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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Covered Wagon Women II

I didn't go into writing planning to author books on the American West. My first novels were not set in that region. I sort of fell into it by accident. Now, I've discovered a love for the region and certain time periods. I have a story on the back burner about a couple forced to marry so they can travel on a wagon train to Montana. Their plan is to divorce when they arrive, but of course, that ain't gonna happen! But even as a panster writer (one who doesn't do story boards or character sketches) I do have to plan and I do have to do research. After all, I've never traveled by wagon train. So, I turn to books that relay true life tales of adventure and heroism. I have a couple which have reprinted letters and diaries of women who crossed the country on foot, horseback and covered wagon.

One book in particular is COVERED WAGON WOMEN: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trials, 1840-1849 by Kenneth L. Holmes. Mr. Holmes has culled libraries and museums to find actual letters and diaries to transcribe in his book. He also did biographical research on the women who wrote the stories he relates. It's a fantastic read.

One story I am fond of in his book was written by a young woman, Sallie Hester. Certain recounts of her diary say she was twelve when she wrote it, but Mr. Holmes's research shows she was actually the more mature age of fourteen. Sallie traveled from Bloomington, Indiana to California in 1849. Her parents, two brothers and a sister accompanied her on the journey. Most of her entries were done on Sunday, a day her wagon train nearly always rested.

Sallie's family leaves their home on March 20th and arrives at Vernon, California on October 6th. Their journey starts when they travel by steamboat to St. Joseph, Missouri to meet up with the wagon train. The boat ride is full of its own adventures, as it continually hit sandbars, finally causing the passengers to disembark ten miles from their destination.

Within weeks of leaving St. Joseph, the train finds itself in hostile Indian territory. The wagons circle at night, with the animals kept inside the circle while families pitch tents outside the circle. Men are on guard throughout the night to keep the Indians from killing or stealing the livestock. Sallie and her family sleep inside their wagon on a feather bed.

They “have a cooking stove made of sheet iron, a portable table, tin plates and cups, cheap knives and forks, camp stools, etc.” for the trip. They “live on bacon, ham, rice, dried fruits, molasses, packed butter, bread, coffee, tea and milk as we have our own cows.” Occasionally fresh game is killed and fresh fish caught to add variety to the meals.

The trip, as they all are, is full of hazards. One of the things the travelers have to contend with is cholera. Sallie's train is hit several times by this disease and she reports in her June 3rd entry, “A great many deaths; graves are everywhere.” Her family seems to fair well the entire trip, however. Another hazard is crossing rivers. Sallie reports on June 21st, during a crossing of the Platte River, “A lady and four children were drowned through the carelessness of those in charge of the ferry.”

On July 4th, like a great many other travelers (re: my April 17th blog entry at 'Chatting with Anna Kathryn.') Sallie's group takes a “cut-off,” which should be quicker and faster than the regular route. Instead they have “neither wood nor water for fifty-two miles.”

These days, we just jump into our car and we're off to visit here, there and everywhere. I live 250 miles from my eldest daughter. I can make the trip in about five hours. On August 20th, Sallie notes, “We are now 348 miles from the mines. We expect to travel that distance in three weeks and a half.”

On September 4th she relays their journey through the desert. Though they supply themselves with extra water and cut grass for the cattle, it isn't enough and some of their cattle give out. Cries of “another ox down” stop the train as the men unyoke the dying animal so it can follow or not, as it wills. The baying of the tired and thirsty cattle fills the night as they try desperately to reach water before they lose any more animals. Finally, they see the Truckee. “Saved at last! Poor cattle; they kept on mooing, even when they stood knee deep in water,” Sallie writes.

On September 8th, she writes, “Traveled fourteen miles; crossed the Truckee twelve times.” Can you imagine? On September 21st she describes the train “descending a tremendous hill. We let the wagons down with ropes...At Sleepy Hollow we again let the wagons down the mountain with ropes.”

On October 6th, she announces that the train has reached Vernon, California.“Our party of fifty, now only thirteen, has at last reached this haven of rest.” Her family crosses the river and makes camp in Fremont for the winter. They live in a two room shanty for more than six months. It will do for a temporary home, though. Sallie seems to enjoy her time in Fremont...with a scarcity of girls, she is invited to many outings. In April of 1850, her father travels to San Jose and decides to bring the family there, which is where they settle.

Sallie continues her diary until she marries on October 5, 1871 (which makes her 35 years old). She writes “I was married to James K. Maddock of Eureka, Nevada...and now Dear Journal, I give thee up. No more jottings down of gay and festive scenes—the past is gone and the future before me. 'So mote it be.'”

I think it sad that Sallie thought that as a married woman she had no more insight of her world to offer.

As mentioned above, I wrote of another Covered Wagon Woman on my own blog on Friday, April 17th. You can read about Tabitha Brown's wagon trip at http://annakathrynlanier.blogspot.com.

Anna Kathryn Lanier
More Than Tumbleweeds
Heartwarming, Sensual Westerns



Lise said...

This was a terrific post, with great insight into the horrors that these intrepid folk took on with such sangfroid. I think that diaries are an amazing way to discover both how things really were, as well as how the subjects perceived the events and situations (especially with historical issues, which we cannot even conceive of and thus cannot render accurately, as writers). I have liked using these personal reports ever since reading A Diary From Dixie in my study of the American Civil War. Another great source of insight were the letters of John and Abigail Adams.

The image you describe of lowering the wagons by ropes was, by Hollywood standards, rendered pretty well in the movie, Westward the Women, including the inherent danger - and deaths - that accompanied the trip. Nice post!

Sheryl said...

That was really interesting. I'm from the UK, so it seems worlds away. You made it very real to me.
Nice blog!

Paty Jager said...

Wonderful information! Every time I read about the wagons traveling across the continent I marvel and what made these people leave so much behind to head into unknown land.

Josh Lockwood said...

Great post, Anna. When I was still on active duty with the Navy, I was stationed in Fallon, Nevada, just a few miles south of the Forty Mile Desert, and used to sit in my car at its edge, marveling that people in the past actually had the strength of character to brave that Godforsaken terrain. Definitely makes you think.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Thanks for all the comments. I marvel at those brave souls as well. Josh, it's amazing to think it would have taken them 3-4 days, at least, to cross that 40 miles. They would have had to have carried their own water and feed, too.

I think I'll do some research on the deminsons of the wagon and post about that soon. After all, it was their home for months on end, some even using it after they reached their destination, as they would have to build shelter.


Victoria Gray said...

It astounds me to think of the endurance and fortitude shown by these women...thanks for sharing this information about the hardships the covered wagon women faced.