The 'Women in Sunbonnets' on the Westward Trail: Familiar Tasks in Lands Unfamiliar
[The Tombstone Epitaph, October, November, & December, 1995; January, February, March & April, 1996]
". . . if you wish to see the camp in motion, look away ahead and see first the pilot and the Captain Fitzpatrick, just before him-next the pack animals, all mules loaded with great packs-soon after you will see the waggons and in the rear our company. We all cover quite a space." Thus wrote Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, a new bride in the spring of 1835, on her way to mission work and martyrdom with her husband at a mission in Oregon. Mrs. Whitman and her traveling companion, Mrs. Spalding, were the first white women to cross South Pass-the division point of the continent on the road to Oregon. During the next thirty years they were followed by thousands of other women who, with their families--husbands, mothers, fathers and children--traveled the road west, and in the process turned a fur trappers' and traders' trail into the legendary Oregon-California Trail.
From wherever they came, and regardless of their final destination, all gathered somewhere on the banks of the Missouri before plunging off into what was for them the unknown. Whether in Independence or St. Joseph in Missouri, Kanesville (Council Bluffs) in Iowa or some other point in between, wagon trains had to be organized, outfitted and supplied.
". . .(we) came into town (St. Joseph) this morn early," wrote Sarah Sutton on Saturday, April 22, 1854, intending "to cross the river with about 100 head of loose cattle, nine wagons and 10 head of horses, and 36 souls. . ." And, during the years of greatest travel, trains such as Mrs. Sutton's were most assuredly not alone! Five years earlier, for example, a young girl named Sallie Hester described her April 27th arrival in St. Joe thusly.
Here we are at last, safe and sound. We expect to remain here several days, laying in supplies for the trip and waiting our turn to be ferried across the river. As far as eye can reach, so great is the emigration, you see nothing but wagons. This town presents a striking appearance-a vast army on wheels-crowds of men, women and lots of children and last but not least the cattle and horses upon which our lives depend.
And what kinds of supplies might be "put in"? Mrs. Elizabeth Dixon Smith has left us quite a succinct description. ". . . passed through St Joseph on the bank of the Missouri," she wrote on June 3, 1847, where her party "laid in our flour cheese and crackers and medicine for no one should travle this road without medicine for they are almost sure to have the summer complaint each family should have a box of phisic pills and a quart of caster oil a quart of the best rum and a large vial of peppermint essence." An underpublicized danger associated with trail diet was scurvy. Some parties, like that to which Margaret A. Frink (1850) belonged, purchased acid to be periodically imbibed as a preventative measure.
Of course, for many of the years marked by trail travel, supplies could be replenished at various trading posts and forts located along the line of march. But, as Francis Sawyer noted in June of 1852, "They keep supplies here, but sell at high prices. . ." Mrs. Sawyer was writing about Fort Laramie, but her assessment could with equal accuracy have been applied to virtually any trading post. Three days earlier, Lucy Rutledge Cooke's "dear husband" crossed the river to Fort Laramie "to see if he could get anything for me & bless him he's come back loaded with good things for which he has had to buy exorbitantly." Among the "good things" were "2 bottles of lemon syrup at $1 1/4 each a can of preserved quinces 24 Seidlitz Powders 24 Soda do & packet of candy & a bottle of ink the latter is a 10 cent bottle but here it was 30."
More basic necessities were, of course, also available, but they, too, commanded a premium price. Near Devil's Gate, Abigail Scott (1852) reported that the proprietors of a trading post "asked $20 per. BBll. for flour, $12 per. gal. for brandy and other things in proportion." At least one diarist, however, found some supplies to be undesirably cheap. In June of 1854, Sarah Sutton's train camped near the Green River ferry where, she complained, "whiskey is cheap enough here to get drunk on. have heard of several in that kind of A fix the stuff is only A dollar A pint."
So far as the structure and outfitting of a wagon "home" is concerned, Margaret A. Frink provides us with a description.
The wagon was packed and we were all ready to start on the twenty-seventy of March. The wagon was designed expressly for the trip, it being built light, with everything planned for convenience. It was so arranged that when closed up, it could be used as our bedroom. The bottom was divided off into little compartments or cupboards. After putting in our provisions, and other baggage, a floor was constructed over all, on which our mattress was laid. We had an India-rubber mattress that could be filled with either air or water, making a very comfortable bed. During the day we could empty the air out, so that it took up but little room. We also had a feather bed and feather pillows.
Thus organized, outfitted and supplied, trains left the banks of the Missouri and struck out across Kansas or Nebraska. What might such trains have looked like? "The wagons are all covered with black or dark oil cloth," according to Myra Eells (1838); "They move first, one directly after the other, then the packed animals and cattle. Sometimes we ladies ride behind the whole, sometimes between the hindermost wagon and the mules, as circumstances may be. . . The company generally travel on a fast walk, seldom faster. When we are fairly on our way we have much the appearance of a large funeral procession in the states. Suppose the company reaches half a mile."
What did these "women in sunbonnets" do that led Emerson Hough, in his The Passing of the Frontier, to observe: "There was the seed of American wealth. There was the great romance of all America-the woman in the sunbonnet; and not, after all, the hero with the rifle across his saddle horn." For the most part their activities on the road west were replicas of their existence "back home", wherever that might be; they carried out familiar tasks in a distinctly unfamiliar, difficult and sometimes dangerous environment. Though they lived during the so-called "Victorian Age", these wagon train women were utterly unlike the stereotypically dainty drawing room figurines so frequently associated with that era.
Ordinary household chores became even more demanding and time consuming. "The women are baking, washing, cleaning, & repacking waggons as they do when we stop," Lucena Parsons (1850) observed very matter-of-factly and Mrs. Elizabeth Dixon Smith (1847) even referred to a stop at Fort Bridger as affording "time for washing which we women deem a great privildge." "Men's work", as also noted by Mrs. Parsons, included doing "their own blacksmithing. They have a bellows & anvill & are now busy preparing to shoe the cattle as their hoofs are wearing out with driving over the gravelly roads."
Work for both sexes was not easy, but it was certainly regular, and its onset coincided with the very beginning of the trip west, if not predating it! Just four days out of Westport, Myra Eells and her companions, "Finding that we could get both wood and water to ourselves. . .thought it a good time" to do their washing. Using kettles as a substitute for washtubs, the small group of women "would have got on well had the water been soft, but that being so hard, it took all our strength and a great portion of our soap, besides, our clothes would not look well, which spoiled our anticipated merriment." However, she did note with satisfaction that "we found that we could heat water, wash, boil and rinse in the same kettle." One presumes that these are the same kettles subsequently used for cooking! In addition to washing, bedding also had to be "sunned", as Sarah Sutton (1854), among many others, duly noted in her diary: "May 6 Did not start today as we concluded to stop a day or so to let our cattle rest and eat grass, do up our washing and clean up our rooms and put our beds to sun."
Helen Carpenter has admirably summarized the situation so far as "division of labor" is concerned. "In respect to the women's work," she wrote on June 22, 1856, "the days are all very much the same-except when we stop for a day, then there is washing to be done and light bread to make and all kinds of odd jobs." Mrs. Carpenter allowed that while she "was lucky in having a Yankee for a husband, so am well waited on," not all women were so fortunate. "Some women have very little help about the camp, being obliged to get the wood and water (as far as possible) make camp fires, unpack at night and pack up in the morning-and if they are Missourians have the milking to do, if they are fortunate enough to have cows."
Day in and day our, of course, the cooking had to be done. Once again our "resource person", Helen Carpenter succinctly describes the situation.
From the time we get up in the morning, until we are on the road, it is hurry scurry to get breakfast, and put away the things that necessarily had to be pulled out last night-while under way there is no room in the wagon for a visitor, nooning is barely long enough to eat a cold bite-and at night all the cooking utensils and provisions are to be gotten about the camp fire, and cooking enough done to last until the next night. Although there is not much to cook, the difficulty and inconvenience in doing it, amounts to a great deal-so by the time one has squatted around the fires and cooked bread and bacon, and made several dozen trips to and from the wagon, washed the dishes (with no place to drain them) and gotten things ready for an early breakfast, some of the others already have their night caps on-at any rate it is time to go to bed.
The distinction between "women's work" and "men's work", of course, blurred to the point of disappearance when exigency so required. In fact, some, like Francis Sawyer (1852), "drive a great deal. . .and. . .am very fond of handling the lines." The degree both of skill and physical strength reflected in this observation is apparent when one realizes that Mrs. Sawyer was talking about a four-horse hitch! Traveling in the same year, E.W. Conyers provides a considerably more unusual example of female drovers! A day before reaching Fort Hall, his party "stopped for lunch and to let our cattle graze."
Soon after we had stopped, a couple of ladies came riding along the road driving some loose cattle. No sooner were they opposite to us than their cattle broke into a run for our cattle. One of the ladies stopped her horse out in the road, but the other lady put whip to her horse and pursued their cattle on a full gallop, but perceiving that her effort would prove fruitless without more help she called to the other lady (who we took for her sister) for assistance. The answer came back from the lady seated on her horse out in the road: "Let 'em rip, I tell you, let 'em rip. You very well know that we can't get them cattle past this train. Let 'em rip, I tell you." And they did "Let 'em rip." We soon drove up and yoked our cattle and started on our way, while the ladies followed after, having no further trouble that day with their cattle.
As Myra Eels had discovered back down the trail in Kansas, a combination of wood and water was a prerequisite to many "housekeeping" activities-certainly not least of which was cooking. Water was usually available from nearby streams and rivers (at least until the wagon trains reached the arid regions of south-central and western Wyoming!); fuel was another matter altogether! East of Fort Laramie, Amelia Hadley (1851) "camped on the Platte plenty of timber such as it is, it is mostly cotton wood, but in the states we would not call it plenty but it seems plenty to us after doing without any." Her estimation of the relative worth of cottonwood is clearly reflected in a subsequent sentence: " found on the bank of the river a log of pine, which I supposed had drifted there which was delightful wood. It was so full of pitch that little of it done our cooking verry well, we carried some of it a number of days."
As the wood supply diminished, then disappeared, another product of nature was substituted. The French called it "Bois de Vache"; Mrs. E.D. Smith (1847) much less elegantly reported "We see thousands of buffalow and have to use their dung for fuel." How much of this natural fuel was needed? Mrs. Smith supplies the information that "a man will gather a bushel in a minute 3 bushels makes a good fire." As trains moved to the periphery of the territory of the great herds, of course, it became more difficult, but no less necessary, to obtain buffalo chips. Thus, on June 12, 1852, E.W. Conyers described "Buffalo chips (as being) scarce and in good demand. Many of the ladies can be seen roaming over the prairie with sacks, searching for a few buffalo chips, but most of them have discarded their gloves and are gathering the buffalo chips with their bare hands." Four years later, almost to the day, Helen M. Carpenter (1856), watching "various chip gatherers. . .bag in hand, intent on geting enough to cook the evening meal", observed that the scene "would be amusing if it were not dire necessity which drives them to it." Mrs. Carpenter also reported that her brother, Hale, "made a gathering this evening, and reported to mother that he got "'some good fresh ones'." In any event, according to Tamsen Donner (1846), "'Buffalo chips' are excellent" as a fuel; "they kindle quick and retain heat surprisingly. We had this evening Buffalo steaks broiled upon them that had the same flavor they would have had on hickory coals." It perhaps should be noted that another opinion, anonymous in origin, suggested that cooking with buffalo chips had still another advantage, i.e., no condiments were needed for the meat because of the unique flavor imparted by the fuel!
As emigrant parties moved on beyond Fort Laramie, wood remained quite scarce and buffalo chips became increasingly difficult to find. According to E.W. Conyers (1852), his party, now eight days beyond Fort Laramie, "bid farewell to the buffalo chips and the ladies have discarded for good their buffalo gloves. . ." Mother Nature, however, provided still another substitute, for, as noted by the same E.W. Conyers, sagebrush "grows here in great abundance". He further suggested that sagebrush made "a splendid substitute" for wood, "making a very hot fire and excellent for cooking purposes." Perhaps the definitive evaluation of the comparative advantages of buffalo chips and sagebrush as fuel was rendered by Elizabeth Dixon Smith at the end of July, 1847. Noting that "we have sage to cook with", she admits that "I do not know which is best it or buffalo dung". Nonetheless, she suggest a test for potential users of the two products: "jest step out and putt a lot of sage out of your garden and build a fire in the wind and bake boil and fry by it and then you will guess how we have to doo." Earlier in the month, near Scotts Bluff, Mrs. Smith also described "the herbs in this region" as being "prickry and briery the sage dredful on ones clothes it grows from 1 to 6 feet high has a stalk like our tame sage or sedge the leaves are smaller and very narrow it has a sage taste though it is very biter." She also indicated that they sometimes burned "a shrub called greece wood jenerly not so large as the sage. . .(but) very thorny. . ."
Any discussion of fuel and cooking raises an obvious question concerning the type and quality of food available on the trail. Some cooked over open fires, some boiled in kettles and some, like Sallie Hester's party, had "a cooking stove made of sheet iron, a portable table, tin plates and cups, cheap knives and forks (best one packed away), camp stools, etc." Not only were Miss Hester's companions well equipped, their diet does not seem to have suffered appreciably because they were "on the road". Perhaps more observant than the average fourteen-year old, Sallie reported that "We live on bacon, ham, rice, dried fruits, molasses, packed butter, bread, coffee, tea and milk as we have our own cows." In addition, "Occasionally some of the men kill an antelope," she noted, "and then we have a feast; and sometimes we have fish on Sunday."
Miss Hester and her party were not the only ones who ate rather well. It is clear that Edwin Bryant (1846) paid virtually no culinary price for "westering", nor, for that matter, did Mrs. Cecelia Adams. Three and one-half days beyond Fort Laramie, Mr. Bryant was invited to supper by one Mr. Branham. ". . .that the epicure of the 'settlements' may not sneer at our mountain entertainment, I will state, that. . .there were on the table smoking biscuits, fresh butter, honey, rich milk, cream, venison steaks, and tea and coffee." Five years later, on Sunday, June 27, 1852, Cecelia Adams recorded the fact that "I baked bread and pumpkin and apple pies, cooked beans and meat, stewed apples and baked suck-eyes in quantity sufficient to last some time, besides making Dutch cheese..."
The fare which Mary Elizabeth Lightner prepared on August 1, 1863, was very likely more nearly representative of the provisions usually available. "Baked some shortcake," she wrote, "fried some bacon and had tea for supper after dark. Tired almost to death. . ." In like manner, a year earlier, at "1/2 past 3 our camp was astir," reported Louisa Cook (1862), "& as soon as our breakfast of potatoes buffalo meat bread & coffee was dispatched & dishes washed & stowed away we were again on the road. . ."
Whether the usual fare was sumptuous or slim, occasional "local" products were added for variety. Edwin Bryant (1846) again provides us with an example: "A fruit called the prairie pea. . .has been very abundant along our route. . . The fruit, which varies from half an inch to an inch in diameter, has a tough rind, with a juicy pulp, the flavor of which resembles that of the green pea in its raw state. . .Mrs. Grayson, having the necessary spices, etc., made of the prairie pea a jar of pickles, and they were equal if not superior to any delicacy of the kind which I have ever tasted."
Not everyone, however, was as taken with such additions to the menu, particularly if they were wild game. Quite frequently, in fact, the serving of local game brought forth substantially differing responses. When Cecelia Adams' (1852) husband, for instance, "killed a mountain hen", she described it as resembling "a prairie hen, but I think it superior in flavor and is somewhat larger." A year earlier, "some of our company killed some (sage hens)," according to Mrs. E.A. Hadley (1851), "I have heard say that they were good to eat. . .I think a skunk preferable, their meat tastes of this abominable mountain sage, which I have got so tired of that I can't bear to smell it, they live wholle upon it and it scents their flesh."
These references to wild game serve to remind us that perhaps the prime method of augmenting food supplies while traveling was hunting. Most emigrants, however, would hardly have qualified as marksmen; thus hunting was, if you will, a mixed bag so far as obtaining meat was concerned. In mid-July of 1853, for instance, "Quite an excitement was raised among the masculines by seeing a buffalo" according to Rachel Taylor, who went on to note that "All hands gave instant chase, wounded him badly, but did not succeed in taking him." On the other hand, a year later, on July 13, Sarah Sutton reported that "our company have to day killed the only buffalo we have seen. . . so we have plenty of fresh beef for supper all around. . .", although, ""There were so many on chase they shot 18 balls in him (the buffalo). . ."
Hunting was not always without cost however. One "Dr. Baker lost his nice saddle horse and a fine saddle" during the hunt. It seems "he jumped off and threw down the bridle to give his game another shot and away went the horse with the buffalo; they hunted for him but didn't find him or the buffalo but in about two weeks the company that was behind sent word to Dr. Baker that the horse had come to them with the saddle still on but turned under his belly; the head part of the bridle was on him yet. . ."
While virtually all thought antelope meat to be tasty, the reaction to buffalo meat was not nearly so uniform. The views of Keturah Belknap and Cecelia Adams illustrate the type and degree of variation. Mrs. Belknap (1848) described the meat from a "nice young heifer" as being "very coarse and dark meat but when cooked right made a very good change." She went on to note that she "cooked some and made mince pies with dried apples which was fine for lunch." Cecelia Adams (1852) said simply that her party "have at last had the chance of tasting the long wished for meat (buffalo) We do not relish it as well as we had expected to, is very much like beef. . ." So far as other forms of wild life are concerned, the opinions of Mary Leightner (1863) and Amelia Hadley (1851) are quite instructive. With regard to a bear weighing nearly four hundred pounds which "was killed. . .and was divided among our company of sixty persons," Mary Elizabeth Lightner said simply "I could not stomach it. I don't believe they were made for man's food." In a similar vein, Amelia Hadley's (1851) "Company killed a mountain sheep or more properly a mountain goat for they look about the head like a goat, while the body is covered with hair and short fine wool which looks some like fur. . ." When it came to eating the meat, however, Mrs. Hadley "merely tasted it so as to say I had eat some, but do not like it the rest said it was good but I know they think better all the time for they taste of every thing they get even to black birds and call them good." She went on to note that "We have 3 English men in our train who eat everything have a kettle of soup every day. One day they had a black bird soup."
Before further examining the experiences shared by many of the families heading west, let us look briefly at a universal aspect of familial relations-families not only experiencing dire circumstances because of uncontrollable external factors, but also those foundering on the shoals of familial distrust, decay and disintegration. It is clear that westerly mobile families suffered from difficulties not essentially different from those readily observed in more settled parts of the country. Instead of a statistical exegesis, let a sampling of examples illustrate the point.
In July of 1853, Rachel Taylor reported "Another quarrel among our neighbors and one which will not be so easily settled. It seems that Will sold his Uncle a yoke of cattle and now refuses to give them up. He used abusive language to his Uncle and aunt. . ." More serious was the event recorded by Celinda Hine about three weeks later. "Several trains traveled near us," she wrote, "in one was a lady who was recently married. her husband had near Pacific springs I hear set her out of the [unreadable. Wagon?] giving her her [unreadable] Another Co took her in & like her very much The husband says she was ugly to his children she being his second wife. . . " Ten years earlier, John Boardman reported that a daughter left her father "for beating her and is going to California with Mr. Martin".
Arguably, the situation described by Sarah Davis in July of 1850 was even more serious. On that Sunday,
"a large train come in one mile of us and camped their a rose a quarel with them and what quareling I never heard the like they were whiping a man for whiping his wife he had whiped her every day since he joined the company and now they thought it was time for them to whip him and they caught him and striped him and took the ox gad to him and whiped him tremenduous she screamed and hollerd for him till one might have hare him for three miles."
Three years earlier, Elizabeth Dixon Smith had observed an even more unusual incident. One Mrs. Markham became very angry and refused to budge one morning when it was time for the company to begin its day's travel. Three hours of coaxing from her husband had no apparent effect, so "neighbors" took the children into their wagons, then they and the husband drove off, leaving his wife sitting beside the trail. The wife then got up, backtracked and took a short cut, overtaking her husband's wagon. In the meantime, he had sent their son back for a horse which had been left. Thus, when the wife rejoined him, the husband naturally asked "did you meet John yes was the reply and I picked up a stone and nocked out his brains". While the husband, understandably concerned, "went back to ascertain the truth. . .she set one of his waggons on fire which was loaded with store gods the cover burnt off and some valueable artickles". At this point, the husband "saw the flame and came runing and put it out and then mustered spunk enough to give her a good floging". According to Kenneth Holmes (editor of the series Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails 1840-1890), however, whatever truly happened, the boy "did not get his brains 'nocked out'. His name turns up in the 1850 federal census of Oregon, and he lived many years after that." Dr. Holmes notes one further item of interest. The seventh child of this couple in adult life took the name "Edwin" Markham, under which name he wrote "The Man With The Hoe" and other poems.
As difficult and traumatic as were the foregoing incidents, some families broke even more completely asunder. Lucretia Lawson Epperson (1864) provides our first example. On July 25, her company "met a man to-day looking for his wife; said he with his team started for Virginia City after provisions; while absent his wife sold the ranch, purchased two horses and a wagon, and started for Illinois. He wished to know if she had been seen by us." On the basis of the description he provided, "we assured him we had met her over fifty miles from this place"; the deserted husband "sighed and said 'well, I will let her go, as I could not overtake her before reaching Salt Lake.. . He turned about and started westward." It is, perhaps, a commentary on human nature that Mrs. Epperson concluded by admitting that she "pitied him, but could not help laughing when he told his doleful story."
There is nothing even slightly humorous about "the tragedy across the (Laramie) River" described by Eliza McAuley in June of 1852. According to the reports received by her party, "There were two men and a woman concerned. The woman's husband attacked the other man and stabbed him to death. He was tried, convicted and hung, and the woman was sent back to the fort."
Even more widespread than the tragedies just described was the phenomenon of families shattered by death or by near-inhuman treatment by their fellows. E.W. Conyers (1852) provides illustrations from both categories for us. On July 18 he and his party "caught up with a widow woman who had buried her husband back on the Platte. She had four or five little helpless children to care for. All the rest of the company had gone on, leaving her alone with her team and little ones to get over the mountains the best she could. She had three yoke of cattle to her wagon. When we overtook her she was driving wooden wedges between the fellows (six.) and the tire of the wagon wheel." After repairing the widow's wagon wheels,
After having had her wagon wheels repaired, the widow declined an offer of further assistance, "picked up her whip, gave it a whirl and a crack and started on down the mountain." "We did not see or hear anything more of her after leaving the summit," said Mr. Conyers, adding "That company should have seen to it that this poor woman had all the assistance she required to take her safely through to her journey's end. But such is life on the plains. Here it is everyone for himself and the devil take the hindmost."
About five weeks later on the Burnt River, Mr. Conyers observed an even more desperate family situation.
. . .we found a family, consisting of husband, wife, and four small children, whose cattle, as we supposed, had given out and died. They were here all alone and no wagon or cattle in sight, the husband sick and scarcely able to raise his head from the pillow, lying by the roadside in the shade of some small bushes to protect them from the burning rays of the sun. . . .
Conyers and his companion stopped and offered their assistance. In explaining how they came to such desperate circumstances, the wife explained that "The man to whom the team belonged. . .fitted up several more teams than were needed for his own family use. These teams he let his neighbors and friends have to haul their provisions and their little ones across the plains, with this understanding, that the teams and wagons were to be turned over to him as his property when they arrived at their destination." When her husband took sick, the wife carried on as best she could, even in the face of the owners' insistence that the children walk so as not unduly to tire the animals; the mother/wife, in fact, even carried the youngest child part of the time. Her efforts were unavailing; the owner abandoned the family on the trail, leaving them provisions for only two days. The husband was literally prostrate, the wife near collapse and the children's feet "covered with sores, and swollen to nearly twice their natural size, caused by their long and continued walk over the rocks and hot sands of the plains. Their shoes having given out, the mother had swathed their little feet in rags, and also her own feet, to protect them as much as possible from the sharp rocks and burning sand." Not surprisingly, the mother broke down in tears when the offer was made to allow the despondent family to attach themselves to Conyers' company. However, upon learning that a Presbyterian minister named Yantis was in a train only a day behind them, "the family concluded to remain where they were until the Rev. Mr. Yantis came along with his train, saying 'Mr. Yantis is an old friend and neighbor or ours, and has plenty of room, and we are confident he will provide for us'." "If there is any meanness in a man," concluded Conyers, "it makes no difference how well he has it covered the plains is the place that will bring it out. Such is life on the plains."
Conyers seems to have had a proclivity for encountering various types of family problems. Earlier, in the Sweetwater Valley, he "observed three men seated on the tongue of one of the wagons, when a large sized woman, weighing something over 250 pounds, with sleeves rolled up above her elbows, stepped out in front of the three men, smacking her fists and shaking them under the nose of the little man seated in the center, as though she intended to leave nothing but a grease spot after she got through with him. Then she commenced a harangue of abusive language that ought to shame the most profane person on the face of the earth. This little man she dominated was her husband. . .To the honor of the little man, I will say, that he sat there like a bump on a log, seemingly taking it all good-naturedly, without making any answer whatever. Perhaps he was afraid to open his mouth in self-defense, and that silence was the better part of valor."
Of course, most families were not afflicted with the types of burdens just described. But other types of trail difficulties presented themselves to all with complete impartiality! In the words of Lucena Parsons (1850), "There are many difficulties to encounter on this road such as sickness, death & a great loss of property. Since we left fort Larimee we daily pass much abandoned property such as waggons, horses, oxen, cows, chains of the best kind, & stoves, all destroyed." Constant travel, of course, also "wore" on emigrants. A day such as that described by Myra Eells (1838) would be at least modestly exhausting for all but the most vigorous: "Moved camp at seven, ride eight hours, twenty-five miles without food for ourselves or animals. I do not get off my horse during the whole distance, cross from the Blue to the Platte River." And then there were the mosquitos! Not encountered everywhere, when they did put in one of their frequent appearances near rivers and bodies of water, they most definitely made their presence felt! Camping on a branch of Bear River, Sarah Sutton (1854) penned an unusual account of such an encounter.
Sunday, July 2nd. . .as soon as we stoped were attack'd with the most savage warlike enemy and they gave us the alarm by the sound of their horn, and they had prepared themselves, and were well armed with a long sharp spear to meet us for war, and as soon as we met there was heavey battles fought, but on our side there was some blood shed it is true, but no lives taken, but on the enemys side hundreds kill'd and wounded but none missed. they were of the Musqueto tribe, and well known the world over.
In one form or another, there was one natural element that had to be confronted every day-the weather. Atmospheric conditions on the high plains were no more predictable then than they are now and most emigrant parties had been warned in advance that, in the words of Louisa Cook, "what is called a Platte river storm. . .is an event not to be trifled with." In the case of Louisa's party, "About dusk the wind which had been blowing hard all day increased to a perfect gale. . .The wagons & carriages were drawn up side by side chained together & the outside ones staked down. The stoves, camp kettles frying pans camp stools & every thing moveable was made as secure as they could have been on board of ship in a storm at sea." Fortunately, this time "the gale passed away without rain and though the wind blew furiously till about 10 it subsided then without doing any damage." "Battening down the hatches" of a "prairie schooner" seems to have been normal operating procedure when storms blew up. The entry in Margaret Frink's diary for Monday, June 3, 1850, is all too typical: "A heavy storm of wind and rain came up. . .which we prepared ourselves for by picketing down the wagons with ropes fastened to stakes, and tying the horses securely." Some damage done by wind storms was more humorous than deadly. A case in point is Helen Carpenter's "Aunt Sis (who) was curious and putting her head outside came near going overboard, and lost a fine new silk handkerchief that was doing duty as a night cap. Nothing more was seen of it."
Storms on the high plains consisted of dangerous combination of wind and rain, but other potentially deadly elements were also more than occasionally present. One such element presented itself with a sudden drop in temperature, causing the upper atmosphere rain to be transformed into hail. The entry made by Amelia Hadley one Thursday in June of 1851 bears much more than a passing resemblance to a great many others recorded over the years. "Travelled 22 miles. . .here we had a hard hail storm hailed about an hour as hard as I ever saw it so that the ground was perfectly white hailled also last night not so much but considerable larger." Just beyond Devil's Gate a bit more than a year later, Francis Sawyer's party was hit with a hail storm sufficiently severe that they were unable to continue traveling for the remainder of the day. Describing it as "the hardest hail storm that it had ever been my lot to witness," Mrs. Sawyer went on to note that "The stones came down thick and fast, and they were as large as walnuts-none smaller than bullets. The wind blew so hard and furiously that all the animals within our hearing stampeded. All hands had a hard time getting them together again. . . some of our men got bruised heads and hands by the heavy hailstones striking them. I was badly frightened and thought the wind would surely blow us away."
The damaging potential of hail storms on the high plains has not diminished with the passage of more than a century. Several years ago this writer's automobile sustained hail damage in Cheyenne, Wyoming that a body repair man said was worse than could have been inflicted by a strong man wielding a sizeable hammer!
One final element of weather-related danger must be mentioned. Particularly during the months of trail travel, wind and rain was normally accompanied by thunder and lightning. Although it was no less unusual then than now, massive natural discharges of electricity could be fatal. Sarah Davis' party camped in Ash Hollow on Sunday, June 23, 1850: "their was a tremenduous thunder sawer one role after nother till it killed a horse that was onley one rod from our wagon." At that, the Davis party was luckier than some. Three years later, Celinda Hines, camping next to another train just a few miles west of South Pass, reported that her temporary neighbors "have had two men killed by lightning".
As if all of the foregoing were not danger and difficulty enough, there also existed the near-perpetual possibility of a tornado! And this possibility became reality for Esther M. Lockhart (1851).
One night, while we were still following the devious course of the North Platte, we camped on a grassy rise of ground with the silvery river flowing serenely along just below us. We slept soundly until nearly morning. Then we were suddenly awakened by a furious storm of wind and rain. Looking out, we discovered to our alarm, that we were on an island, with madly-rushing waters swirling all around us. Immediately, all was confusion in camp. Women and children were screaming, dogs barking and whining, horses whinneying in fright, cattle bellowing and men shouting orders. It was evident that we were experiencing one of the tornadoes for which that region has since become famous.
The thought of reaching their goals somewhere on the Pacific Coast sustained most pilgrims and they face the natural tribulations detailed above. But occasionally evidence presented itself that even in Oregon all was not as serene as might have been hoped. The train which included Sarah Sutton (1854) among its members "met 30 or 40 pack mules loaded with men women and children, and provisions returning back from Oregon. they said the winters was so cold, and it was so sickly, and money so scarce that they wanted to be found getting away. . ."
Heavy rain, hail, flooding-all of these unhappy examples of excess water unfortunately alternated in appearance with what was perhaps the most ubiquitous of all high plains phenomena other than wind. The reference is, of course, to dust, dust, and more dust! The relative dryness of the atmosphere beyond the 100th meridian dictated that trains would, in the words of Amelia Knight, experience "long, dry, dusty days (of) travel", broken only when, as was the case with Eliza McAuley, "The rain laid the dust and improved the road very much." It is little wonder that Elizabeth Dixon Smith (1847) believed that "You in 'The States' know nothing about dust. It will fly so that you can hardly see the horns of your tongue yoke of oxen. It often seems that the cattle must die for the want of breath, and then in our wagons, such a spectacle-beds, clothes, victuals and children, all completely covered." Louisa Cooke reported still another difficulty resulting from the low humidity. "When I combed my hair there was so much electricity about it that I could scarcely get it done up. . ."
The omni-presence of clouds of dust, much of it caused by the wagons themselves, dictated a strong preference for maintaining a position in advance of all other wagons trains! "Two trains are close behind us," wrote Mary E. Lightner on August 18, 1863, "which makes us hurry to keep the front place, for the roads are so dusty we can hardly see our front team." It is little wonder that competition between trains, as well as between trains and cattle, more than occasionally developed.
About 100 miles east of Fort Laramie Amelia Knight's party, starting the day behind "2 large droves of cattle and about 50 wagons", had the choice of "poking behind them in the dust, or hurry up and drive past them, which was no fool of a job to be mixed up with several hundred head of cattle, and only one road to travel in, and the drivers threatening to drive their cattle over you if you attempted to pas them. . ." Following the lead of Mr. Knight, the party got around the drove and wagons by noon. According to Amelia, "the head teamster (of the other train) done his best by whiping and holloing to his cattle, he found it was no use and got up into his wagon to take it easy, we left some swearing men behind us. . ." While eating the noon meal, however, the Knight party "saw them coming, all hands jumpt for their teams, thinking saying they had earned the road too dearly to let them pass us again, and in a few moments we were all on the go again."
Lack of water could, of course, pose a much greater threat than the creation of dust. In western Wyoming in particular, water for humans and animals alike could be difficult to come by. Ellen Hundley's company went with no water for two days in June of 1856. Finally, they "found a snow bank that had caved in the side of a deep ravine they found it by the moist dirt on top dug down and found the snow. . .it was half mud but we were glad to get it our horses was about give out and we come near losing one traveling 2 days and one night with not a drop of water and hardly anything to eat. . .one of the mens tonge was so dry and swollen he could not wait for water but sucked the wet mud. . ."
Although most emigrants, to a greater or lesser degree, feared attack by Indians, in fact accidents and illness exacted a far higher price form wayfarers that did "depredation" by tribesmen. By their very nature, accidents had an impact ranging from debilitating to deadly. Since life as a member of a wagon train, by definition, centered on wagons, it is perhaps not surprising that the wheeled vehicles quite frequently figured in accidents. Elizabeth Myrick, for example, reported that "Dr Davisons boy fell out of the waggon & is badly crushed to pieces though not mortally. . ." Ten years earlier, "on the . . . Snake or Lewis River", a little girl named Rebecca "was trying to get on or off the wagon, she slipped and fell, the wagon wheel rolling over and breaking her thigh, a sad accident for her and us all" in the opinion of the Reverend E.E. Parrish. Almost three weeks later, Rev. Parrish noted in his journal that "All well except Rebecca, who is doing as well as can be reasonably expected, this being the eighteenth day since her thigh was broken. She complains not much except of pain occasioned by the jolting of the wagon over rocks and rough places." Alice Gaylord traveled the Oregon-California Trail as a child in 1853. Among other events, she tells of a misfortune which befell her little sister, Leonora. While their wagon was crossing a bridge in the process of leaving the settlements, the female members of the party decided the view was better if they walked, so they got down from the wagon. Leonora, wishing to join them, started climbing out of the wagon after it had started moving; she slipped and fell, with a wagon wheel running over one leg, breaking the thigh bone. A doctor who was called set the bone and instructed the family in the construction of "a bed (a little box just large enough to hold the child, the injured limb having previously been encased in a smaller box), to swing from the bows of the wagon top." As the wagon train moved west, "one lady would sit at the foot of the little bed and one at the head and prevent any swinging jars from the motion of the traveling wagon, day after day for weeks, and at night time, too, to administer to the wants of the child."22
By no means were all accidents caused by wagons. In the party with which Patty Sessions (1847) traveled "a man broke his arm last night . . .rasling his name is Martin DeWitt. . ." It should also be noted that wagon accidents had fatal results in a number of cases. One, for example, was that of Joel Hembree. According to William Newby, on July 18, 1843, young Joel "fel off the wageon tung & both wheels run over him". The next day Mr. Newby sadly noted that "Joel Hembree departed this life about 2 o'clock."
Of course, adults, too, were injured in wagon accidents. One such incident is described in Polly Coon's diary entry for July 9, 1852. At the third ford of the Sweetwater, it seems that the team driven by a doctor traveling with the train bolted as they approached the river. The result was a wagon turned over in the middle of the river. The doctor, perhaps unwisely, lept out of the wagon and attempted to prevent it from tipping over. The task was too much for him, with the unhappy result that the wagon "crushed him down under it draging him a rod under water. He was hurt considerable-his medicine chest was overturned & nearly everything which was valuable floated off down stream & was lost." There are, in fact, a surprising number of diary accounts of wagon accidents which, while serious, did not result in any substantial injury to the individual involved. Mrs. Maria A. Belshaw reported two such instances in 1853. "May 27th. . .a child in company ahead of (us) fell out of a wagon was run over badly bruised no bones broken." "June 2nd. . .Mrs. Coonts was getting into her wagon, slipped and fell under the wagon, two wheels passed over her, no bones broken."
As is apparent from Polly Coon's account above, fording rivers was possessed of considerably greater danger than attached to ordinary travel. Death by drowning is reported with saddening frequency in emigrant journals and diaries; three examples from a five-year period illustrate the point. Sarah Pratt (1852) laconically noted "account of deaths at the ford (of the North Platte). said to be 40 drowned dead bodies below the ford. . .", and Sallie Hester was equally succinct: "A lady and four children were drowned through the carelesness of those in charge of the ferry." Elizabeth Dixon Smith's (1847) entry is typical of those describing the effect of a drowning upon a family. "Nooning" on the Snake River, several cattle swam across and had to be brought back. The man who attempted to swim the river for the purpose of driving them back didn't make. In the words of Mrs. Smith, "before he got a cross he sunk to rise no more he left a wife and 3 children." The river had not yet exacted its total cost from this party however. The next morning the owner of the cattle himself crossed the river on horseback. On the return trip he "by some means got off of the horse and sunk and was seen no more he left a wife and 6 helpless children." Mrs. Smith, whose husband could only helplessly stand by while watching his companion disappear, speculated that "there was a suck (whirlpool) in the bottom of the river."
Given the emphasis on "guns that won the west" in popular and fictional treatments of the westward movement, it is perhaps mildly surprising to find that about as many emigrants wounded or killed themselves and each other with firearms as were similarly effected by Indian attack. Even the hunters for a train were not exempt from this danger, as is made clear in Elizabeth Dixon Smith's (1847) report that "today when our hunters came in they brought one dead man he had shot himself last night accidently he left a wife and six small children the distress of his wife I cannot describe." In addition to the danger of being shot, there was also danger is simply being around firearms and their accouterments. One of the waggons on "a returning Merchant train from Salt Lake" caught fire and "two of their men trying to extinguish it, their gunpowder exploded, and killed them both. . ."
Perhaps one of the more surprising causes of accidents were milk cows! Clearly not all animals accompanying the westering pioneers fit the stereotype of mild, passive old "Bossy". About a day's travel east of Chimney Rock in Nebraska's North Platte Valley, and on the same day she reported the deaths of the two men noted immediately above, Jean Rio Baker also noted that that evening "one of Robin's men was milking he was nearly killed by the cows kicking, he was carried to his wagon insensible." Two days later, "one of Brother Norton's daughters had her leg broken by a kick from a cow, while milking; her father set the bone, and she seems to be doing well, no inflammation having appeared. . ." On at least one occasion such untoward behavior by an ox inflicted far greater harm upon an observer than upon the victim himself, as Sarah Maria Mousley make clear: "Sundy 12 [July, 1857]. . .encamped for dinner and here visited or sent to see the corps of an aged Sister who had been subject to desease of heart and died from fright by her husband being kicked by one of his oxen the kick did not injure the man but she witnessed the scene and dies from fright exclaiming my husband will be hurt she leaves no family except the husband her age was sixty three. . ."
Without question, one of the most unsettling types of accidents to witness, or indeed even to read about, was reported by Sarah (Sally) Perkins (1853) with the words "George lost his child". The author of a biography of George Perkins, written forty years later, provides more detail: "While they were on the plains their little two-year-old boy accidentally fell into a kettle and was scalded, dying soon afterward."
A great many, perhaps most, of the wagon train emigrants enjoyed a level of health at least equivalent to that normally experienced "back home", and some even noticed significant improvement. This assuredly was the case with Sallie Hester's family in 1849. "Camped on the beautiful Blue River," 14-year old Sallie reported her "family all in good health. When we left St. Joe my mother had to be lifted in and out of our wagons; now she walks a mile or two without stopping, and gets in and out of the wagons as spry as a young girl. She is perfectly well.
Unfortunately, many did not share this good fortune. Water from rivers, creeks and streams was usually available during much of the trip, but, as even contemporary travelers will avow, partaking of water to which one is not accustomed can sometimes be a bit chancy! Amelia Knight (1853) and her husband stayed in camp on Monday, June 6th because they were sick, "caused we suppose by Drinking the river water, as it looks more like dirty suds, than anything else"! Although they stayed in camp for the purpose of recuperating from this indisposition, nonetheless, "the boys and myself have been washing some to day" after she and her husband availed themselves of a home remedy Amelia described as taking "a vomit". In like manner, Ellen Hundley (1856) and some her companions "got a little sick drinking the bad water" in June of 1856, but their remedy was less drastic than that of the Knights: "after we camped some of the company went about a mile and found a white sulphur spring cold good water which was quite a treat."
Exposure to the elements, plus over-exertion, was also a factor so far as health was concerned. Edwin Bryant (1846) was called to treat "a woman of about thirty-five or forty. . .found her prostrate. . .(with) a burning fever. . .and respiration. . .so difficult. . .She could not speak audibly, but made known her wants in whispers." It seems the woman, several weeks previously, had "labored hard in washing during a hot day exposed to the sun,. . .(then) had imprudently bathed in very cold water. The consequence was, a severe cold with a high fever." Though large quantities of varied medicines had been administered, the woman still suffered from pneumonia. Bryant advised the distraught daughters that additional medication "would only aggravate the disease. . .that they must make warm teas and prevail upon her to drink them in large quantities every hour in the day. . ." His advice was followed and, contrary even to his own expectations, "the patient recovered and is now a healthy woman."
The most widely feared illness was, without question, cholera. It ravaged wagon trains and Indian villages alike. Mary Jane Long (1852) remembered one desperate bout with this killer of the trail. The battle was fought in the Platte River Valley, and Miss Long's Uncle Silas was the first to fall victim, having been weakened by measles; twenty-four to thirty-six hours later two of Uncle Silas' boys took sick also. A doctor with the train "refused to allow them to have a drop of water, and such suffering I hope I may never see again."
One little fellow died and we buried him as we did his father; but several miles apart; the other one lingered a few days longer and before death released him, he went blind. One of his sisters took down and my mother stayed in the tent with the boy and I remained in the wagon with the girl.
Other contagious diseases also took their toll. Near the Grand Island, for example, Virgil Pringle (1846) wrote that "Mr. Shelton. . .had a daughter die in this night from a swelling on her throat occasioned by the scarlet fever before they left the state, having lost another child since they left home, which they buried in Jackson County."
The cost exacted by disease, accident and even "foul play" resulted in the regular appearance of graves along the line of march of the transcontinental migration. Martha S. Read (1852) "kept in extraordinary detail records of graves-compiling a total of 246." Something of the "flavor" of emigrant reaction to death and burial on the trail is reflected in Sallie Hester's observation that two "young men going West to seek their fortunes" who died from cholera were "buried on the banks of the Blue river, far from home and friends." More wrenching is the description by Mrs. Maria A. Belshaw (1853) of "One company just burying a boy 2 years old. It was just and right in the sight of God to take the child. The tender mother grieved bitterly to think she must leave her child in the cold and silent grave on the plains." It was little if any easier when to leave a father or mother, husband or wife behind. On the banks of Bitter Cottonwood Creek, Mariett Foster Cummings (1852) watched as a woman was being buried, "The little children were sitting in the wagon, and the husband at the head of the grave, weeping bitterly over the uncoffined burial." And sometimes "passers-by" observed the bodies of those who, though buried, had been disinterred! Mrs. Ringo (1864) was one: "July 29, Friday. We do not get an early start and after traveling some 5 miles we see the corpse of a man lying by the side of the road, scalped, had been buried on the top of the ground and the wolves had scratched it up. I think we ought to have buried him." "Often we came across graves which had been opened and feather beds cut open and the feathers scattered on the ground," wrote Mary Jane Long (1852); "We saw one feather bed with sheet and pillow on it and the imprint where the head had lain was still plainly visible." Four years later, Helen M. Carpenter's party found that "Uncle Sam had a campfire awaiting us" when they arrived after dark at the camping place. The next morning it was discovered that the campfire had been built on a grave, but the campfire was not moved. This situation caused Miss Carpenter some worry since she had "mentioned our growing indifference, and can but think that (what) we are obliged to endure each day is robbing us of all sentiment--it is to be hoped we will not be permanently changed."
Abigail Scott (1852) and Mrs. Ringo (1864) each rendered anguished accounts of the deaths of their mother and their husband respectively. Miss Scott's mother "was taken about two o'clock this morning with a violent dierrehea attended with cramping"128. The sickened woman "aroused no one until daylight", when everything possible was done for her, but this afternoon between four and five o'clock her wearied spirit took its flight. . ." The mother was buried next to a woman from a nearby train who had also died that night. "The place of her interment is a romantic one," wrote Miss Scott, "and one which seems fitted for the last resting place of a lover (of, rural scenery such as she when in good health always delighted in . . ." "And from an eminence where all. . .can be viewed at a single glance, reposes the last earthly remains of my mother."
Martin Ringo accidently shot himself with a shotgun, "the load entering his right eye and coming out the top of his head." One Mr. Davenport further reported seeing Ringo's "hat blown up twenty feet in the air, and his brains. . .scattered in all directions." Mrs. Ringo's account of this soul-shattering tragedy speaks for itself.
July 30, Saturday. And now Oh God comes the saddest record of my life for this day my husband accidentally shot himself and was buried by the wayside and oh, my heart is breaking, if I had no children how gladly would I lay me down with my dead-but now Oh God I pray for strength to raise our precious children and oh-may no one ever suffer the anguish that is breaking my heart. . .Oh, the agony of parting from that grave, to go and leave him on that hillside where I shall never see it more but thank God tis only the body lying there and may we only meet in Heaven where there is no more death but only life eternally.
Mrs. Ringo later bore the additional burdens of bearing a stillborn child and the fact that her son became the "infamous" self-identified "gunman" Johnny Ringo.
Children of widely varying ages very frequently were members of wagon train companies except, of course, of those almost exclusively male parties which dominated when the gold rush was at flood tide. Unlike today, however, children in the 19th century, particularly teen-agers, were consider to be "little adults", with an attendant assignment of responsibilities. Abigail Jane Scott's family is an instructive case in point. There were nine living children in the family when Tucker Scott and his wife started west; all but the 3-year old and the 5-year old were given specific tasks to be carried out while traveling--a "duty roster", so to speak.
Mary Francis, 19, or Fanny. . .the oldest daughter, assigned to cook.
. . .John Henry, 9, or Henry, Jerry, or Sonny. . .helped drive "mother's wagon."
Sarah Maria, 5, or Maria or Chat. . .
While older offspring effectively carried an adult's burden of responsibility, younger children needed supervision. In the "hurly burly" of trail activities, it is hardly surprising that such supervision was not always forthcoming. As a result, the phenomenon of a lost child was not all that unusual.
Lucy, Amelia Knight's daughter, became so engrossed in watching wagons cross the river she neglected to notice that her own wagon was getting ready to leave. No one thought to call Lucy, thinking someone else had supervisory responsibility, so the little girl was unwittingly left behind. In fact, no one missed the child until the wagon stopped to rest the animals after having gone several miles! At this point, "another train drove up behind us, with Lucy. . .(who) was terribly frightened and so were some more of us, when we found out what a narrow escape she had run." Similarly, a 7-year old boy got lost after he and an older friend went to retrieve a horse. The younger boy, unable to see the road, took a wrong turn. About thirty minutes later he was missed and a search party sent out. At sunset, word was received that the boy was safe, having been found by a party nine miles away! According to Mrs. Belshaw (1853), the boy had "followed the river 1/2 mile then struck out towards the road and came up to those wagons. They took him in and treated him kindly,"
Robert, an eleven-year old traveling with Margaret Frink and her husband, "took up a horse near the road, it having the appearance of being lost, and by so doing got separated from us." The Frink's were not unduly worried, thinking they would find the boy when the train reached the river; upon their arrival, however, he was not there. "I was almost frantic for fear the Indians had caught him", wrote Mrs. Frink, "and to increase my agony, a company of packers came along. . .who informed us that there were some five hundred Indians encamped very near us. I suffered the agony almost of death in a few minutes. . .The thought of leaving the boy, never to hear of him again!" Another member of the party, however, rode back through the hills, found the boy and brought him back; Mrs. Frink's was overjoyed, then her "joy turned to tears". Sometimes, of course, children, in the process of "exploring", simply and deliberately wandered away. Fourteen-year old Sallie Hester and several of her friends did just that for the purpose of seeing Devil's Gate "up close". "We were gone so long that the train was stopped and men sent out in search of us," Sallie later wrote in her diary, adding "We made all sorts of promises to remain in sight in the future."
As described earlier, children fell victim to accidents and sickness with frightening frequency. And sometimes medicine designed to deal with the latter was itself the cause of disaster. Lucy Henderson and her girlfriend sampled some medicine which her mother kept in a bag hung on a nail on the sideboard of their wagon, found it tasted terrible, and put it back after refusing to let Lucy's little sister, Salita Jane, taste it too. Of course, as soon as the two older girls left her alone, Salita "got the bottle and drank all of it". When the little girl told her mother that "she felt awfully sleepy, Mother told her to run away and not bother her, so she went to where the beds were spread and lay down. . . . "
When mother tried to awake her later she couldn't arouse her. Lettie had drunk the whole bottle of laudanum. It was too late to save her life. Before we had started father had made some boards of Black walnut that fitted along side of the wagon. They were grooved so they would fit together, and we used them for a table all the way across the plains. Father took these walnut boards and made a coffin for Salita and we buried her there by the roadside in the desert."
For neither children nor for adults, however, was the westward journey marked by unrelieved patterns of agony and anguish. Most activities and emotions were, in fact, so normal they were not considered significant enough to merit mention in a day's journal entry. We may be quite certain, however, that the activities described by 17-year old Eliza Ann McAuley in mid-July of 1852 were replicated again and again at other times and other places by many young people, and some not quite so young. "Traveled six miles today and camped on bear River," she wrote, "Here is splendid feed, the cattle wading in wild oats up to their eyes, while we have fun making pop corn candy. Margaret (Eliza's older sister) is baking cookies, but the boys steal them as fast as she can bake them. . ."
Westering parents were just as susceptible to exasperated amusement at the behavior of offspring as are contemporary fathers and mothers. Mrs. Phoebe Judson (1853) baked some bread in a Dutch oven, put in on the grass to cool, then went about her other chores. The sound of childish laughter attracted her attention, "I glanced in that direction, and what was my dismay to see little Annie standing on my precious loaf. I found that she and little Alta Bryant had been having a most enjoyable time rolling it on the grass." Alta Bryant's mother had an equally exasperating experience: "She set her sponge in the bread pan to rise and left it in the wagon, where her little boy, less than two years old, was sleeping, while she, with others, went for a short stroll. When she returned to the wagon, she found her little boy in the bread pan, up to his knees in the dough."
Lucy Cooke (1852) was as proud of her "little Sissy" as are all parents, describing her as "a cunning puss knows all we say." Mrs. Cooke did, however, admit her little daughter "has 2 great faults which I am continually whipping her for one is poling her fingers into the bread when set to rise the other is opening my box and siting on the top of things & twice she did her occasions in it. . ." A final example is provided by Margaret Frink (1850). The boy, Robert, traveling with the Frink's, somewhere acquired "a pair of Spanish spurs, and of course had put them on. . .then attempted to ride our smartest mule, but had no sooner got on that he stuck his spurs into his sides, and the Billy sent him flying." Initially fearing the boy was hurt, Mrs. Frink nonetheless "couldn't help laughing, he looked so ridiculous flying over the mule's head. We heard no more of Spanish spurs. . ."
It is all too easy to over-emphasize the negative aspects of trail travel-accidents and illnesses, difficulties and death-because they appear so frequently in the pages of emigrant accounts. Nonetheless, it is clear that for most travelers there was also a "bright side" to life on the trail, a side populated with events that lifted and renewed the spirit. Not surprisingly, many, perhaps most, of these events were associated in one way or another with families. Tamsen Donner (1846) was one of many who took special note of the flora to be seen near the trail: "We have found the wild tulip, the primrose, the lupine, the ear-drop, the larkspur, and creeping holyhock, and a beautiful flower resembling the blom of the beach tre, but in bunches as big as a small sugar-lear, and of every variety of shade to red and green." Amelia Knight and Velina Williams each received impromptu gifts of flowers. Mrs. Knight's were a gift from "one of our hands", while Mrs. Williams' husband "Samuel brought a bunch of flowers and a string of ripe strawberies in one hand and snowball in the other gathered from oposite sides of the stream (Sweetwater River) near our camp." It should be added that Mrs. Knight's husband also brought her a gift-a bucket of snow to be used as drinking water.
Socializing of one kind or another also provided at least occasional respite from the monotony and boredom that so frequently characterized a day on the trail. On June 19, 1847, for instance, Elizabeth Dixon Smith noted that "evry night we encamped we locate quite a village but take it up next day we have plenty music with the flute and violin and some dancing." And dancing was occasionally coupled with other forms of amusement. Lucy Rutledge Cooke describes one such occasion.
The young men all amused themselves with dancing after super in which Wm (Lucy's husband) joined as hearty as any. the cook of the company we had camped with amused us all much as he had found the previous day a bundle of woman's clothing which he had put on & had worn it all day, sun bonnet & all it caused considerable merriment all along the road & when dancing came off there was such a demand for this lady for a partner that Wm came for my saque dress & sun bonnet to wear Oh what guys the 2 did look but seemed well to enjoy themselves I sat looking at them till long after dark. . .
Sarah Sutton (1854) provides another excellent example of how a sense of humor can lighten the atmosphere and relieve tension. Mrs. Sutton's party paid a fee of 50¢ to use a bridge across the Sweetwater at Independence Rock. The "squatter" (as Mrs. Sutton designated him) who owned the bridge told them that, because he belonged to the same society as they did, he would inform them there was good grass on the other side, that he would not charge them for taking the horse wagon across and that he would additionally provide them with wood to burn. Mr. Sutton, after availing himself of this offer which seemed almost to good to be true, found that it was, indeed, just that! After getting their camp set up, "about a dosen of them went back after some wood and he charged them 25 cents apiece. they paid him the money, and came back in A high gale of laughter at the trick that had been played on them."
Celebrations were also a part of "westering", particularly on national holidays. And the one holiday which found virtually all travelers somewhere along the road was Independence Day, July 4th. Virginia Reed's father had been given a bottle of liquor in Springfield, Illinois by friends who told him to open it on July 4 "look to the east and drink it and thay was to look to the West and drink it at 12 oclock paw treted the company and we all had some lemonade. . ." E.W. Conyers (1852) gives quite an extended description of what must have been one of the more elaborate celebrations of Independence Day to take place near its namesake rock. Men went hunting "for the purpose of obtaining some fresh meat, if possible, for our Fourth of July dinner"; " A number of wagon beds are being taken to pieces and formed into long tables"; and a group of young ladies solved the problem of where to find material out of which to manufacture "'Old Glory' to wave over our festivities" by enlisting for this purpose a white sheet, a red skirt and a blue jacket. The successful hunters returned in the afternoon "some loaded with antelope, some with sagehens, and some with jackrabbits. Others brought a huge snowball, inserting a pole through the center the easier to carry it."
The next morning festivities began with "the booming of small arms", and, just before dawn, "we raised out forty-foot flagstaff with "Old Glory" nailed fast to the top." Three rousing cheers followed the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner", then it was determined that the major patriotic address would be given by one Virgil Y. Ralston who unfortunately "with several other young men of our company, went this morning to the Devil's Gate, where they obtained a little too much 'firewater', and by the time they reached the camp were considerably under its influence." A degree of inebriation notwithstanding, Mr. R.I. Doyle read the Declaration of Independence, then Mr. Ralston was lifted "bodily upon the end of one of our long tables, where they steadied him until he became sufficiently braced up, and then let go of him. He spoke for over half an hour, and delivered, off-hand, an excellent oration." A storm temporarily threatened to end the festivities, but it passed and "All gathered around the tabled loaded with refreshments, beautified and decorated with evergreens and wild flowers of the valley, that speak volumes in behalf of the good taste displayed by the ladies, both in the decorative and culinary art."
The R.I. Doyle referred to later attempted a most unusual experiment at Soda Springs. According to Conyers, he "made a wager that he could stop the flow of water from this spring by sitting on the crevice. He waited until the water began to recede, then took off his pants and seated himself on the crevice. . .He did not have to wait very long for the flow. It came gradually at first, but increased in force every moment. Doyle soon began bobbing up and down at a fearful rate. At this stage of the fun several of the boys took hold of Doyle and tried to hold him on the crevice, but in this they failed, for the more weight they added to Doyle the more power the spring seemed to have, and Doyle kept on bobbing up and down like a cork. Finally, Doyle cried out: 'Boys, ther is no use trying to hold the divil down. It can't be did, for the more weight you put on the more the devil churns me. I am now pounded into a beefsteak.'"
Sometimes receiving word of great national events at a frontier outpost sparked spontaneous reactions such as that described by Harriet A. Loughary at Fort Laramie in June of 1864. The sight of the flag flying over the military post "brought forth cheer after cheer from the throats of hundreds of lusty men, women and children, who all know and feel what true patriotism means." The Loughary family had "A small flag. . .tucked away in our wagon, which was. . .fastened to a willow rod, and tied to our wagon bow, which soon attracted the attention of the train and then another burst of cheering rang out." Men returning from the fort then arrived, not only with personal letters, but also with news of "the great Union victories by Gen Grant's Army." Having no fireworks, a camp fire was started, "An old battered violin and a wheezy accordion was brought out to give tone to the occasion. We sang with hearty good will "The star spangled banner" "The red white and blue" "Hang Jeff Davis in a sour apple tree" and every war song that we knew. . .There are a number of rebels in our train who joined it for protection, that did not enjoy our ratification of Union victories, but they skulked off in silence and went to bed."
Much more frequent, and perhaps more personally meaningful, were those events, celebratory or not, which bonded families,-weddings and births. In late May of 1841, Joseph Williams, for example, "was called upon to marry a couple of young people belonging to our company, without law or license, for we were a long way from the United States. Perhaps this was the first marriage in all these plains, among white people." And three years later, the Reverend Edward Evans Parrish reported that "Last night we had a wedding in camp. Mr. Martin Gilliam to Miss Elizabeth Asabill by E.E. Parrish. Both young. Hope they may do well."
If wives and husbands shared the pain of loss inflicted by death, they shared the joy of new life in a new country. "The Sabbath dawned most serenely upon us, a bright, lovely morning, the twenty-sixth of June," wrote Mrs. Phoebe Judson in 1853. "I am certain of the date," she continued," for the day was made memorable to me by the birth of a son." The little boy was named Charles La Bonta Judson after his grandfather and "in commemoration of the birthplace on La Bonta Creek, in the Platte valley."
Monday morning our party were so considerate of my welfare, and that of the "new emigrant", that they proposed remaining in camp for a day or two. I assured them that we were both very comfortable, and, though reluctant to leave this most beautiful spot (the romantic birthplace of our baby boy) I urged them to proceed with the journey.
The captain decreed that our wagon should lead the train (although it was not our turn), saying if "our wagon was obliged to halt the rest would also".
It proved the roughest day's journey through the Black Hills. The wind blew a perfect gale, and while going down some of the rough. . . hills it seemed that the wagon would capsize; but I had little to fear, for Mr. Judson had become an expert in handling his team. Some of the ladies remarked that "he drove over the stones as carefully as though they were eggs".
No one, in the estimation of this writer, has more dispassionately yet movingly described that chain of events which form a seamless web than did Edwin Bryant (1846); for some this "Cycle of Life" is merely part of existence, while for others it is a sliver of eternity.
The "cycle" began with a young boy in a party well in advance of Bryant's; the boy's leg had been crushed in an accident nine days earlier. Though Bryant was not a doctor, he "had acquired the undeserved reputation of being a great 'doctor,' in several of the emigrant companies in advance and in our rear. . ." Thus, his aid was solicited and, upon completion of the ride of twenty-five or thirty miles necessary to examine the boy, he found a situation both tragic and gruesome. The boy's leg had been wrapped nine days earlier and the dressing had never been changed! Bryant had been sent for when, the night before, the child had complained that "he could feel worms crawling in his leg" and subsequent examination verified that "gangrene had taken place and the limb of the child was swarming with maggots!" By the time Bryant saw him, "the child's leg, from his foot to his knee, was in a state of putrefaction. He was so much enfeebled by his sufferings that death was stamped upon his countenance, and I was satisfied that he could not live twenty-four hours, much less survive an operation." The distraught mother, emotionally incapable of accepting this assessment of the situation, turned to a "Canadian Frenchman, who belonged to this emigrating party. . .and stated that he had formerly been an assistant to a surgeon in some hospital. . .and that he would amputate the child's limb, if I declined it, and the mother desired it." Bryant himself "could not repress an involuntary shudder" when he "saw the preparations made for the butchery of the little boy." Using "a common butcher-knife, a carpenter's handsaw, and a shoemakers' awl to take up the arteries", the "surgeon" first cut below the knee, then, changing his mind, amputated above the knee. "During these demonstrations the boy never uttered a groan or a complaint. . .(even though) he was dying. . .A few drops of blood only oozed from the stump; the child was dead-his miseries were over."
Later that evening, Bryant was invited to attend a wedding in the encampment. "The candles were not of wax not very numerous, nor were the ornaments of the apartment very gorgeous or the bridal bed very voluptuous. The wedding-cake was not frosted with sugar, no illustrated with matrimonial devices
. . .but cake was handed round to the whole party present. There was no music or dancing on the occasion. The company separated soon after the ceremony was performed, leaving the pair to the enjoyment of their connubial felicities."
As Bryant left the wedding tent, "in looking across the plain, I could see the light of the torches and lanterns (of) the funeral procession that was conveying the corpse of the little boy whom I saw expire, to his last resting-place, in this desolate wilderness", a sight which "produced sensations of sadness and depression." At precisely that moment, however, "a man arrived from another encampment about a mile and a half distant, and informed me that the wife of one of the emigrants had just been safely delivered of a son, and that there was, in consequence of this event, great rejoicing."
"I could not but reflect upon the singular concurrence of the events of the day," Bryant wrote, "A death and funeral, a wedding and a birth, had occurred in this wilderness, within a diameter of two miles, and within two hours' time; and to-morrow, the places where these events had taken place, would be deserted and unmarked, except by the grave of the unfortunate boy deceased!" "Such," he concluded, "are the dispensations of Providence!-such the checkered map of human suffering and human enjoyment."
So they went-men, women and children-following this "checkered map" to a new land where the survivors and descendents started a new life. Dedicated to securing a better future for themselves, these "westering" families did something else, too-they built a country.
Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved