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The Youngest Pioneers
For many children who accompanied their parents west across the continent in the 1840s and '50s, the journey was a supreme adventure
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
These stories were unusual after the first years, but the heat, the dust, and the grind of travel almost always aggravated common childhood discomforts. “Baby very sick all night,” a mother told her diary, and the next day: “All the children complaining.” By the end of the passage even the most fortunate found their faces blistered by the sun, their arms and legs swollen from insect bites, and noses and lips cracked and bleeding from clouds of alkali. One pioneer wrote, “The little children were objects of pity.”
Accidents were most common when a restless boy or girl, clambering around a rolling and pitching wagon, fell beneath its wheels. A woman told of such a tumble by her rambunctious grandson: “It did not quite kill him, but it made the little rascal holler awfully.”
A thread can be found: Most of these travelers seem to have come through with resilience and optimism, and many gained an early awareness of their own strengths.
Although fewer than one in twenty emigrants died on the way west, most youngsters seem to have confronted death in some way. They wrote often of Indian burial platforms, with their decaying corpses and bleaching bones, and they hardly could have missed the hundreds of travelers’ graves beside the trail. In 1852 a boy and his mother methodically counted thirty-two in a stretch of fourteen miles. One young girl told of seeing a baby’s skeleton picked clean and lying beside the road. Another sat down only to discover the foot of an Indian’s corpse poking from the sand next to her, and yet another glimpsed a woman’s head, a comb still in its hair, pulled from a shallow grave by scavengers.
Sights like these could feed a child’s most basic fears. Mary Ackley had already lost her mother to cholera when her father disappeared for several hours. She wrote: “I never felt so miserable in my life. I sat on the ground with my face buried in my hands, speechless.… What would become of us children?” A goldseeker wrote in his diary of 1852: “I was one day traveling alone and in advance of our Teams when I over took a little girl, who had lingered far behind her Company. She was crying, and as I took her into my arms I discovered that her little feet were bleeding by coming into contact with the sharp flint stone upon the road. I says why do you cry, does your feet hurt you, see how they bleed. No (says she) nothing hurts me now. They buried my father and mother yesterday, and I don’t want to live any longer. They took me away from my sweet mother and put her in the ground …”
The seven children of the Henry Sager family lost both parents within a month, and a consumptive mother and father in a California-bound train died within five minutes of each other, leaving two babies of under three years. Cases like these, though rare, quickly became part of the folklore of the trail and must have reached many children’s ears.
There is no indication that children died any oftener than adults on the road west, but parents probably buried more than two thousand of their young along the way. Only a tiny number were victims of Indians or wild beasts; most fell to diseases, especially cholera, which ravaged the travelers from 1849 to 1852. A far smaller number died from mishaps such as drownings, injuries by wagons, and accidental poisonings or gunshots.
For a grim reminder of their vulnerability, children—those who could read —had only to look at the grave markers beside the road:
Our only child Little Mary Two children Killed by a Stampede, June 23, 1863 Jno. Hoover, died, June 18. 49 Aged 12 yrs. Rest in peace, sweet boy, for thy travels are over.
In October 1849, J. Goldsborough Bruff, a chronicler of the trail, rested just past the crest of the Sierra and watched the procession. Among the “rough looking, hairy, dirty, ragged, jaded” emigrants were exhausted children of ten carrying babies on their backs, and others leading cadaverous mules weighted with men and women wracked with scurvy and the ague. But he shared his campfire with a pair of boys who cheerfully encouraged their weeping, despondent parents, and he met a cocky six-year-old who bragged of his bravery and endurance: “I’m a great hand for walking.” Along the soft, green sward of the Feather River, boys and girls laughed and played and napped.
As Bruff’s observations suggest, children responded to the journey in countless ways. But a thread can be found: Most of these youngest pioneers seem to have come through with resilience and optimism, and many learned early of their own strengths. Nothing illustrates this better than a letter written from California in 1847 by Virginia Reed, at thirteen a survivor of the tragic Donner party, whose terrible hardships in the snow in the Sierra Nevada had led them to cannibalism. “O Mary I have not wrote you half of the truble [we have had] but I hav Wrote you anuf to let you [k}now what truble is,” she told her cousin. She finished not with grief or self-pity but with a piece of offhand advice. “Dont let this letter dishaten anybody,” she wrote. “Never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can.”