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.