Tag Archives: Covered Wagon Women

Chain Migration

Chain Migration
from the introduction to Covered Wagon Women, volume 5

If you think chain migration is a new thing, or that it’s a bad thing, you’re mistaken. It’s how people have moved the world over, forever and ever.

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Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer

Elizabeth’s husband fell sick on the journey. He made it to Portland, but had to be carried to their leaky, lean-to shed and laid upon what was to become his deathbed. He lingered for two months, before finally dying.

feb 1 [Tuesday] rain all day this day my Dear husband my last remaining friend died.

feb 2 to day we buried my earthly companion, now I know what none but widows know that is how comfortless is that of a widows life espesily when left in a strange land without money or friends and the care of seven children — cloudy

Geer, Elizabeth Dixon Smith, 1808/9?-1855, Diary of Elizabeth Dixon Geer, 1-2 February 1848, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, volume 1: 1840-1849, page 146. Holmes, Kenneth L., editor & compiler Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

That Spring, Elizabeth and her children left Portland, which she described as a “sick game place.” They settled in Yamhill County, and she soon married a man named Joseph Geer.

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Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer

Imagine traveling by ox and wagon across the country, with no access to medical care, and only a few scant “medicines” at your disposal.

passed through St Joseph on the bank of the Missouri laid in our flour cheese and crackers and medicine for no one should travle this road without medicine for they are al most 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. we traveled 4 miles the river and encamped here we found nine waggons bound for oregon.

Geer, Elizabeth Dixon Smith, 1808/9?-1855, Diary of Elizabeth Dixon Geer, 3 June 1847, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, volume 1: 1840-1849, page 119. Holmes, Kenneth L., editor & compiler Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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Tamsen E. Donner

Have reached the Donner Party letters. Yes, *those* Donners. #readathon #deweysreadathon #donnerparty #ladyjournals

Tamsen was opposed to leaving the main road to take the Hastings Cutoff. Sadly, she never made it to California. Instead of evacuating Truckee Lake with the second or third relief party, she chose to stay behind to tend to her dying husband. When she finally left the cabins at Truckee Lake and attempted to walk out on her own, she made it as far as the tents at Alder Creek. There she either died or was killed by Lewis Keseberg.

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Anna Maria King

Not all the women who traveled westward did so enthusiastically or willingly. Anna Maria King was one of them, though once her family was settled in Oregon, she found life there agreeable.

And although I was much apposed to coming as anyone could be, if I were back there and know what I know now, I should be perfectly willing to come.

King, Anna Maria, 1822-1905, Letter to Mother, Brothers, and Sisters, 1 April 1846, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, volume 1: 1840-1849, page 44. Holmes, Kenneth L., editor & compiler Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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Virginia Elizabeth Backenstoe Reed

Virginia was 13 years old when she was stranded at Truckee Pass with the the Donner party. Hers was the only family who did not resort to cannibalism, but that didn’t make their ordeal any less horrific.

The passage below is from a letter she wrote to her cousin, after the surviving members of the Donner party were rescued.

O Mary I would cry and wish I had what you all wasted Eliza had to go to Mr Graves cabin & we staid at Mr Breen they had meat all the time & we had to kill littel cash the dog & eat him we ate his head and feet & hide & evry thing about him o my Dear Cousin you dont now what trubel is yet a many a time we had on the last thing a cooking and did not now wher the next would come from but there was awl ways some way provided

Reed, Virginia, 1833-1921, Letter to Her Cousin, 16 May 1847, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, volume 1: 1840-1849, page 78. Holmes, Kenneth L., editor & compiler Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

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And so it begins

The Pile. I'm going to start by finishing the very end of the Nancy Drew that's been sitting on my bedside table for weeks. #readathon #books #ladyjournals

Ladyjournals, ahoy! But first I’m going to finish the Nancy Drew that’s been sitting on my bedside table.

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Harriet Talcott Buckingham Clarke

All the diarists mention the Indians they meet on their journey. Most of the women’s descriptions fall somewhere between thoroughly ignorant and deeply racist. This passage is one of the few I’ve read that contains even a hint of awareness of the affect the white settlers’ movement westward was having on the peoples living on those lands.

May, 1851

Crossed the Missouri at Council Bluffs, where we had been a couple of weeks making the final preparations on this outskirt of civilization

The weather has been mild, and we have walked evry day over the rolling hills around — one day found a young physician and his wife who were interested in examining the numerous skulls and human bones that were found near the surface of the ground. After much speculation the fact was elucidated that, large tribes of Indians from the middle states had been pushed off by our government to this frontier region to make room for white settlers, and had here perished in large numbers by starvation consequent upon removal from familiar hunting grounds: they had been buried in large trenches with heads to the east. Skulls were thick: of peculiar shape differing from the Anglo Saxon type.

Clarke, Harriet Talcott Buckingham, 1832-1890, Diary of Harriet Talcott Buckingham Clarke, May, 1851, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, vol. 3: 1851. Holmes, Kenneth L., ed. & comp. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

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Comet

Comet
gel pen on paper, 5 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches

On August 20, 1853, Celinda Hines wrote, “Saw a commet very plain in the SW.” And again, on the 23rd, “The commet shown very brilliantly in the evening.”

Three days later, Celinda Hines’ father died crossing the Snake River. He was thrown from his horse and drowned. His body was never recovered. In her journal, Celinda wrote, “I will not attempt to describe our distress & sorrow for our great Bereavement.” And indeed, she did not. She tells the story of his death almost matter-of-factly, but her grief is even more palpable for her terseness. The next day she wrote, “Our camp was in a very pretty place but all was sadness to me.”

[Excerpts taken from Shipley, Celinda Elvira Hines, 1826-1905, Diary of Celinda Elvira Hines Shipley, August, 1853, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, vol. 6: 1853-1854. Holmes, Kenneth L., ed. & comp. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, pages 113, 114, 116.]

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Remedies

Medicine on the overland trails left something to be desired. Some of the remedies were common sensical. Others, while they may not have done much to help the patient, at least they wouldn’t have harmed or killed her.

Lucy Rutledge Cooke suffered greatly from ulcerations and swelling of her tongue and throat. This went on for weeks, while she tried various ineffective remedies. One of them involved drinking “sugar of lead,” or lead acetate. We know now that lead should not be ingested, but in the past it was used for everything from sweetener to face cream to–as seen below–sore throat remedy.

[May 29, 1852]

I was not able to eat any having got a very very bad mouth & throat my tongue is so swollen & in such ulcers that I m unable to speak much & can swallow nothing but liquids I never had my tongue in such a state

[June 6, 1852]

My throat continues very bad I used Suger of lead once, but it had such a curious taste & turned my teeth so black that I could not endure to use it again I now keep sucking alum which seems to cleanse my mouth but really I dont know if it does further good

[June 13, 1852]

I drink chocolate all the time since I’ve been sick. I’m thankful to say my mouth seems much better to day. I have been using a gargle made of sage tea, alum, borax & sugar & it seems to benefit

Cooke, Lucy Rutledge, 1827-1915, Letter from Lucy Rutledge Cooke to Marianne Rutledge Willis, May-June 10, 1852, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, vol. 4: 1952: The California Trail. Holmes, Kenneth L., ed. & comp. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

We know now that cholera is spread by coming into contact with contaminated water. Bathing in water that could well be teeming with cholera bacteria seems now to be unwise at best. I’m not even sure how this cure was supposed, at the time, to have worked.

June 29 [1850]

We had the hardest thunder storm last night I have witnessed in some years. Started on this morning & soon came to a very bad road, low marshy land. A little before we stopt at noon there was a woman by the name of Beal died. She was buried on the banks of the Clearwater, a fine stream about 10 miles from where we came on the bottoms. They immersed 3 in this stream for the cholera. Travelled 14 miles & slept on a high spot on the marsh for the night. Met the Salt Lake mail, they said they met 8000 teams when they got to Fort Laramee. Since that they have not kept count. Wether very warm.

Parsons, Lucena Pfuffer, 1821-1905, Diary of Lucena Parsons, June, 1850, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, vol. 2: 1850. Holmes, Kenneth L., ed. & comp. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, pp. 294.

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