(Disclaimer: First of all, I have to tell you I came down with the Shingles during the holiday weekend, and my brain is a wee bit fuzzy, so please forgive any typos today.)
I’ve talked a lot about the trek west by early settlers, probably because for years I’ve been fascinated by the people who piled everything they owned in a small wagon, braved drought and snow and Indians, and, armed only with hope, aimed toward an unknown future in an unknown land.
I’ve talked about the trek itself. How it took a full day to travel ten miles. How settlers planned what to take with them. About courtship on a wagon train.
But I’ve not talked about the children who had little choice but to go along.
These children were given a voice in a book titled “Children Of the West, Family Life on the Frontier,” by Cathy Luchetti.
It was often a very hard life. One of every two children died during the early days of the west. But then many, many children were born along the way. “Family life on the frontier was a daily lesson in tenderness and devotion, want and privation, as well as some excess — particularly when it came to child-bearing. Seemingly, nothing could halt the rising tide of towheaded, sun-bleached children who peered out from curtainless windows and whose squallings echoed from shanties, sheds, soddies, log huts, and frame houses throughout the west.”
Many of those children travelled west with their parents or were born along the way. And here they found both beauty and tragedy.
“The stunning obligation of daily travel, the endless vistas of wind-bent bluestem grass, seemed to daze the travelers, distorting all sense of direction or degree, leaving only a displacement of the ordinary world,” wrote Author Cathy Luchetti.
Let’s listen to the children and what they had to say in their journals. The book’s author quoted one young girl’s journal, “The West is so big and bare,” it made her feel ‘so alone and so sad she just had to cry.”
For Maggie Hall, the sense of space left her near dizzy. “We had to travel more than half way to California to get out of Texas,” she marveled.
“The first part is beautiful and the scenery surpassing anything of the kind I have ever seen – large rolling prairies stretching as far as your eye can carry you,” wrote twelve-year-0ld Elizabeth Keegan wrote in 1852. “The grass is so green and flowers of every description from violets to geraniums of the richest hue. Then leaving this beautiful scenery behind, you descend into thw woodland which is interspersed with creeks.”
Wrote another budding writer, “The meadows covered with beautiful wild flowers. . . where we find white poppies too thorn-ladden to pick. Birds fluttered up from the dewey larkspur, the glossy black wings of the prairie blackbird like the flash of ebony. Birdsong swelled, from the low hoot of the owl to a bobwhite’s confused stutter.”
Camping – at first – seemed a thrill and children adapted rapidly. One infant grew so familiar with the howl of coyotes that the ticking of a clock seemed terrifying. “He’s become a child of nature,” the father said. After seven and a half months on the trail, it was all the boy ever knew.
There was also a lot of fun to be had, whether picking wild strawberries or sliding down a slick clay riverbank. Hiking appealed to these young adventurers, as did hunting.
But danger was a common companion.
Children were often lost. Two young girls wandered down a trail that looked to them like a “romantic castle.” When they saw Indian horsemen in the distance, they ran to their wagons, only to find lone wagon tacks and settling dust. “Frightened but sensible, the girls carefully followed the tracks back to their anxious parents, who assumed the girls had been kidnaped by Indians. Group politics had dictated their behavior: forced to move on by the rest of the train, they had left their children to an uncertain fate.”
Also according to “Children of the West,” nature’s violence was witnessed daily from thunderstorms to torrential rains in which “tents would be blown down, and everybody and everything would be soaked with the driving rains,” according to 11-year-old Lucy Ann Henderson who crossed the plains in 1846. Even more frightening were oxen whipped into a frenzied stampede by startling displays of summertime lightning.”
The towering box seat of a wagon was also perilous. Perched five feet above the ground, it proved to be a constant danger to children. They would often play on the box and one jolt would send them onto the ground below, often with serious injuries. If a wagon lurched into a pothole or hit a rock, children rocketed off.
Encounters with Indians were frequent, but more prevalent was the fear of an encounter, which led to recurring nightmares and moments of anxiety. A young boy, obsessed by the idea of Indians, felt drawn to become what he most feared, dressed up in a blanket and startled the night guardsman. The guard shouted out, the teenager ran and the guard wounded the boy, who barely survived.
It’s a little surprising any children survived infanthood. “Folk remedies were passed from midwife to mother to daughter to child, and the brewing, stewing, seeping and administering of them was an act of love and lore.”
For instance, here’s cure for a sore throat in children: take a small piece of pork and fasten it to a string. Thrust the morsel down the child’s throat, and then with the string draw it up and allow it to swallowed and drawn up again, repeating many times.
In Idaho, the favorite folk cure for colic in children was to blow tobacco smoke into a saucer of milk, then feed the milk to the baby. In Mississippi, catnip tea was given to babies until they were five or six weeks old.
Wrote one young girl, “I could still feel the warmth and grease of poultice made from turpentine and lard heated, soaked and wrung out of a piece of flannel which she put on as hot as I could stand it on my chest and back. Sometimes goose fat was used and many times skunk grease which, though just a wee bit off in smell, seemed most effective. Once I even had on my chest hot fried onions for a phlegm breaker.”
These are only a few small glimpses of being a child on the seven and eight months on the trail.
I have one more, one my father’s brother told. My father was only a toddler when his family homesteaded in Arizona.. One day his father came out of their small cabin to find him playing with a rattlesnake, teasing it with a stick. The snake met a rather hasty end, but if his father hadn’t chosen that moment to check on him, there probably wouldn’t have been a me.
Happy New Year everyone.