Storykeepers#18–Prairie Emergencies

rattlesn ake

A trip to Urgent Care this week prompted me to consider the dangers my great-great-grandparents faced as they attempted to cross the prairie. What I discovered wasn’t what I expected.

Moviemakers have made us believe Native Americans, riding wild ponies and whooping at the top of their lungs, were the greatest threat. Few tribes are portrayed as helpful—building bridges over swollen rivers for wagons to cross, or supplying the pioneer diet with fresh foods.

Instead, we’re shown painted savages, flailing tomahawks and aiming arrows at the poor, helpless settlers as they crept two miles per hour behind a team of oxen across a field of parched grass.

Not so, say historians. Native Americans often were  more help than harm to those seeking new homes in the west. Disease, food poisoning, and accidents claimed more lives than any other cause—not exactly Hollywood blockbuster fare.

Poor sanitation and personal contact accounted for the loss of ten percent of the migrating population. Waterborne bacteria lingering in stagnant ponds brought on cholera. Symptoms included severe diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. The disease could kill its victim in as few as twelve hours.

Dysentery, a result of unsanitary conditions, became common and though not usually fatal, affected the very young and the elderly.

Mountain fever could strike anywhere. It didn’t often kill, but it could delay a wagon train enough to matter later. Measles came with children, who regularly recovered. Adults, on the other hand, could be fatally afflicted.

While gunshot wounds usually affected the men, falling off a wagon could prove just as deadly. A child over the side could land beneath a wagon wheel and be crushed.

Lightning, tornadoes, and mammoth-sized hail attacked vulnerable wagons with fierce intensity.

Food poisoning from contaminated meals, scurvy from deficient diets, and pneumonia from changing climate added to the list of possible demise one might encounter.

Few doctors ever accompanied the wagon trains. No hospitals or emergency rooms waited to help them. They were at the mercy of those natives willing to help and the whims of an untamed land. I, for one, was glad to learn the natives provided their expertise in times of crisis.

Luke 10:36-7: (From the parable of the Good Samaritan.)   “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves? And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Acknowledgements: http:/ and dangers along the trails

Storykeepers #17–Puritan Roots

puritan 2Checking each new detail I learn about my great-great-grandmother’s history leads to three more and I often wonder if I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole.

I uncovered another bit of her story this week when I found the burial site of her father, who founded the first Church of Christ in Canyonville, Oregon when he arrived in 1851. I traced him to his original state of birth, where he was descended from one of the original founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Plymouth—a Puritan.

Further investigation of the Puritans astounded me. Massachusetts was the first colony in the New World to allow slave ownership. Sources cite the 1624 arrival in Boston of Samuel Maverick with his two servants. After that, shipments of Africans regularly found their way into Boston Harbor. The state became the hub of slave trade throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

The institution was not officially abolished in Massachusetts until 1865 after the Civil War, but ownership had largely died out by 1800 when servants sought manumission in several court cases and won. Manumission, the benevolent act of the master to release his property, was often achieved through the will of the master’s estate, setting free a beloved servant upon his owner’s death.

As early as 1781 court cases argued that slavery violated Christian principles as well as the constitution of the commonwealth. In a landmark decision, Walker vs. Jennison, the defendant’s lawyers argued that slavery was contrary to the dictates of the Bible as well as the new Massachusetts Constitution. Declaring that all men are born free and equal, Chief Justice William Cushing instructed the jury by saying that no rational creature should be in perpetual servitude.  Walker won his freedom, and others like him, on a case by case basis, achieved their emancipation through lawsuit after that. By 1790 no more slaves were mentioned in census records and slavery was condemned in the state.

I can only imagine how the increasing hostility between the North and the South might have affected my great-great-grandmother’s family as they struggled to defend their position, as Iowa became destined for controversy over slavery. Would that turmoil be the catalyst that would drive them west?


Storykeepers #16–The Black Hawk Purchase

Iowa land quest

My great-great-grandmother had experience dealing with the wilderness long before she met her frontier-bound husband in 1846. Her father came west to Iowa from Ohio in 1841, hoping to find a tract of land among the six million acres the government acquired in the Black Hawk Purchase of 1833. The move was the second of the family, having migrated west from Massachusetts earlier. The farm they sought came at the end of a bitter dispute.

In 1804, a treaty gave the Sauks and the Mesquakies all the territory west of the Mississippi and the government kept all tribal lands to the east. The natives were compensated with an agreed upon $2,234.50 gift in goods as well as an annual stipend of $1000 thereafter. They were also promised that no further settlement by white men would occur west of the Mississippi.

Four years later (1806) the government crossed the river and built Fort Madison. Many tribal leaders believed that the government act of building the fort ended the treaty. Still other chiefs, including Black Hawk, felt the original tribal leaders authorizing the 1804 treaty had no right to sign away Indian lands. Hence, they continued to live on ancestral grounds.

In 1830 Black Hawk returned from an annual hunting trip to find white settlers occupying his village, homes that were east of the river, but belonged to the natives nonetheless. Black Hawk expelled the settlers by threatening violence. The white settlers complained of their treatment and the government moved in.

What ensued was the pursuit of Black Hawk and his followers by a group of militia men which included Captain Abraham Lincoln. The tribal leader sent a party carrying a white flag with the intent of establishing peaceful communication. One warrior was shot. Two were taken prisoner. When the warriors continued to advance, three were killed. Black Hawk declared war and the militia complied.

By 1833 all of the Sauks and Mesquakie Indians had either been forced north and west, killed by Sioux, or captured by the militia. The treaty of 1833 surrendered tribal land that would become eastern Iowa, parts of it within the borders of Wisconsin and Illinois. Settlers learned of six million acres waiting to be claimed and rushed to make their grab.

My great-great-grandmother was thirteen when her family moved to claim their farm in Iowa. Wilderness awaited them as well as fertile acreage. She wouldn’t venture further west again until she was twenty-three. Ten years to prepare for her pioneer existence.


Storykeepers #15–Packing and Pacing

wagon train 2

Though my great-great-grandmother had grown up in the aftermath of the Black Hawk War on lands that would become the new state of Iowa after 1833, she must have had many misgivings waiting to join her future husband in the Oregon wilderness.

Infrequent letters made communication difficult. Not knowing what her intended faced on the other side of the continent probably left her apprehensive. If she prepared for the move in the interim and he didn’t return as promised, would her faithfulness be rewarded with the prospect of another suitor? She would wait four years—a lifetime of worries for a woman nineteen-years-old.

One decision to be made would be the kind of conveyance they’d need to travel. Conestoga wagons, built in Pennsylvania by German craftsmen, were designed to haul cargo. Manufacturers and tradesmen preferred the curved ends of these vessels, which made them look like a boat on wheels. Shipments of goods couldn’t move around or fall out either end. Sail cloth was used to cover the freight, protecting it from dirt, dust and the changes in weather. No front seat existed. The driver had to ride the left rear horse using a “jerk line” that connected to the left front animal or he had to walk.

The prairie schooner, of which there are many varieties, became the preferred transportation of those on the Oregon Trail. The beds were flat-bottomed and shallow, with squared ends. They did provide a driver’s seat which allowed the teams to be controlled by a set of reins from the front. Instead of the tight cloth covering of the Conestoga, the wagon traveled beneath a canopy of ribbed arches stretched with cloth which often billowed in the wind. As the pioneers crossed the plains, the white tops looked like the sails of a ship, dubbing the  craft “Prairie Schooner”.

However traveled, the journey would entail long days of grime, wooden seats, and miles and miles of walking—roughly two thousand miles without freeways, bridges, or convenient rest stops. People who knew my great-great-grandmother said she always had her Bible with her. No doubt she relied on Proverbs 3:5-6 to keep her hopes alive. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths. ”

He still directs our paths today.