May 15, 2009

The Friday Record - Keturah Belknap

Today I'm a guest on History Undressed. Please stop by Eliza Knight's blogspot and say hi. At History Undressed, I talk about Keturah Belknap, a frontier woman in the 1840's Iowa. Her diary is reprinted in COVERED WAGON WOMEN by Kenneth L. Holmes. I've decided to continue Keturah's story here on The Friday Record.

First, a little background: Keturah married George Belknap in Ohio in October 1839. Two weeks later, she traveled with her new husband and his family to find prairie land in the West. They found it in Iowa and set up homesteading there. In 1847, the family decided to head West once again, this time for Oregon. The spent six months preparing for the planned April 1848 journey. Keturah kept a very detailed diary of the family's preparations.

In October 1847, shortly after the decision to move, the Belknaps lost a second daughter, thirteen month old Martha to a childhood disease. Ketuurah had also been sick and her illness, plus the death of her child weakened her. “Now,” she says, “I will spend what little strength I have left getting ready to cross the Rockies.” (213)

During the next few winter months, she will spin linen and muslin, which her mother-in-law will weave into cloth. Keturah will then cut and sew the cloth into clothing - shirts and jeans for her husband and son, dresses for herself. She hopes little Jessie will live long enough to wear them in Oregon.

She will sew the wagon covers, too – an inner cover of muslin and an outer cover of linen. And she will make sacks to hold flour, sugar, and other food items. Keturah also makes a new feather tick bed for the journey. That's a lot of spinning and she states she does it day and night.
By New Year's, 1848, she notes that her “health is better” and she continues on with her plan to be ready for their April 10th departure. She dips enough candles to last through their first Oregon winter.

Her husband, George, is also busy with the preparations. He and friends make oxen yokes and bows for the wagon covers. They also trade for oxen. Her husband acquires three good yoke of oxen for the trip. The family will also take with them three horses and ten cattle. (215) Keturah has help, as well , with her sewing. Friends drop by and sew while they chat; one woman wants to buy Keturah's dishes, and offers to sew two shirts in trade for them. (214)

In March, she begins to wash their clothing and packs away what they will take, but not wear on the journey. Her plan is for the family to wear old clothing, and leave it along the road when it is worn out. In April, Keturah cooks up food for the trip, so they will have something to eat as she learns to use a camp fire. She prepares chicken, ham and stewed fruits. She bakes bread, makes crackers and fries doughnuts. (215)

The day before the family is to leave, they load up the wagon. Keturah gives a two-page detailed explanation of how they did this. I'll try to condense it a bit. The first thing loaded into the wagon is a box that will triple as a storage box, dining table and seat for her husband as he drives the wagon. A few other boxes packed full of goods are loaded up, then cleats are put down to keep the boxes from sliding during the journey. An open space follows, in which a chair is put for Keturah's use. The rest is left open as a play area for little Jessie.

Sacks that Keturah made to hold 125 pounds each are loaded next: four with flour and one with corn meal. Smaller sacks with dried fruit, coffee, sugar, beans, etc are next. Additional items include a wash tub and a basket holding the dishes they'll use for meals. On the back of the wagon, a box holding her iron-ware is attached. (217)

On April 10th, the family, including her mother and father-in-law, as well as a pregnant Keturah, start out on their six-month journey to for new land.

One thing I have to say about the Belknaps...they did not go on their journey ill-prepared, as some pioneers did. In addition to their well-laden wagons, they seemed to be a very self-sufficient family.

Keturah continues her diary during their trip. I hope to write about this soon (perhaps next week on The Friday Record). In the meantime, don't forget to visit History Undressed to learn about Keturah's life in Iowa.

BTW, Keturah is a name from the Bible. Kenneth Holmes' notes says, "Keturah was one of Abraham's wive [a concubine] and is mentioned in Genesis 25:1-4 and in I Chronicles 1:23-33." Keturah means "fragrance" in Hebrew. (194)

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats
Heartwarming, Sensual Westerns


Emma Lai said...

As always...interesting and informative post!

LuAnn said...

Wonderful! I'm related to the Belknaps on my mother's side, so this post made my day!

Skhye said...

I think people were either desperate and poor when setting out on a wagon train to find a new life or well prepared. When you can sell the farm, you have enough to buy hard tack. Unfortunately, I think American history is built on desperation and dreams. ;) You know there are personality types in anthropological studies for pioneers and traditionalists. They aren't labeled so... ;)

Caffey said...

Anna, wow, I'd love to read this. Just getting so much on the real experience it was going through these travels. So sad losing a child from illnesses back then. Awesome info! Thanks Anna. Will go to read more at your other post.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

LuAnn, how interesting! I know there's a diary out there on Sagers, ophrans who traveled to Oregon as a group after their parents did. A TV movie was made about it, but I can't find a book, though I did a bit of searching.

If you don't have Covered Wagon Women, you should get it. Keturah's diary and the author's notes and comments take up a good number of pages. I've got two blogs on her already, and I still haven't finished her story!


LuAnn said...

My grandfather grew up next door to Catherine Sager and heard all about the Whitman massacre. He called her Grandma Sager as she was quite old by that time.
There are some books on the Sagers. You might check at the area museums -- that's where I've found some.

Eliza Knight said...

What a great post! I'll have to check out the post. I've always thought the frontier and wagon trails were fascinating.

My favorite computer game is Oregon Trail, have you ever play? It's a lot of fun!

LuAnn said...

Eliza, my son has that game on his cell phone (he loves gadgets!) and he gets the biggest kick out of it!

robynl said...

oh the hazards and hardships they faced on those journeys. I can hardly imagine going through this. Imagine being pregnant and bouncing your way across the Rockies towards a better life hopefully. I must get this book. Thanks for mentioning it.

Virginia said...

This is some interestion information, Thanks!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

LuAnn, I just realized I didn't put down my connection to Sager, it's my maiden name.

I have played the Oregon Trail game, on Facebook, once I think. I really liked it, but it was time consuming.

Thanks everyone for all the comments!


LuAnn said...

That's great. Are you related to the Sagers from the Whitman mission?

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