys’ bedrolls, guns personal effects, bulk food supplies, feed for the horses and other supplies.
Chuck wagon food included items that were easy to preserve such as salted meats, coffee, beans and sourdough biscuits. Food was also gathered along the trail. The “cookie” was in charge of the chuck wagon and was usually second-in-command to the “trail boss” on a cattle drive. The cookie also acted as barber, dentist, banker and more.
The great cattle drives lasted from the end of the Civil War to the mid-1880s. During that period approximately 10 million head of cattle were driven along the trails. Goodnight’s Studebaker wagon proved sturdy enough to withstand trail drives that could last up to five months. Cattle drives and chuck wagons have become forever linked to Texas history and the heritage of the West, along with the foods associated with the chuck wagon. These include jalapeno peppers, pan de campo (cowboy bread), sweet Texas onion, chili and cast-iron Dutch ovens, coffee pots and cooking implements.
On May 27, 2005, with Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 8, the 79th Legislature of the State of Texas named the chuck wagon the Official Vehicle of Texas. With more than 100 active chuck wagons privately owned and still in use, the chuck wagon continues to function as a viable tool on many Texas ranches and greatly adds to our state’s historical and cultural charm.