Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Diary of A Westward Bound Woman

Amelia Stewart Knight headed west along the Oregon Trail in 1853 with her husband, Dr. Joel
Knight, and their seven children. They began their journey from Monroe County, Iowa, on April 9 and reached their destination near Milwaukie, Oregon Territory, on September 17.

Amelia's day-by-day account of the arduous trek is included in Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, written and compiled by Lillian Schlissel, published in 1982 by Schocken Books, Inc. I was lucky enough to find a much used copy at a library book sale some years ago. Today I will share some excerpts illustrating the trials and excitement of the Trail west.

One thing never mentioned in Amelia's diary (it was too private to write about in those days) is the fact that she was pregnant with another child when the family left home. Professor Schlissel asks us to keep that in mind as we read. The intrepid pioneer woman seemed mostly concerned about weather and road conditions, and her children: Lucy, Jefferson, Plutarch, Seneca, Almira, Chatfield and Francis. Chatfield was the youngest. Amelia's eighth child was born on the road to the "land of milk and honey."

Saturday., April 9, 1853 STARTED FROM HOME about 11 o'clock and traveled 8 miles and camped in an old house; night cold and frosty.

Monday, April 11th Morn. Cloudy. and sign of rain . . . At noon it rains so hard we turn out and camp in a school house . . . rains all the afternoon and all night, very unpleasant. Jefferson and Lucy have the mumps. Poor cattle bawled all night.

The cold, windy. wet weather continues. She mentions suffering headaches, having three horses run off over night, no feed to be bought for their stock, having to feed them flour and meal; mile after mile in the mud. Yet, amazingly, they made up to 25 miles in a day.

Tuesday, April 26th Cold and clear; found corn last night at 2 dollars a bushel. Paid 12 dollars for about half a feed for our stock. I can count twenty. wagons winding up the hill ahead of us.

Friday, April 29th Cool and pleasant; saw the first Indians today. Lucy and Almira afraid and run into the wagon to hide. Done some washing and sewing.

Monday, May 2nd Pleasant evening, have been cooking, and packing things away for an early start in the morning. Threw away several jars, some wooden buckets, and all our pickles. Too unhandy to carry. Indians came to our camp every day, begging money and something to eat. Children are getting used to them.

Tuesday, May 3rd . . . here Plutarch is taken sick.

Friday, May 5th Here we passed a train of wagons on their way back, the head man had been drowned a few days before, in a river called Elkhorn . . . With sadness and pity I passed those who perhaps a few days before had been well and happy as ourselves.

Elkhorn River, Nebraska; wikipedia public domain

Sunday, May 8th Waiting to cross (the Elkhorn River). there are three hundred or more wagons in sight and as far as the eye can reach, the bottom is covered, on each side of the river, with cattle and horses. She explains how the men built a ferry out of a wagon bed and how everything had to unloaded, the wagons taken apart, and ferried across the river. Some cattle and horses drowned, but the next morning she says everyone is lively and merry.

Wednesday, May 11th Evening It has been very dusty yesterday and today. (The men all have their false eyes on to keep the dust out.) By false eyes, she probably meant goggles. I found mention of them online, being used on the Trail.

Over the next few days, Amelia writes of terrible wind and a dreadful storm with hail and lightning that killed two oxen and scattered many animals.

Tuesday, May 31st Evening -- Traveled 25 miles today. When we started this morning there were two large droves of cattle and about 50 wagons ahead of us, and we either had to stay poking behind them in the dust or hurry up and drive past them. It was no fool of a job to be mixed up with several hundred head of cattle, and only one road to travel in, and the drovers threatening to drive their cattle over you if you attempted to pass them. They even took out their pistols. At this point, Amelia's husband intervened, leading their company off the trail and passing the drovers and cattle, thus avoiding bloodshed. Later, while stopping for dinner, they saw the cattle coming, jumped for their teams and moved on, refusing to give up their lead. The temperature inside Amelia's wagon was 98 at noon.

Saturday, June 11th . . . we crossed this afternoon over the roughest and most desolate piece of ground that was ever made (called by some Devil's Crater.) (Not a drop of water, nor a spear of grass to be seen, nothing but barren hills, bare and broken rock, sand and dust) . . .

She writes of washing dust out of her eyes so she can see to cook supper, of struggling to keep animals from drinking alkali water that will kill them.

Tuesday, June 15th . . . passed Independence Rock this afternoon and crossed Sweetwater River on a bridge. Paid 3 dollars a wagon and swam the stock across. The river is very high and swift.

Independence Rock, central Wyoming; photo ca. 1870; wikipedia public domain

Tuesday, June 21st  We have traveled . . . over mountains close to banks of snow. Had plenty of snow water to drink.

Monday, June 27th Cold, cloudy and very windy -- more like November than June. I am not well enough to get out of the wagon this morning. . . It's children milk the cows, all hands help yoke these cattle the d---l's in them. She yells at the boys to hurry, seems a bit cross. No wonder!

Monday, July 4th . . . Thermometer up to 110 . . . I never saw mosquitoes as bad as they are here. Chat has been sick all day with fever, partly caused by mosquito bites . . .

Thursday, July 14th It is dust from morning until night . . . nothing but a sandy desert covered with wild sage brush, dried up with heat; however, it makes good firewood. She's not feeling well through this section and fears an attack by Digger Indians, who reportedly kill people in this area.

Friday, July 22nd . . . smell of carrion so bad that we left as soon as possible. The dead cattle were lying in every direction. . . Chatfield the rascal, . . . fell under the wagon. Somehow he kept from under the wheels and escaped with only a good or should I say, a bad scare. I never was so much frightened in my life.

Friday, August 5th . . . (Snake River Ferry) . . . Our turn to cross will come sometime tomorrow. There is one small ferry boat running here, owned by the Hudson's Bay Company. Have to pay 3 dollars a wagon. She gives an account of how Indians help swim the stock across the river for a small fee, taking the bridle of one horse and swimming across with it; other horses and cattle usually follow.

Three days later they nearly lost little Lucy. She got left behind due to a communications mix-up. Fortunately, she was picked up by another train behind them and delivered safely to her parents.

Friday, August 12th . . . Lost some of our oxen. We were traveling along slowly when he dropped dead in the yoke. We unyoked and turned out the odd ox, and drove around the dead one, and so it is all along the road, we are continually driving around the dead cattle . . . (I could hardly help shedding tears, when we drove round this poor ox who had helped us along thus far, and has given us his very last step.)  Heart wrenching! I nearly cried, too, reading this.

At this point they are near the mountains. They received more help from friendly Indians, bought salmon and potatoes from some. Temps were quite cold.

Friday, September 2nd . . . are now crossing Fall (or Deschutes it is called here) River on a ferry boat pay 3 dollars and swim the stock. This river is very swift and full of rapids . . .

Tuesday, September 6th  Evening -- After throwing away a good many things and burning up most of the deck boards of our wagons so as to lighten them, got my washing and cooking done and started on again. . . have camped near the gate or foot of the Cascade Mountans (here I was sick all night caused by my washing and working too hard.)

Amelia is close to giving birth, and mentions being sick several times. She writes of the extremely rough road over steep, rocky hills, with mud holes, fallen trees and such, yet she admires the dense forest calling it "the handsomest timber in the world."

The terrain she describes through the mountains is nothing short of brutal: corduroy roads, swamps, rocks, descents down steep, winding, slippery hills and canyons. Terrifying to say the least!

Friday, September 17th In camp yet. Still raining. Noon -- it has cleared off and we are all ready for a start again, for some place we don't know where . . .

A few days later my eighth child was born. After this we picked up and ferried across the Columbia River, utilizing skiff, canoes and flatboat to get across, taking three days to complete. Here husband traded two yoke of oxen for a half section of land with one-half acre planted to potatoes and a small cabin and lean-to with no windows. This is the journey's end.

You can find Amelia Stewart Knight's diary on Amazon:

The Way West: Journal of a Pioneer Woman, Hardcover – October 1, 1993

Lyn Horner is a multi-published, award-winning author of western historical romance and romantic suspense novels, all spiced with paranormal elements. She is a former fashion illustrator and art instructor who resides in Fort Worth, Texas – “Where the West Begins” - with her husband and a gaggle of very spoiled cats. As well as crafting passionate love stories, Lyn enjoys reading, gardening, visiting with family and friends, and cuddling her furry, four-legged children.

Amazon Author Page:
Newsletter:  Lyn’s Romance Gazette
Website:  Lyn Horner’s Corner 


  1. What a hard trip that must have been--with her pregnant and starting off with two children sick with the mumps. I'm glad we travel in a car with air-conditioning/heat and upholstered seats!

    1. Ha ha! So am I, Caroline. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Fabulous account of what happened. But I am surprised at the distance they have managed to travel, excellent. Tough women back then. Very tough!

    I know I would have never made it!

    1. E, I was surprised by how far they traveled in a day, too, but that was over flat ground. Once they reached the mountains, they sometimes covered less than 10 miles a day.

      Same here, I would not have been a good pioneer. thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  3. Great post. Thank you for sharing. Will be seeking a copy of this one. Interesting names on the children. What fortitude.

  4. Thanks, Gini. Fortitude is a great word for Amelia Knight. How she and other brave women survived such a long, torturous trip is beyond my understanding.

    Warning: There are some unpleasant entries in Amelia's diary that I skipped.

  5. Thanks for sharing Lyn. I have this book in my library and never got to it. As the saying goes - Mistake, Big Mistake. Ha! This was so interesting and I know what I'll be reading next!

  6. Hey Sharla, so glad you made it here. Yes, you do need to read that book. My hubby is reading my copy if you can believe it. Grins!

  7. I used that book for research on my Oregon Trail romance. There are a couple of books that share journals from the women who recorded their experiences. It gave me such an insight into what it was really like versus shows like Wagon Train that I grew up watching.

  8. Wagon Train was one of my favorite westerns, Rain, but it wasn't very realistic. The women who kept those journals did us a huge favor, showing us what life was really like on the Trail. Thanks much for dropping by.

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  10. Lyn, thanks for a very interesting post. I too have a copy of that book and used it for reference when writing my Oregon Trail/wagon train romance. Bet many of us Sweetheart gals watched the TV show, Wagon Train. Maybe not very realistic, but I was in love with Flint McCullough/Robert Horton. He died a couple years ago.

  11. Cheri, I loved him too, as well as several other cowboy characters in the good old days of TV westerns. Nowadays they've been replaced by cop and doctor shows. Nothing wrong with that, but I wish there was at least one good western. Thanks for stopping by!

  12. What would do without these wonderful personal accounts by these brave people? I enjoy reading journals and letters. They give such an insight into what these early pioneers endured. Our lives seem so luxurious in comparison.
    I would have freaked out is I left my child behind to be picked up by another wagon train.
    I so enjoyed your post. I apologize for being so tardy getting here. All the best to you.


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