- Historic Sites
The Unsinkable Abigail
In forty years of scraping and scrapping for women’s rights, Abigail Scott Duniway never lost her nerve or wicked tongue
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Abigail, then seventeen, kept the trail diary. Her father, who was party captain, assigned her the task and encouraged it (she said) with an occasional box on the ear. Nightly she scribbled amid the furor around a campfire redolent of buffalo chips. Her entries tell of breakfasting in a snowstorm with “victuals crusted not with sugar but with snow,” of billowing dust that hid “wagons, teams and roads entirely from our view,” of perilous river crossings, scary, skidding descents down mountainsides. The party watched apprehensively for “Pawnees who are reported as being rather hostile and very thievish” and for trail parties said to consist of ruffians who boozed and brawled and sometimes murdered. Her later libertarianism was foreshadowed in her comment on the slaves glimpsed toiling in the Missouri fields: “May none of us ever be guilty of buying and selling the souls and bodies of our fellow creatures.”
While noting the number of graves passed, Abigail optimistically attributed them to carelessness in food and drink, which prudent folk might avoid. But when they were passing through the Black Hills of Dakota, Mrs. Scott fell ill of cholera and died the same day. The family was stunned. Later a young man of the party died of dysentery, and in August, after they had reached the fringe of the Oregon Territory, the youngest Scott child died of the same cause.
During the final month, as they crossed the Cascade Mountains to reach the land claim of an uncle, Abigail’s diary showed disillusionment. We hear of broken bolts and wagon tongues, lost cattle, hunger, dirt, and “hard-looking” villages. On September 28, upon reaching the settlement of French Prairie, near Salem, ending their twenty-four-hundred-mile journey of five months and twenty-six days, she closed her journal with this more cheerful but perfunctory note: “We found them [her relatives] all in good health and well satisfied. They were of course glad to see us.”
There was, to be sure, an eerie strangeness about Oregon at first: the tall trees, torrential rains, and cougars crying in the night seemed alien to Midwesterners. The clearing villages with their grizzled men and shacks sitting among tree stumps had a heathen air, Abigail thought.
But opportunity, as had been promised, was there. Foremost was free land. The Land Donation Act of 1850 gave a man 320 acres; twice that to a married couple. And even before staking his claim Tucker Scott profited from the commercial boom. Down in California gold rushers were demanding lumber, fish, and farm products, and money was jingling in the new farm towns. Renting a flimsy structure in Lafayette, Scott turned it into a going hotel merely by calling it one and found that he could even demand total abstinence of his guests.
Another advantage was that nobody questioned credentials. The prevailing attitude was that it was better not to pry. Abigail, who had less than a sixthgrade education, passed herself off as a schoolteacher and was snapped up to teach at nearby EoIa. On top of that she suddenly found herself a belle. Back home she had been considered a tart-tongued string bean of a tomboy, but here, where a wife was a prime status symbol, she was besieged by suitors. And under such attention she blossomed. She filled out and became almost pretty, with long, light brown hair, even features, and flashing blue eyes. But she knew what she was about. A rumor that donation claims might be abolished had precipitated a frenzied scramble for brides, with bachelors galloping about rapping on doors and proposing to any female who opened one. Abigail did not conceal her contempt for men who pressed matrimony upon “tearful widows of a fortnight and little girls making mud pies.”
Cautiously she settled on a young man of similar background. Tall, mild Benjamin Duniway, four years her senior, had come out from Illinois in 1850. After a stint in the Jacksonville mines he had ridden north to select a land claim and found Abigail as well. But remembering her obedient mother resting in the Black Hills, the eighteen-year-old bride purged the wedding ceremony of the word “obey” when they married in August, 1853.
And now, little more than a year after escaping a bleak Illinois farm, Abigail found herself stuck on a backwoods farm in the wilds of Oregon. For Ben Duniway had chosen poorly. His tangled track on the fringe of the tall timber required a constant fight against a stubborn environment. Ben was cheerful and willing, but that was part of the trouble. Because of it Abigail staggered under an extra burden: neighboring bachelor farmers formed a habit of dropping by the Duniway’s split-log cabin around mealtime, sniffing for chicken stews and pies. Amiable Ben always invited them to stay. Stirring pots with one hand in the lean-to kitchen, pacifying baby Clara with the other, Abigail vented her resentment by concocting names for their establishment. “Hard Scramble” was her name for the farm, while their cabin was “Free Hotel.” She also raised chickens and pigs and pieced out their income by making soap and candles for market. Ben genially delivered her products in his handsome buggy and as genially pocketed the proceeds. Reasonable in most ways, he held finances to be the exclusive province of men.