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The Youngest Pioneers

July 2024
9min read

For many children who accompanied their parents west across the continent in the 1840s and '50s, the journey was a supreme adventure

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.

By and large, they seem to have preferred highly competitive games that stressed strategy. And they invented some of their own. Near Fort Hall, young boys found that when they dived onto a dead ox, its sun-bloated stomach would fling them back. This became a contest, with each competitor jumping harder and bouncing farther. Finally a lanky boy sprinted, leaped head-first —and plunged deep into the rotting carcass. Only with difficulty did his friends pull him out.

The same group of boys was expected to find fuel for the company’s evening fires, and this, too, turned into a competition. At the end of the day they organized teams and divided the area around the night’s camp into districts. Each group scoured its section and tried to amass the largest pile of buffalo chips, driving away all chip rustlers and claim jumpers with barrages of dried dung.

Circumstances often left a boy or girl with grave responsibilities. At fourteen, Octavius Pringle was sent on a lifesaving ride of 125 miles to fetch food for his group.

Most of the work was not so light. Children herded, cooked, hunted, gathered water, cared for babies, and did other important tasks. And circumstances often left a boy or girl with graver responsibilities. When his fatherless family was abandoned by a hired hand, the eleven-year-old Elisha Brooks drove the animals, stood guard at night, and in general took charge. At fourteen, Octavius Pringle was sent on a lifesaving ride of 125 miles to fetch food for his group. Children of ten and under sometimes drove ox teams, cared for herds, and took part in difficult family decisions, and ones only a little older served on picket duty and chose camping sites. When the challenge of the road left her parents floundering, a daughter barely in her teens virtually took over the family of twelve. “They all depend on her,” wrote a fellow traveler. “The children go to her in their troubles and perplexities, her father and mother rely on her, and she is always ready to do what she can.”

Young girls in particular had chances to fill new roles—and to taste the complications that came with them. Mary Ellen Todd, eleven, learned to drive the oxen pulling her family to Oregon. Later she recalled: “How my heart bounded … when I chanced to hear father say to mother, ‘Do you know that Mary Ellen is beginning to crack the whip?’ Then how it fell again, when mother replied, ‘I am afraid it isn’t a very lady-like thing for a girl to do.’ After this, while I felt a secret joy in being able to have power that sets things going, there was also some sense of shame.…”

Bobbing in a frail vessel across a vast landscape, youngsters learned quickly of dangers from which their parents could not protect them. Nothing taught this more vividly than the famous Plains thunderstorms. Jesse Applegate wrote seventy years afterward of the first one he encountered as a seven-year-old: “Sometime during the night, I suddenly awoke. The rain was pouring down in my face, my eyes were blinded with the glare of lightning, the wind was roaring like a furnace, and the crash of thunder was terrible and almost continuous. I could see nothing but what looked like sheets of fire, and hear nothing but the wind, the pouring rain, and the bellowing thunder.”

Being lost or stolen could suddenly seem a real possibility on the trail. One seven-year-old sent to fetch a horse became disoriented and wandered for hours until he was found that night, miles from his party. Another, age three, was found whimpering under some sagebrush a day after he walked away from camp.

“A dreadful fear of Indians was born and grown into me,” remembered a girl who had crossed the Plains at five and had nightmares for years. Fed on stories of babies kidnapped by savages, children typically went into a panic at their first sight of a Pawnee or Osage. An older boy recalled that the sight of scalps strung around a warrior’s waist had “made me homesick”; many younger children, especially, never mastered their dread. Emma Shepherd wrote that every night on the trail was “full of terror” as she imagined that each breeze-blown bush was a skulking native.

But Indians were usually far more a help than a hindrance. Along the Sweetwater in 1852, a party of Crows took pity on a fatherless family and traveled with them for more than a week. It was quite a sight: braves in panther robes rode before their favorite wives, tattooed and draped in mantles of bird skins, while behind them came the older women, dogs, and finally an ox team with an exhausted white mother and her tattered brood of six. One of the boys remembered: “We were a Wild West Show.”

Inevitably there were those who suffered terribly. An emigrant approaching the Sierra in 1850 would have passed children sitting by the wagon ruts sucking on pork rinds and eating rawhide. A widow of the trail recalled that near the end of her trip, her nine famished children “all would go out in the Woods and smoke the Woud mice out of the Logs and Rost and eat them.”

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.”

“The Time of My Life”: Women Who Loved The Trek

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