A Pioneer Woman's Letter Home (c. 1856, by Elizabeth Stewart Warner)
A PIONEER WOMAN'S LETTER HOME (c. 1856, by Elizabeth Stewart Warner)
The United States pursued an aggressive policy of territorial expansion in the first half of the nineteenth century, leading to settlements being established along the Oregon Trail, which began at the Mississippi River and headed west through the Rocky Mountains. Elizabeth Stewart Warner took the Oregon Trail soon after her marriage in 1853. She gave a vivid account of the hardships faced by women on the journey west. Only days into the journey she watched two young women with children bury their husbands. Women on the journey, many of who came from comfortable backgrounds, faced unprecedented responsibilities and were expected to toil along with the men. The plains crossed by the settlers were dry and water was scarce. Warner wrote, "They talk about the times that tried men souls but if this ware not the times that tried both men and wemon's souls."
I want to write you a full and true letter, this I promised to do, but I fear I shall fail, not in the truth but in giveing you a full description of the rout and gurny whitch I have neither memory to remember or head to discribe and I did not keep a journal as I intended, but I will try to give you the heads and particulars as well as I can remember. we left and particulars as well as I call remember. we left Pittsburgh, march the 17th 1853, and after a tedous gorney we arived in Saint Jo. april the 5th. We thair bought up our cattle at the verious prices from 65 dolls to 85 dollars paid 40 cents per day for the meanest house you could think of human beings living in and we had to steal beg and take watter all over the town we had to pay 10 cts per day for putting our cattles in a yard mud to the knes, and had to drive them more than a mile to watter every day we camped out in the woods and was mutch better of than in Saint Jo. we crossed the Missuri on the fourth of May in the rain. we crosed on a ferry boat and was to cross the next but ther was another familie had got into the boat, before them. david Love and fred was just coming to cross on the same boat they had been over to buy another youlk of cattle but were just one minute to late, and well it was for us all for the boat struck a snag and drowned 7 men a woman was standing on the bank, she said to mother, do you see that man with the red warmer on well that is my husband and while she spoke the boat struck and went down and she had to stand within call of him and see him drownd. O my heart was sore for that woman and three miles from the river we saw another woman with 8 children stand beside the grave of her husband and her oldest son so sick that she could not travel annd had to go up the river 12 miles before they could cross we waited for them at the mishen we then all got together and one of stewart's wagons broke down and wes mended next day we had ben telling him that he ought not to presist in taking such big wagons but he would no advice and when we ware at the mishen the men held a council and determined not to wait for him for they saw he would never keep up. Our wemen protested against it but they started and we were obliged to fowlow and I did not feel so bad when death came and snatched one of us away well we got through and they only made Salt lake about the half way. it was best for us to go on but it was hard to part I do not think that Mother will ever get over it she blames her self for not standing still and she blames us for not doing the same and she blames the men for leaving them. mother says that no consequence could never make her do the like again. But it was shurley best for us to push on we only hea[r]d where they were by Mrs Grilles letter five days ago we thought mother would have been satisfied when she herd whare they ware to a certainy but no we haven't any little Jenett with us and mother clings to the child with a nervous affection whitch I never saw her show to any object before. we then proceded 10 wagons in company to the plat river full for miles in wedth to look at that great flood and think that when we had followed it almost to its cource we would hardley be half way, and it is the easiest half of they way by 20 degrees, it was painful though for faint harts I can tell you. But on we goged each day about 25 or 30 miles and it was a pleasure to travel then we had a very agreeable company not one jarr amongst us had it not been for the thought of anna behind it would have been a pleasure trip indeed. we lost the first ox on sweet watter it was Tom' wheel ox, and what he called one of his main dependence but poor Sam had done his duty and then laid him down to rest, some time after that one of David Loves oxen died and then one of mothers, and when we came to snake river it was every day and every night sombody had lost an ox, we lost four in one day and two nights when we got up in the morning we wemon got the breakfuss and the men went after the cattle, and we thot at last that we could not dare to see them come back for they always came back minus someones cattle. then we came to the new road they talk about the times that tried men souls but if this ware not the times that tried both men and wemon's souls, well thar was a man thair meeting his wife and familie, and he was going the new road, it was a 100 miles nearer, our cattle wer few in number we had enough provisions to do us but no more Thare were a great many wagons gone with that man and thare a great many more going and we thought if it was a nearer and better road we had as much need to go as anybody well on we went until we came to the first camping place and thair we found a paper telling how far to the next camping place and then we came to the blue mountains & these mountains are composed of rocks of a blue coulur and all broken up as eavenly about the size of a pint cup, as if they were broken by the hand of man they were hard on the oxens feet and our feet, for everybody walked here. when we ware crossing the streams the rocks ware larger some times so large they up set the wagons into the wattor. when we had crossed the blue Mountains we came to those hard perplexing lakes. now take the map and look at those lakes which lie between the blue Mountains and the Cascades and you will not see one for every five that theirs on the ground but you will have some little idea. The first one we came to we should have taken the north and instead of that we took the south side and thare we wandered sometimes west.…
SOURCE: Schlissel, Lillian. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.