”years Came Along One After The Other …”


Occasionally the quiet testimony of another era forces us, in the old-fashioned phrase, to count our blessings. Benefits fought for and painfully won in an advancing society quickly become rights to be taken for granted—the right to receive aid from the government when we are unemployed or unemployable; the freedom of children from ceaseless labor in their growing years; the eight-hour workday and the minimum wage; the right to protection for farms, homes, and savings; the right to get financial and medical help in our old age. We accept these rights so naturally that they become assumptions, seldom examined until some witness from the past—even the quite recent past—jolts our consciousness.

The brief memoir by Emma Mitchell New printed below exerts such a jolt. Mrs. New was a pioneer who wrote an account of her life from 1877 to 191 7 on the Kansas prairie. She was not a writer, and her experience was probably not notably different from that of hundreds of other lonely, overworked pioneer women. She wrote about it because she was asked to do so by a contemporary suffragist, lawyer, and publisher, Lilla Day Monroe, who commissioned hundreds of Kansas women to record their experiences for a book she was planning to publish.

Mrs. Monroe died, however, before she could complete the work. The memoirs she had collected, 770 of them, were recently rediscovered by her great-grand-daughter, Joanna L. Stratton. Ms. Stratton, a Harvard University student, came across the material in the attic of her grandmother’s house in Topeka, Kansas- thousands of handwritten pages inscribed on notebook paper and stationery that had been stored unpublished in a file cabinet for fifty years.

Now, three generations later, Ms. Stratton plans to finish her great-grand-mother’s work. Her book, to be entitled Pioneer Women, will eventually be published by Simon and Schuster.

We landed in Russell [on the prairie of central Kansas] forepart of December, 1877, with our car-load of goods, consisting of a few household goods, team of horses, a few chickens, a wagon and plow, enough lumber to build a small house, and a fairly good supply of provisions. We boarded at a hotel for two weeks and by that time the house was finished enough that we could move in out on a claim two miles northwest of Russell. Many a homesick day I saw, many a tear was shed. I couldn’t bear to go to the window and look out. All I could see everywhere was prairie and not a house to be seen. We had been there about three months when my two little children, a boy and a girl, came rushing into the house so excited, for they saw a woman coming over the hill toward the house. It proved to be a neighbor that lived a mile and a half from us. The hill between us had obscured their little dugout. We felt so happy to know that we had a neighbor. I called on them one day, and they insisted on bringing me home with an ox team and buckboard.

Springtime came, my husband broke a piece of ground for a garden, took the sod off and built a fence around the garden, and then replowed the soil. I thought I was going to have a good garden, but the rain failed to come and we got nothing. In the meantime we were hunting water and hauling it in barrels. We dug a deep well and got nothing. Many a time I walked a quarter of a mile down into a deep draw with pails and carried water to wash with. Also used to walk to town and back, making four miles, to get a little sewing to do from the hotel girls I got acquainted with.

My husband broke prairie as fast as he could with the old team. One time he broke a fire guard around some grass that was quite tall and then set fire to it. The wind carried the sparks across the guards and set the prairie on fire. We worked hard to put it out to save our home and buildings, until we were completely exhausted. And many a time afterward I fought fires until I was all in, for we had so many in those days from the quarter [their claim].

Years came along one after the other and also droughts. Times looked perilous to us. We finally got a cow, which helped us to live. Then there came along the Indian scare. All the people around about flocked to town for safety except me. I was all alone with my two children and knew nothing of it, as my husband was a good many miles from home trying to earn a little something. He worked out many a day for fifty cents and was glad to get it. Grasshoppers were very plentiful in those days. At times, swarms of them would shade the sun.

Our house was very poor, so my husband in a few spare minutes would saw soft rocks into bricks and lay them between the studding to make it firm, as the Kansas wind rocked it so bad. I helped carry all the bricks. And when he was sawing I would take the team and go to the field and walk behind a drag all the time I could get from my house work. Finally a baby boy came to us and we toiled along for almost a year. We picked up and burned “cow chips” for fuel.