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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849. Volume 1.
Edited and compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes. Introduction by Anne M. Butler. University of Nebraska Press, 1983, 1996, 280 pp.

Like other American youngsters, I learned about the 19th-century pioneers heading west seeking a new and better life. But my knowledge about their travels was limited, an abstract concept. I certainly had no sense of the remarkable journeys fleshed out by the pioneers themselves in these letters and diaries.

Covered Wagon Women 1840-1849—the first in an eleven-volume series—brings together writings of thirteen pioneer women, including survivors of the Donner Party that went so tragically astray. Most of the women are Anglo Saxon Protestant, but among them are a young Quaker and a Mormon midwife, who delivers babies on her journey from Nebraska to Salt Lake City. The letters, and especially the extended journals, offer great detail about the daily travels, as the groups move slowly onward—“made 12 miles,” “made 20 miles,” “made 4 miles”—struggling with bad weather, bad water, steep inclines, hard-to-ford rivers, runaway cattle, illness, and many deaths.

These writings, Kenneth L. Holmes observes in his introduction to this meticulously prepared book, have not been “edited for readability.” Wisely, he has left alone the misspellings, poor grammar, and incorrect punctuation that convey the authenticity of the accounts and allow us to hear the writers’ voices: individual, down-to-earth, moving. “I have not told half we suffered,” writes Elizabeth Dixon Smith, a mother of eight, who in 1847 crossed from Indiana to Oregon, where she encountered rain, cold, hunger, and lost her ailing husband. On Feb. 1st, nine months after leaving home, she writes: “rain all day this day my Dear husband my last remaining friend died.”

By no means is everything grim. The women here express interest, curiosity, and a sense of adventure, as they describe the foreign landscape, report on the price of goods, and give advice to those who may choose to follow them west. Wear buckskin, says Smith, and “any body in preparing to come to this country should make up some calico shirts to trade to the indians in cases of necesity you will have to hire them pilot you a cross rivers.”

But as the travelers grind on, fearful of the Indians, anxious, nightly, to find a campsite with wood, water, and grazing for their cattle, and dealing with setbacks, we are always aware of just how hard these journeys are. “May it be to you my friends a year of jubilee,” writes Dr. Strentzel wryly in an addition to his wife Louisiana’s letter to her family back home. “And if you have enemies persuade them for a land journey to California.”

**Also recommended: Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865, by Sarah Raymond Herndon. First published in 1882 in The Husbandman. Burr Printing House, 1902. TwoDot, 2003, 128 pp. (Available on kindle.)

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