I write fiction, but I get my inspiration from reading fact. However, I think if I were to write the truth, people wouldn't believe me. One of the stories I have on the back burner of my mind is a Covered Wagon story. I have it planned out, who the hero and heroine are, who the bad guy is, the plot. I haven't quit decided if I'm going to put in the 1840's or the 1860's....the decade will dictate some of the plot, mainly because the heroine will have a long lost brother. The question will be if he can disappear in the Civil War or not.
But to prepare myself to write this story, no matter when it's set, I needed to research on covered wagon traveling. 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 who 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 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 one...the question is, will anyone believe us?
Join me at http://seducedbyhistory.blogspot.com/ on Sunday, April 19 when I dicuss yet another interesting "Cover Wagon Woman."
What is a strange fact or story that you've come across in your research?
Anna Kathryn Lanier
More Than Tumbleweeds
Heartwarming, Sensual Westerns