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NewsweekIrresistible...uncommonly interesting...a remarkable distillation of invaluable primary sources.
—Peter S. Prescott
These priceless autobiographical accounts from pioneer women bring alive the women who civilized the American frontier.
To the Stars Through the Wilderness
"Pioneering is really a wilderness experience. We all need the wisdom of the wilderness -- Moses did, Jesus did, and Paul did. The wilderness is the place to find God, and the city is the place to study the multitude; a knowledge of both makes master builders for the state and nation."
They called it "the Great American Desert." In the eyes of early explorers, Kansas appeared to be little more than an arid wasteland, unfit for cultivation and unsuitable for habitation. As a result, the Kansas wilderness remained relatively unknown until the middle of the nineteenth century. Originally a part of the Louisiana Purchase, it had been strictly maintained by the government as an Indian territory and as such was officially closed to any white settlement. Only a trickle of missionaries, soldiers, and surveyors were allowed to penetrate this barren, unfamiliar landscape.
But by 1850 an ever-increasing population and a growing economy focused attention on the country's need for new land. Expansive and promising, the Great Plains seemed to answer the call of a nation, and in May 1854 Congress, after considerable debate, passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. With Kansas and Nebraska now open to settlement, a homesteading fever swept across the country. In Kansas alone, there were nearly fifty million acres of virgin grassland for the taking. People of all backgrounds and nationalities, rich or poor, were entitled to stake their claims and own a share of these untried plains.
Within months, settlers from the East, the South, the Midwest and even foreign countriesstreamed into the prairie heartland. Excited by the cheap land and the new opportunities to be found there, they bravely said goodbye to friends and family and abandoned every routine and comfort of their old lives.
"How our friends crowded around us at parting," wrote Lillie Marcks about her family's departure from Tiffin, Ohio, in May 1869. "Some cried and talked of Indians and bears. I was seven years old, had been staying with friends in Tiffin three weeks and they felt so badly about my going west and had me so beautifully dressed that even my father and mother scarcely knew me....
"I recall my mother's headaches on the trip, and many children dirty and cross, and how we longed for the journey's end."
Like thousands of other women, Melora Espy gave up the security of family ties and old friendships for the promise of a new life in Kansas. "In the year 1853," wrote her biographer, "a young girl of seventeen, even then the Principal of a Young Ladies School in Toledo, Ohio, joined her fortunes with those of her lover, Henry Jefferson Espy, a young lawyer of Sandusky, Ohio; resigned her position as teacher, and went over the Long Trail to become one of the pioneer women of Kansas. To leave permanently one's home and friends, parents, brothers and sisters; to journey a thousand miles, part of the way in an ox wagon, part of the way in a steamboat of the early time, to a strange land inhabited by savages, requires the greatest courage. To forsake culture, plenty, prosperity and peace, for crude living, poverty, adversity and war, requires a poise of soul few possess."
Despite the anguish of parting and the tedium of the long journey west, pioneers continued to emigrate by covered wagon, horseback, stagecoach, steamboat, railroad, and even by foot. For many pioneers the water routes proved to be particularly convenient. After journeying to the nearest departure points along the Ohio or Mississippi River, they boarded steamboats that churned up the Missouri to Kansas. The boats were crowded, the progress was slow and the trip was tedious, but the steamboat remained the most comfortable means of travel, avoiding the jolting passage of the plodding wagons and stages.
As migration increased, the stagecoach became more popular. "The old stagecoach," recalled one passenger, "was built along the lines you so often see now in frontier pictures -- two wide seats inside facing each other and a driver's seat high up on the outside front of the vehicle. The baggage was carried on racks at the back and on top. The bottom of the coach was rounded and hung on springs that caused it to rock back and forth in a swaying motion. It was drawn by four horses which were changed every twelve or fifteen miles at stations along the way."
The stagecoach was particularly convenient for the woman emigrant, alone or with children, who followed friends and family westward. However, the trip often proved to be a grueling journey over rough and rutted roads.
In 1867, Carrie Stearns Smith traveled by stagecoach from Kansas City, Missouri, to her new home south of Fort Scott. It was a tiring journey, but also one of adventure and spectacle.
"The stage station," she wrote, "was at a hotel I seem to recall as The Pacific....The stage swung around a corner with a great circling sweep of eight white horses, accoutered in all of harness and ornaments that could catch the sun and the eye. I have often been quizzed as to this statement of eight horses, but I cannot be mistaken; eight seems a superfluity but there were eight. It might have been an extra span was being driven to some station below to anticipate a future need of relays. The stage was a Vermont Sanderson, said to be the pioneer stage from coast to coast.
"At last we were all listed and crowded in -- wedged would better express the arrangement. The driver cracked his whip and away dashed the beautiful horses. I had been placed by the station agent in the care of a passenger they accosted as Governor Crawford, a slight invalid-appearing man, wearing a shawl, a fashion not then quite out of vogue. It occurred to me it would have been more appropriate to place the delicate traveler in my care, for he surely appeared the more likely of us two to succumb to the effects of rapid stage travel.
"Our route led south over Westport Road to our first mail station at Westport House, where with a great flourish and clatter of hoofs, we drew up alongside and an exchange of mail bags occurred. Then ho for Shawnee Mission, where at one of the huge original buildings, like formalities were observed. The dashing up and the dashing away from these stations was worthy of a king's retinue, an event that drew small crowds from the immediate vicinity.
"Our route was by no means the shortest distance between more important settlements. We diverged to the southeast and southwest here and there for the delivery of mail or the more practicable fording of streams. Whenever we halted for relays of horses, the traces were loosened, and the released spans marched unled to their long low shed barns, and those to be driven marched each to his accustomed place in front of the stage -- not an animal led or driven. Two or three minutes only were consumed in the exchange....
"We reached Paola just at dusk. The hotel was a rude rambling one-story affair, and soon after supper, when fairly abed and about to fall asleep, the sounds of fiddles in the dining-room told that a country dance was beginning. All the sleeping rooms seemed to open out of the dining-room. I occupied one with a lady on her way east to Pleasant Hill. Though very tired, the fiddles, the stamping of stoutly shod feet on the rough floor, and perhaps the excitement attendant on new experiences, kept me awake until 3 A.M., and it seemed I had only caught the merest wink of sleep after dancing ceased, when loud knocking at our door and 'stage leaving!' aroused me.
"I had always been able to dress with real speed, but when I reached the stage at the door, the agent gasped, 'Why, every seat is taken!' And no one of the several men inside offered a solution of the problem. So as I lifted mine eyes to the driver's seat, I managed to b
Posted June 21, 2013
Joanna Stratton wrote an incredible book, Pioneer Women. You are surprised, pleased, upset, and afraid for the characters in this book. You feel that you are actually with the group as they travel and settle in the the "wilderness". I have recommended this book to numerous friends and fellow teachers. This is the second copy that I have purchased, having given my copy to a friend to read. She loved it and passed it on! I now have my second copy on my Nook and am reading it once more. (I am a person who seldom reads a book twice.) This one is more than worth the time. If you are a teacher of the Western Movement, there are exciting sections to share with your students. My 8th graders loved it and it brought the adventure of history to life for them. It is a MUST READ.
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