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For too long these diaries and letters were secreted away in attics and basements or collected dust on the shelves of manuscript collections across the country. Their publication gives us a fresh perspective on the pioneer experience.
This is a worthy selection of primary sources first published in the indispensable 11-volume series Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Of the nearly 100 travel accounts initially compiled by editor Holmes, Michael L. Tate (history & Native American studies, Univ. of Nebraska; Indians and Emigrants: Encounters on the Overland Trails) selected eight of the most significant for inclusion here. While the original series spans 50 years, this single volume covers only 1848 to 1864, so it does omit important evolutions in cross-country travel such as the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. Scholarly analysis is not the focus; instead, the women's accounts, which range from a few pages of letters to a 50-page diary, are allowed to speak for themselves. Collectively, these narratives weave an intricate tapestry detailing the minutiae of life on the trail and the multitude of perils that travelers faced: disease, accidents, dangerous weather, nonpotable water, and confrontations with Native Americans. An important, very readable collection recommended for both public and academic libraries, especially those with an interest in Western Americana, social history, women's history, and gender studies.
Ledyard Frink was born and raised in the western part of New York. I, Margaret Ann Alsip, his wife, was born in Maryland, though partly raised in Virginia, on the banks of the Potomac River. From there we moved to Kentucky, where Mr. Frink and myself were married on the seventeenth day of April, 1839. We spent that summer in Cincinnati; and in October moved to make ourselves a home at Cheviot, six miles west of that city, where we continued to live very pleasantly till 1844, when we made up our minds to try our fortunes farther west. We situated ourselves one hundred and twenty-five miles from Cheviot, in the town of Martinsville, the county seat of Morgan County, Indiana. Here Mr. Frink engaged in merchandising, in which he succeeded very well. We continued to live here nearly six years during which time we built a pleasant and convenient residence, having large grounds about it. But we were not yet satisfied. The exciting news coming back from California of the delightful climate and abundance of gold, caused us to resolve, about December, 1849, that we would commence preparing to cross the plains by the spring of 1850.
The first thing on Mr. Frink's part was to have a suitable wagon made for the trip while I hired a seamstress to make up a full supply of clothing. In addition to our finished articles of dress, I packed a trunk full of dress goods not yet made up. We proceeded in the spring to get our outfit completed. There was no one from our part of the country, so far as we knew, that intended to cross the plains that season, and we were obliged to make such preparations as our best judgment led us to do, without advice or assistance from others. We knew nothing of frontier life, nor how to prepare for it. And besides, we were met with all the discouragements and obstructions that our neighbors and the people of our county could invent or imagine, to induce us not to attempt such a perilous journey. But, nothing daunted, we kept at work in our preparations for the trip, thinking all the time that we should have to make the long journey by ourselves, as no one in all that part of the country was offering or expecting to go to California that season.
But it appeared as if there was a Providence planning for us. First, we had a boy that we had taken into our family to live with us when he was seven years of age, and now he was eleven. He was much attached to us and could not be reconciled to be left with his own friends and relatives. The child being so determined to cling to us, Mr. Frink consented to take him if his uncle and guardian, Mr. W. Wilson, would give his consent. This he very readily did, though with all his family opposed to the plan. The consent was given about four days before we started.
The wagon was packed and we were all ready to start on the twenty-seventh day 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. However, until we had crossed the Missouri River, we stopped at hotels and farmhouses every night, and did not use our own bedding. After that, there being no more hotels nor houses, we used it continually all the way to California.
The wagon was lined with green cloth, to make it pleasant and soft for the eye, with three or four large pockets on each side, to hold many little conveniences,—looking-glasses, combs, brushes, and so on. Mr. Frink bought, in Cincinnati, a small sheet-iron cooking-stove, which was lashed on behind the wagon. To prepare for crossing the deserts, we also had two India-rubber bottles holding five gallons each, for carrying water.
Our outfit for provisions was plenty of hams and bacon, covered with care from the dust, apples, peaches, and preserved fruits of different kinds, rice, coffee, tea, beans, flour, corn-meal, crackers, sea-biscuit, butter, and lard. The canning of fruits had not been invented yet—at least not in the west, so far as we knew.
Learning by letters published in the newspapers, that lumber was worth $400.00 per thousand in California, while it was worth only $3.00 in Indiana, Mr. Frink concluded to send the material for a small cottage by the way of Cape Horn. The lumber was purchased and several carpenters were put to work. In six days the whole material was prepared, ready for putting it together. It was then placed on board a flatboat lying in White River, to be ready for the spring rise—as boats could not pass out except at high water. The route was down White River to the Wabash, to the Ohio, to the Mississippi, to New Orleans; thence by sail vessel around Cape Horn to Sacramento, where it arrived the following March, having been just one year on the voyage.
Our team consisted of five horses and two mules. We had two saddles for the riding-horses, one for Mr. Frink and one for myself.
I believe we were all ready to start on the morning of the 27th of March. On the evening before, the whole family, including my mother, were gathered together in the parlor, looking as if we were all going to our graves the next morning, instead of our starting on a trip of pleasure, as we had drawn the picture in our imagination. There we sat in such gloom that I could not endure it any longer, and I arose and announced that we would retire for the night, and that we would not start to-morrow morning, nor until everybody could feel more cheerful. I could not bear to start with so many gloomy faces to think of. So we all retired, but I think no one slept very much that night.
I believe Mr. Frink, more than myself, began to fully realize the great undertaking we were about to embark in, almost alone. Our conversation finally turned on the likelihood that a young man of our acquaintance, named Aaron Rose, might wish to go with us. Some remark he had made led us to think he might like to join us. But Mr. Frink was of the opinion that his father and mother would never let him go, as they were already wealthy people and had but two children with them. Besides, Mr. Rose had been a confidential clerk in Frink & Alsip's store in Martinsville, during the past three years, and could not be spared from the business, as my brother, Mr. A. B. Alsip, was to remain in Martinsville and carry on the merchandising as before. But, after discussing all these objections, Mr. Frink left the house early the next morning and went to Mr. Rose's residence, where he met the young man's father, and inquired of him if he had ever heard his son say anything about wishing to go to California. "Yes," said the old gentleman, and he has thought quite hard of you that you have never spoken to him on the subject. But he says he is determined to go when he is twenty-one years old." Then the mother came in weeping, saying, "If he ever does go, I want him to go with Mr. and Mrs. Frink, for I know he will have a father and mother in them." And it was decided on, by six o'clock that morning, that we should wait a few days longer, until the young man could be fitted out for the journey. I think all the young ladies in town offered to help, as he was a general favorite. And for the next three days there was a very busy time among his young acquaintances, in making him ready for the California journey. During the meantime, we were practising the driving of our four-horse wagon, with lines in hand, and gradually educating ourselves to bear the final separation from our relatives and friends. We were all ready to leave our home on Saturday, the thirtieth day of March.
We bade farewell to all our relatives, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. Mr. Frink and myself, having each a horse to ride, rode out of town on horseback, and with the four-horse wagon, went seven miles before stopping for lunch. It was a beautiful spring day. Our faces were not at last set westward. We arrived on the west bank of the Eel River about sundown. We were quite tired, and there being a large brick house near by, we inquired there for quarters for the night. It appeared that the landlady was, for the moment, in the stable, and, hearing our inquiry, she thrust her head out of the stable window and answered rather impatiently that she had no time to give to strangers; that she had a cow in the stable that she was going to break if it took her all night to do it; that we had better go on about three miles, where we might be accommodated with lodgings. This looked like a poor chance for us; but Mr. Frink was not to be discouraged in this manner. He went to the stable and gave the milkman such instructions as enabled him in a short time to bring the unruly cow under subjection, so that the old lady came out highly pleased, and allowed us to stay in the house all night.
Sunday, March 31. We continued our journey to-day and struck the national road at Manhattan, where we had dinner. We lost our road, however, and had to retrace about three miles. We stopped at night about twenty miles east of Terre Haute, and were very pleasantly entertained. The landlord of the hotel had been a sea-captain, and volunteered some advice that afterwards proved very beneficial to us, in regard to preparing to defend ourselves against the scurvy, from which so many California emigrants had suffered in 1849.
Monday, April 1. We started again in good spirits, every one at the hotel, strangers and all, wishing us good luck on our long journey. On this great "national road" the towns are near together; and whenever we stopped, even to water the horses, there would be squads of people standing about, full of curiosity, and making comments upon ourselves and our outfit, thinking we were certainly emigrants bound for California. But some would remark, "There's a lady in the party; and surely there's no man going to take a woman on such a journey as that, across the plains." Then some of them would venture to approach the wagon and cautiously peep in; then, seeing a lady, they would respectfully take off their hats, with a polite salutation; and we felt that, if there was anything in having good wishes expressed for us, we should certainly have a successful and pleasant trip. We stopped, to dine four miles east of Terre Haute. Here we heard a great many comments upon the hardihood of a woman attempting to make such a difficult journey.
We reached Terre Haute at two o'clock in the afternoon, and made some additions to our outfit. We laid in a supply of acid to take the place of vegetables after we should get out on the great plains. This is a beautiful town, situated on the east side of the Wabash River. Our outfit attracted much attention and was greatly admired, particularly our fine horses. The first California emigrants we had seen passed us here, they having been fitted out in this neighborhood. We passed them in the afternoon. We stopped at night nine miles west of Terre Haute. The accommodations were very poor. However, we were fully prepared to board ourselves whenever the people refused to accommodate us. Here we ate our supper from our tin plates and drank coffee from our tin cups for the first time. Mr. Frink expressed regret that we had omitted to bring our tea cups, and suggested that he would buy some when we came to the next town. But for my part, I was satisfied to do as other immigrants did, and if it was the fashion to drink out of tin, I was quite content to do so. The landlady was cross and snappish, thinking, I suppose, that we were not quite worthy of her valuable attention, though I tried to adapt myself, as far as possible, to her notions. However, she gave us a nice bed, and by the time we were ready to take our leave the next morning, she seemed to have concluded that we were tolerably respectable people.
Tuesday, April 2. We had a rather late start this morning, having some fixing up to do. We reached Paris, Illinois, in time for dinner, and found it quite a pretty place. It is something smaller than Martinsville, yet quite a tastefully built town, and has a large seminary for young ladies. Here again the inhabitants had many comments to make upon the propriety of a lady undertaking a journey of two thousand miles, across deserts and mountains infested with hostile savages. But they would finally wind up and conclude by saying that I was "certainly a soldier to attempt it;" and, putting their heads inside the wagon, they would wish us all possible success in the undertaking.
Wednesday, April 3. We staid last night on Grand Prairie. Our hostess and her husband were German people, and made us very comfortable. We traveled all day on the prairie. The distance was twelve miles between houses, and no timber in sight at many times, though occasionally we passed some beautifully timbered spots. We staid all night at a house on the west side of the prairie.
Thursday, April 4. We launched out on the fourteen-mile prairie this morning, and such a time as we had,—storming, snowing, and sleeting,—and we with no place of shelter. Before we had gone far, we came to a bad-looking, muddy place, to avoid which he turned off the beaten track upon the grass, which looked firm and solid. To our astonishment, the horses broke through the sod, and, being unable to pull their feet out, they were all soon flat on the ground, and could not be gotten out until they were unhitched from the wagon. I stood in the sleet and held four horses for two hours, till I thought my feet were frozen. My cloak was frozen stiff, and I was chilled through and through.
While we were in this predicament, there came up a team with five men from Ohio, who stopped and helped us. They spaded the wagon out of the mud, and then hitched their horses to the hind axle, and we were pulled out safe; and we learned not to leave the beaten track again. I concluded after that, to ride my pony in preference to riding in the wagon. We came at last, to a half-way house of one room. They had a fire, and it was a real luxury to get warm once more. But it was a forlorn-looking set that had gathered there for shelter and a little rest. There was no woman in the company but myself. As soon as we were thawed out, we started to make the remaining seven miles of our day's journey. It was a hard day, and we did not get through till after dark. Then we found good accommodations in a large backwoods cabin. There were two large rooms with great, wide fireplaces and huge, blazing logs piled on. That great, glowing fire I shall never forget, nor the bountiful supper table, with its good, warm coffee, and, best of all, the cheerful faces that welcomed us.
Friday, April 5. We had tolerably good roads to-day, through prairies. At night we stopped at the last house before entering another lonely prairie. This was thirty miles east of Springfield, Illinois. The landlord and landlady appeared somewhat independent and a little indifferent as to whether they would accommodate travelers or not; but they finally consented, and we passed the night under their roof very comfortably.
Saturday, April 6. I felt quite unwell this morning; but we traveled steadily all day, and reached Springfield, the state capital, at nine o'clock at night. The roads were very muddy and bad, but we could not get accommodations till we reached the city; and, it being late and very dark, we came to rather a poor hotel. But we were so tired we were glad to put up with even poor accommodations. We found considerable excitement prevailing over the report that a California emigrant had been murdered that day some ten miles west of the city, on the road we were to travel the next day. I then began to feel that we had undertaken a risky journey, even long before we came to the Indian country. We got out the Colt's revolver that night to see that it was in good order, and made ready to defend ourselves against attack; but happily we were not molested in any way. We concluded, however, that it would be prudent hereafter to answer all inquiries with the reply that we were "on a trip to the far west," and not, if we could avoid it, make it known that we had started for California.
Sunday, April 7. We traveled only fifteen miles to-day. We found good accommodations for ourselves, but our poor horses had to stand out-of-doors, though the night air was damp and chilly. For the first time, we found that horse feed was scarce, and the neighborhood had to be ransacked to get a sufficient supply.
Monday, April 8. We traveled through a beautiful country to-day, between Springfield and Jacksonville, and stopped at night five miles west of Jacksonville.
Tuesday, April 9. We traveled twenty-one miles to-day, crossing the Illinois River at Naples, which is quite a business-like place, on the east side of the river. A railroad runs from Naples to Quincy.
Excerpted from Best of Covered Wagon Women Volume I by Kenneth L. Holmes. Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Posted August 10, 2008
I am in awe of these women. They speak of baking pies and doing their wash and still they had time to write. What a gift they left for us. Kenneth Holmes' wife is now 90 years old and I have had the privilege of caring for her for the past 5 1/2 years. She is still very beautiful and a sweet spirit. I am also acquainted with her son, Stephen Holmes. He lives in Germany.
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