Wagon trail women

Part II

When food began to spoil, it had to be discarded, decreasing the food supply. When crossing steep mountain trails, the wagons had to be lightened by tossing out items not essential to survival — many of which were treasured family memorabilia.

There was fear of the unknown, fear of wild beasts and fear of unfriendly Indians. Then there was the monotony of the journey, the drudgery of camp life and the feeling of utter loneliness. Often women suffered from depression, although they might not have known what to call it. They were expected to “buck-up,” “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and realize that “things could be worse.” But at night when the children were settled, the chores completed and the menfolk relaxing by the open fire, a woman might hike away from camp and finally give in to sobs, tears and lashing out on the unfriendly ground, wishing to be back with family and friends.

The menfolk were single-minded in their drive to keep the wagons going, only stopping for meals and rest when nightfall came, in order to reach the end of the trail. Thus, they were less accommodating — they were not in the mood to lend a helping hand to their women. This added to the tension between husbands and wives. A true story outlined in the “Time-Life Old West Series,” as witnessed by one of the wagon trail women in 1847, is about one woman who came to the end of her tether. “This morning, the wagon trail moved on, except one family. The woman got mad and wouldn’t budge, nor let the children go. (The husband) had his cattle hitched on for three hours and coaxing her to go, but she would not stir. Three other men went to the husband’s aid, took the children from the woman and put them in the wagon. Her husband drove off and left her sitting. She got up, took the back track and traveled out of sight. (Later, she) cut across (and) overtook her husband. Meantime he sent his boy back to camp after a horse that he had left and when she came up her husband says, ‘Did you meet John?’ ‘Yes,’ was the reply, ‘and I picked up a stone and knocked out his brains.’ The husband went back to ascertain the truth of this hysterical tale, and while he was gone she set one of his wagons on fire. He saw the flames and came running and put it out, and then mustered up spunk enough to give her a good flogging.” This incident demonstrates the depths of despair to which a pioneer woman could sink — as well as the subservience of women in a man’s world.

There are also many stories of women who remained courageous, and in fact were the mainstay of the men, urging them on when even they were ready to give up and turn back.

As the wagons crossed the desert on their trek to California, the trail would become obscure due to the blowing sand. And there was no water. Humans, oxen and horses suffered from thirst, and their bodies became sluggish as they became dehydrated. When crossing the mountains, it was sometimes necessary to repack the supplies onto the animals and abandon their wagons in order to make it across by the safest and quickest way.

One woman, upon gazing at the Sacramento Valley, is quoted in the “Time-Life Old West Series” as writing in her journal, “California, land of sunny skies — that was my first look into your smiling face. I loved you from that moment, for you seemed to welcome me with a loving look into rest and safety. However brave a face I might have put on most of the time, I knew my coward heart was yearning all the while for a home-nest and a welcome.”

Source: Time-Life Old West Series, D.W. Torance, 1965.

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