Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey

By Lillian Schlissel
I write on my lap with the wind rocking the wagon. So begins this compelling book, penned by women traveling the overland trail to Oregon and California from 1841 to 1867. One can just imagine this material being written in a covered wagon or by the light of a camp fire. It is history rarely seen through the eyes of pioneer women.
Charlotte Pengra writes she was pretty tired after she hung out what things were wet in the wagon, made griddle cakes, stewed berries, made tea for supper, made 2 loaves of bread, stewed apples, prepared potatoes and meat for breakfast, and mended a pair of pants. There was a constant search for berries and for weeds and buffalo chips for the fire. These women performed the usual household chores and more, even driving the wagons.
Traveling from mid-April to early winter emigrants found weather conditions harsh and unpredictable. Summer temps soared to 110 degrees. Elizabeth Geer describes her journey from Indiana to Oregon in November 1847: It rains and snows. We start this morning around the falls with our wagons. I carry my baby and lead and carry another child through snow, mud and water almost to my knees. Many women cite heavy rains. Velina Williams says cooking became impossible as fuel became wet. Flooding ruined roads, damaged wagons, loosened wheels, or contributed to drownings at crossings.
Children learned early to fend for themselves, fell off moving wagons and became lost in large parties of travelers and animals. The worst affliction was the dreaded cholera that could snuff out life within hours. There is scarcely a diary during the 1840's that does not cite deaths from cholera and other causes. Some wagon trains lost 2/3rds of their members. One writer stated: "The road from Independence to Laramie is a grave-yard.Cecelia Adams recorded of her family's journey daily graves from June 25 to October 17. On July 1st, one man in her company died and she passed 8 graves. Margaret Wilson, the grandmother of General George Patton wrote in 1850 that she was going with her man as there is no other alternative. This books reflects the quiet courage of the pioneer women against great and unsought odds. If you ever get a chance I hope you read it.


Wanda said...

I have that book, and you are right - it is fascinating. I love historical diaries.

Mrs. Darling said...

Ah you're site is so peaceful. I love the post below with the kids all playing in the fort. Thats how we used to play as kids!

Leann said...

Going to have to look for this one - it sounds like a total keeper!!!

Bill said...

Loved the pics of the kids playing in their cabin... brought back a lot of memories!

Surfed over from Christie's place, and I'm glad I did!!

Finn said...

Hi Peggy, how are you today?? I think your book sounds wonderful! I will have to add that to my list!!! I just got "The Quilt That Walked To Golden"..which is a historic look at the women and the quilts that walked westward. The Golden being GOlden, CO. I wish it were small enough to read in bed, but alas, it is a heavyweight. I do have books of women's diaries from the westward journey. Such a incredibly difficult trip it must have different from us today. Thanks for sharing..Hugs, Finn

Amy said...

I love reading books like this, it sounds like one to put on my wishlist.

Maggie Ann said...

The courage they had is sad yet impressive. But what choice did they have? They followed thier men onward...and bravery grew by necessity I imagine. I sometimes think of how wonderful it was and is when antibiotics came to be and how many lives would have been saved with meds. I am sad for the graveyards that might not have been so soon needed. I'm sure there were many joys along the way, I hope! Perhaps I will read this some time too.

Lori said...

Thank you for bringing this book to our attention. I love books like this and am often in search of them. Can't wait to sit and read it.
The women are so often forgotten along the way. The men are the heros building the houses and killing the meat, aquiring the land and fighting off the bad guys...but many people forget about the loads and loads of work that these woman had to shoulder.
Looks like a good read, thank you.