The Youngest Pioneers

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The historian Francis Parkman, strolling around Independence, Missouri, in 1846, remarked upon the “multitude of healthy children’s faces … peeping out from under the covers of the wagons.” Two decades later a traveler there wrote of husbands packing up “sunburned women and wild-looking children” along with shovels and flour barrels in preparation for the long journey west. In the goldfields of California in the 1850s, a chronicler met four sisters and sisters-in-law who had just crossed the Plains with thirty-six of their children. “They could,” she wrote, “form quite a respectable village.”

In the great overland migration that lasted from 1841 until the start of the Civil War, more than a quarter of a million people pushed their way from the Missouri valley to the Pacific coast. Probably at least thirty-five thousand of them were young girls and boys; except during the gold rush, at least every fifth person on the trails was a child. Yet in all we can read today, these thousands of young emigrants are infrequently seen and almost never heard.

The voices of many of them do survive though. Some kept diaries along the way that have been preserved; many others wrote down their memories later. These records permit glimpses of a life that children of today might easily dream about—a child’s life of adventure and purpose, of uncertainty and danger, albeit sometimes of sheer boredom. Once they reached their destinations and became settled, these children might well begin long years of isolation and monotony, but getting there was bound to be unpredictable and a challenge. From Independence and St. Joseph and Council Bluffs, their families packed into wagons usually no more than five by ten feet and set out when the spring grass was up. For the next six months they would roll and lurch westward for more than two thousand miles—across plains and deserts, along the Platte, Sweetwater, Humboldt, Carson, Malheur, Snake, and Columbia rivers, and through the Rockies, Blue Mountains, and Sierra Nevada.

Children had little idea of what to expect. For most of them the trip at first seemed a lark. “Every day was like a picnic,” a young girl remembered of her earliest weeks on the trail. A seven-year-old had finished nearly half the trip when a question suddenly dawned on him. “I was looking far away in the direction we were travelling, across a dreary sage plain … and I got to wondering where we were trying to get to.” “To Oregon,” someone answered.

One boy had heard the fantastic names upon the land and waited eagerly for the show: “I was looking for the Black Hills. Hills I saw, but they were not black. Blue River had faded out, Chimney Rock was only a sharp pointed rock on the top of a hill, not a chimney at all. The ‘Devil’s Backbone’ was only a narrow ridge.…”

Children gawked at giant whirlwinds, boiling springs, and land black with buffalo. One wrote: “It was like traveling over the great domains of a lost world.”

Much of the passing scene measured up easily. Children gawked at giant whirlwinds, boiling springs, chasms hundreds of feet deep, wide rivers and dried desert streams. Some passed for hours at a stretch through land black with bison. There were antelope that bounded from sight before the dust was raised behind them, dogs that sang, squirrels that yipped like dogs. The human inhabitants of the land were just as marvelous. Boys and girls who overcame their first fears traded jackknives and coffee for beadwork and moccasins, and in the bargain they got a taste of the exotic. “They amused us by eating grasshoppers,” a girl of twelve told her diary. As another young girl put it, “It was like traveling over the great domains of a lost world.”

Children whose recollections survive rarely complained about the closeness of life in a wagon—they seem to have welcomed it at a time of uprooting—but food was another matter. While they generally enjoyed antelope, bison, and the other new dishes of the Plains, there was much to rail at—like campside baking (bread “plentifully seasoned with mouse pills”) and foul water (“drank red mud for coffee”). More than anything, they longed for fresh vegetables and fruit. Dried apples were brought along to ward off scurvy, but most youngsters found them a cruel mockery. An eleven-year-old recommended them for their economy. “You need but one meal a day,” he explained. “You can eat dried apples for breakfast, drink water for dinner and swell for supper.”

Between the moments of excitement fell inevitable hours of boredom. Parents packed small libraries and organized school lessons to fill these hours; the children made up games. Many of their games would be instantly recognizable to both earlier and later generations —London Bridge, run-sheep-run, leapfrog, button-button. Girls and younger boys made wreaths and necklaces from wildflowers, a favorite pastime before the present century, and chanted handed-down rhymes and rounds.