Friday, November 12, 2010

Covered Wagon Women I

I have discovered that the era of Western Expansion interesting, especially the trials and tribulations of those on the western trails. I've purchased several books that recount true stories of women who travel West in covered wagons. One book, Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849 by Kenneth L. Holmes is an excellent resource book. He reprints actual diaries written while on the trail and letters written either on the trail or after they reach their destination. Holmes also gives a bit of a biography on each woman. One of the women whose letters he reprints is Tabitha Brown (right), who made the trip starting in April 1846.

Mrs. Brown was a widow and sixty-six years old when she decided to travel from her home in St. Charles, Missouri to Oregon with her seventy-seven year old brother-in-law, retired sea captain John Brown, and two of her children and thirteen of her grandchildren.

While most journeys of this type were dangerous, The Brown family's was particularly hazardous. Mrs. Brown expresses in a letter to her sister and brother, penned after her arrival in Oregon, that the first part of their trip was “pleasing and prosperous.” But all that changed in August when they still had 800 miles to go to Oregon City. Instead of keeping to the tried and true route, “three of four trains of emigrants were decoyed off by a rascally fellow...[who] assured us that he had found a NEAR CUT-OFF; that if we would follow him we would be in the settlement long before those who had gone down the Columbia.” The decision to follow this man was tragic for many of the families.

Mrs. Brown relays that the man took their money and ran, leaving the train “to the depredations of Indians, wild beasts and starvation...we had sixty miles desert without grass or water, mountains to climb, cattle giving out, wagons breaking, emigrants sick and dying…hostile Indians to guard against.”

The men had to hack and clear a trail for them, as there was none. The way behind them was “strewn with dead cattle, broken wagons, beds, clothing and everything but provisions of which we were nearly destitute.” People were caught in the Canyon for two or three weeks, their food running out, they themselves dying of fatigue or starvation. She does not give detail of how she came to lose everything, but writes that her daughter and son-in-law insisted that she and Captain Brown go on ahead by horseback to meet up with wagons that would have food (they stayed behind to give their cattle rest). Her brother-in-law was so weak that he fell off his horse and she had to struggle to get him back up on it. They failed to meet up with the next wagon train before dark and had to spend the night alone in Indian territory, only to discover the next morning that 1) they were only half a mile from the train and 2) the Indians had killed a man just a short distance from where they'd camped.

They were found the next morning and taken to the next train, where fresh venison was available. However, they were far from safe. They still had two mountains to climb and winter was setting in. They were able to travel only two or three miles a day. They finally decided that it would impossible to reach a settlement before spring and decided to settle in for the winter. Mrs. Brown's son-in-law set off on his own to find a settlement, in the hopes of bringing back provisions.

Now as it turned out, her other son had left for Oregon six days ahead of her party and had already reached their destination. He heard rumors of the “wayward” train and he set out with six pack-horses to find the “suffering emigrants at the south.” Shortly after her son-in-law left, the two met up and they returned to the train with the provisions.

Five miles down the road from where they'd camped, they meet up with mixed-blood French-Indians and hired several of them to guide the train to a settlement. On December 24th, four months after they made their dreadful decision to take the 'short-cut,' those who survived the journey arrived at the first settlers' house, a Methodist minister, who offered Mrs. Brown and Captain Brown a place to stay until spring. In exchange for room and board, Mrs. Brown ran the house, because the minister's wife “was as ignorant and useless as a Heathan Goddess.” She also discovered that in her glove was not a button, as she'd assumed, but a “six and one-fourth cent piece” or as the footnote says “one-eighth of a Spanish dollar coin” and not worth a lot of money. But she used it to purchase three needles and traded some of her old clothe for buckskin. She then made gloves out of the buckskin, sold them and made herself $30.00.

As far as I can tell, all of Mrs. Brown's family made it to Oregon as well and Mrs. Brown, even at her advanced age, went on to establish herself as a pillar of the community in the new territory. She established a school for the local children, including orphans, with the help of friends and neighbors. The school was “the forerunner” for Pacific University.

So, this is just one of the fascinating stories to be found out there, one of the 'facts' that we can base our stories on...the question is, will anyone believe us?

What is a strange fact or story that you've come across in your research?

This blog first appeared at Chatting with Anna Kathryn, April 17, 2009.


  1. ANNA--this is great stuff. How many stories and movies have been made about wagon trains? Did you ever see the old Robert Taylor movie "Westward the Women?" My lord, I've watched that thing I bet a dozen times throughout my lifetime. I'd watch it again if it came on AMC.
    I cannot believe this woman was that old when she embarked upon a trek across our nation in a wagon. Me? I can barely walk two miles. Think of their feet!
    Our women pioneer ancestors were tough as nails--I'm sorry they had no make-up! Bless their hearts.
    Love it--thanks. Celia

  2. Wonderful read. I did a lot of research on the Oregon Trail for one of my novels and it was amazing what these hardy souls did to go West. Celia, I love Westward the Women, one of my favorite movies. I wore out my tape, need to find a DVD.

  3. Great post. I've read that resource book before. It is amazing all those people were willing to go through to get to Oregon or California. And just like today, there is always some crook looking to make money fo the unfortunate.

    Good Stuff. Thanks Anna!

  4. Hi Anna, I have a book called "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey" by Lillian Schlissel which is probably pretty similar to your book. It's fascinating and scary what they went through. Like I've read, the men rode and the women walked all the way west. Every time I drive through the rolling hills of northwestern Illinois to Iowa, I think about the pioneers. They were amazing people.


  5. Excellent post! These kinds of resources add such a note of authenticity to historical writing. Great work!
    Liz Arnold

  6. Amazing story. Women like that are the strong pioneers our country has grown from. I don't think I would have done what she did, but I know my dad's mother and my sister could have done it. They needed a no-nonsense practical approach to living everyday life. Their fortitude is awe inspiring. Thanks for the story.

  7. Anna, I finding interesting tidbits. I've come across diaries written by settlers in Kansas before and after the Civil War. Those diaries really do shed some light on what really went on in Bleeding Kansas.

    I can't imagine crossing mountains in a wagon train at any age!

  8. Anna Kathryn, at first I thought Mrs. Brown dowdy. Taking a 2nd look at her face and ignoring her cap, I saw that her eyes were sparkling as closely as old photographs allowed. She had spunk. Since as far as I know photography was not around when she began her journey, she must have been in her 70's in the photo.

  9. Anna - thank you so much for sharing Tabitha's story! What a courageous woman to set out on such a trip and completely relocate into then what was virtually unknown. I bet that book is a wealth of such interesting stories. I'm going to have to check it out.

  10. Hi Anna,
    Thanks for sharing Tabitha's story. I can't imagine making that trip in my 60s where I am now. They made the tough in those days.
    Have you read Jubilee Trail? It's one of my favorite wagon train stories.

  11. Hello, everyone! I been at work and am just now getting to the comments. Thanks for stopping by. I find Tabitha's story very interesting and as some of you said, she was a courage woman to embark at her age. Of course, she did have family with her. I love my reference books, too. I have several by Chris Enss that are great. The one I'm reading now is about frontier women school teachers.

  12. Anna
    Loved hearing about Mrs. Brown's adventures. Amazing at her age that she survived, but then again women are made of tough stuff!

  13. Great bravery on this woman's part. You really have to respect these immigrants and what they lived through. I am so very lucky because my great, great grandfather kept a journal in 1849 as he came across country on a wagon train. He was a doctor who had amazing handwriting and was educated. His journal is kept under glass at Bancroft Library at UC Berkely in California. They consider it five star and only because we are family, they let my cousin have a copy of it. I used his notes to help write my first story. We all feel very blessed to have a copy of his journal.

  14. Hi~
    Western women are tough, then and now. I love this story! It's absolutely mind boggling that this woman took this on at her age.

    My granddad and his little brother left an abusive father and walked from Kansas to Colorado when he was 12 yrs old.

    People did what they had to do, I guess.

  15. WOW, ANNA!!!
    What a great story! I'm so glad you shared this--it's different when we know of one particular individual and what they endured than just lumping them in with statistics. Makes it so real and personal. I can just see her thinking and pondering what to do with that little bit of money, and coming upon that idea of making gloves! MY GOSH, $30.00 was a fortune then. What an intrepid woman!Great story!


  16. What a fascinating tale, Anna!

    I'm inspired by the fortitude of a woman of that age. Thanks for bringing the story into the light.



Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West!