The Ortega family at Rancho Refugio did a brisk business in clandestine trade with visiting ships.

According to Katherine Plummer, in March of 1815, the Forester stopped there and loaded firewood, salted beef, and 11 hogs. That's too much pork to serve at once so perhaps the pigs were salted or caged.

According to Antipatr Baranov's journal, in September (O.S.) of the same year the Russian-American Company's Ilmena came by and "bought one cow for ship's provisions". I presume it was slaughtered immediately. At another rendezvous six days later, Mr. Ortega "brought some cattle for provisions"; the ship needed "no more than six bulls". The transaction never happened because the landing party was arrested.

The Ilmena was a 200-ton brig with a crew of 25. One cow a week for provisions seems reasonable. I wondered if the translation was accurate and checked the original; indeed the word was Быков, bulls. I'm not sure if that word can describe breeding pairs. What was the crew going to do with six bulls?

  • 1
    Is it possible they're for trade?
    – Schwern
    May 23 '18 at 4:27
  • I wonder if they could be as a supplement to man power... perhaps they were used as a team to pull a ship off a sandbar. Would the word for "Oxen" be the same? Would the use of the translated word "provisions" apply specifically only to food?
    – AllInOne
    May 23 '18 at 16:00

First, to get an idea of what a ship might be provisioned with, here's the meat the British Sloop Alert in 1777 carried with her for 60 men.

Beef  462 pieces in 6 barrels weighing  2238 lbs
Pork 777 pieces in 5 barrels weighing  1753 lbs

Those numbers cut down to 42% for a crew of 25 means 940 lbs of beef and 736 lbs of pork. Another way to look at it is each man was allotted roughly a pound of meat a day. So 25 men would go through 25 lbs of meat per day. Possibly more for the officers. And those are numbers for the Royal Navy, so possibly yet more for a commercial ship. Let's say 30 lbs of meat per day for the ship. Those 1676 lbs of meat would last about 50-60 days. Seems reasonable.

How much meat is there in six 19th century bulls? Considerably less than there are in six 21st century bulls. For example, according to the USDA the dressed weight of a bull went from ~700 lbs in 1962 to ~900 lbs in 2018. More weight will be lost in processing, though some weight will come back due to 19th century sensibilities being more willing to accept fat, offal, and organs.

You can probably expect that about 50% of the weight of the bull is edible which means those 1676 lbs of meat for 50 to 60 days is now 3352 lbs of live animal. Split between six bulls that's about 560 lbs each which seems reasonable for a 19th century bull. Historical data on cattle weights would improve this guesstimate.

  • I'd be surprised if those bulls were purchased for meat. I don't know about back then, but these days (and my experience goes back to the mid 20th century), you don't eat bulls. Uncastrated bulls are a PITA (often literally) to manage. They cannot be kept with other cattle, and each generally require pens and fields of their own. So any Bulls you have were kept er...whole...for a reason. My SWAG would be for sale as breeders, or possibly entertainment purposes (bullfights, rodeos, etc.)
    – T.E.D.
    May 23 '18 at 15:48
  • Uncastrated bulls are edible. In Spain, fighting bulls meat have been sold until a few years ago concerns about mad cows disease ended the practice. And as I can remember, fighting bulls meat wasn't cheaper than regular beef.
    – Pere
    May 23 '18 at 18:39
  • @Pere - Sure, they're edible. You can also make fried chicken from 6 laying hens, ham from 6 truffle hogs, and hamburger meat from 6 head of Kobe beef cattle. Its just generally not a smart way to do business.
    – T.E.D.
    May 23 '18 at 19:08

As a supplement to Schwern's answer, from Janet MacDonald's book on provisioning ships during the Napoleonic period

What is noticiable when studying these log reports of killing cattle is the great disparity in weights, beasts producing anything between 140 and 675 pounds of meat. This was not a random thing, but more or less related to where they came from.

Feeding Nelson's Navy, J. MacDonald (Chatham, 2004) pg.27

So for 6 cattle this could mean anything from 840 to 4050 lbs of meat. If we assume a ration of a pound of meat a day, that would give a potential range of 33-162 days of meat from 6 animals depending upon their size and the skill of those extracting the available meat.

To what extent they had experienced butchers on board is not known but at the time when many beasts were killed on the farm it would not have been difficult to find a crew member who knew what to do...How much of the offal was used would also depend on whether anyone knew how to deal with it, and, perhaps, weather conditions; cleaning out intestines to make sausage skins without damaging them would not have been easy in a rough sea.

Feeding Nelson's Navy, J. MacDonald (Chatham, 2004) pg.91

As an additional bit of background information, analysis of the diets of these sailors gives an average daily intake of nearly 5,000 calories (compared to the modern recommended intake of about 2,500 calories). So they were consuming similar amounts of energy to a professional athlete. This isn't too surprising considering that everything on a sailing ship was man-powered.


The journal translation I used in the question was commissioned by an independent historian. I wrote to her and she offered me a copy. It says that the cattle on both days were for "provisions". I decided to check this assumption against the original.

I was able to find the transcription from which the translation was made, in a book called Россия и Калифорния. In the first case the cow was indeed for ship's provisions (для судовой провизии). In the second, though, the cattle were for salting (для соления). Wow!

I guess the ship already had the salt on hand. I found that a bit surprising.

entry from Antipatr Baranov's journal

  • "Salting" makes sense, and isn't incompatible with "provisions". Butcher the cattle and salt the meat for long term storage. And yes, a ship would probably have salt on hand for this and many other food preservation tasks.
    – Schwern
    May 25 '18 at 19:29

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