I have always been fascinated by tales of pioneers. Whether this is because I am of pioneer stock myself, or that I find it amazing that my ancestors were able to live happy productive lives in the most primitive of circumstances, I am not sure.
When the book Collection of Nebraska Pioneer Reminiscences became available for smooth-reading at Distributed Proofreaders, I immediately downloaded the text to read. I found it just as enthralling as I had hoped. The descriptions of the hardships suffered by the people settling this region of the country are, believe it or not, typical pioneer stories. My own family has a legend which says that my great-great-great-grandmother rode in her rocking chair with the household goods on the wagon, carrying a loaded shotgun and acting as lookout, as the family journeyed from Pennsylvania to Ohio. In the Nebraska reminiscences, I found reminders of this story. Many of the women were pressed into duty as guards, butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers. The men expected it of their women, and the women seemed to take it all in stride.
I stand in awe of the bravery with which these pioneers faced blizzards, grasshoppers, prairie fires, visits by Indians (and raids by some Indians), tornadoes, and sheer boredom, not to mention frustration with the constantly-blowing wind. That is a recurring theme in many of the reminiscences in this book: The Wind takes on a personality all its own and to some of the pioneers seemed almost to become a living entity.
I don’t think I would be strong enough to survive walking across the Missouri River in the dead of winter, as Mrs. Elise G. Everett did. She wrote a selection for the book which she titled “Experiences of a Pioneer Woman.” This essay starts on p. 32. Mrs. Everett wrote,
“On December 31, 1866, in a bleak wind I crossed the Missouri river[sic] on the ice, carrying a nine months’ old baby … and my four and a half year old boy trudging along. My husband’s brother, Josiah Everett, carried three-year-old Eleanor in one arm and drove the team…. We lived with our brother until material for our shack could be brought from … Iowa. Five grown people and seven children, ranging in ages from ten years down, lived in that small shack for three months. That our friendship was unimpaired is a lasting monument to our tact, politeness, and good nature.”
I wonder if I could still be friends with anyone, after living in such close confines through a winter. Could you?
Some of the women were less content in their new lives. Many spoke of homesickness, and many were extremely lonely. One of the men who wrote an entry for the book was General Albert V. Cole (see p.18). He realized that his wife was not happy, but he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. He wrote,
“… Mrs. Cole made butter, our first churn being a wash bowl in which she stirred the cream with a spoon, but the butter was sweet and we were happy, except that Mrs. Cole was very homesick. She was only nineteen years old and a thousand miles from her people, never before having been separated from her mother. I had never had a home, my parents having died when I was very small, and I had been pushed around from pillar to post. Now I had a home of my own and was delighted with the wildness of Nebraska, yet my heart went out to Mrs. Cole. The wind blew more fiercely than now and she made me promise that if our house ever blew down I would take her back to Michigan. That time very nearly came on April 13, 1873. The storm raged three days and nights and the snow flew so it could not be faced. I have experienced colder blizzards but never such a storm as this Easter one. I had built an addition of two rooms on my shanty and it was fortunate we had that much room before the storm for it was the means of saving the lives of four friends who were caught without shelter. Two of them, a man and wife, were building a house on their claim one-half mile east, the others were a young couple who had been taking a ride on that beautiful Sunday afternoon. The storm came suddenly about four in the afternoon; not a breath of air was stirring and it became very dark. The storm burst, black dirt filled the air, and the house rocked. Mrs. Cole almost prayed that the house would go down so she could go back East. But it weathered the blast; if it had not I know we would all have perished. The young man’s team had to have shelter and my board stable was only large enough for my oxen and cow so we took his horses to the sod house on the girl’s claim a mile away. Rain and hail were falling but the snow did not come until we got home or we would not have found our way. There were six grown people and one child to camp in our house three days and only one bed. The three women and the child occupied the bed, the men slept on the floor in another room. Monday morning the snow was drifted around and over the house and had packed in the cellar through a hole where I intended to put in a window some day. To get the potatoes from the cellar for breakfast I had to tunnel through the snow from the trap door in the kitchen. It was impossible to get to the well so we lifted the trap door and melted fresh snow when water was needed.”
General Cole continues with his description of the family’s life on the Nebraska plains in calmer times, as well. And, later in the book, the four friends relate this tale from their perspectives.
I understood completely Mrs. Cole’s homesickness, as I now live 1,836 miles from my family and the house where I grew up. I’ve lived here for nearly 32 years, and sometimes I am still so homesick it hurts. And I have nearly every convenience known to modern man!
There are several entries which tell about buffalo hunts, the ruts left in the prairie by the pioneers following the Oregon Trail, and other events in the history of Nebraska. But my favorite parts of the books are those which tell about the everyday life events and how the families overcame seemingly impossible odds, to grow and flourish in what was a remote frontier.
This book contains some material which is not politically correct, so if you are offended by references to Indians and raids and so on, I would recommend that you either do not read the book, or that you remember the time-frame in which it was written. It stands as an historical chronicle of an era that has long since passed away, but which is a vital part of the growth of this great United States of America.
Great post, and a poignant reminder of a vital and sometimes harrowing part of American history. Thanks, GenKnit!
I have some ancestors that had settled in Nebraska for a while before some of them came to Montana. I’ll be interested to see if they are mentioned. But, even if they are not, I will be able to read about the times that they lived in, and just, as you say GenKnit, general American History. Thank You!
Sounds fascinating, I need to go and download this one! Have you read accounts of the famous “Hole in the Rock” expedition that attempted to establish a new Colorado River crossing? That they managed to build a wagon road over impossible terrain with primitive tools and sheer grit just amazes me!
What a great review.
I feel for Mrs. Cole, too — I’m only about a thousand miles away from family, and have been for only a few years, but I’ve often bargained with my husband the same way. “If our house burns down, can we move back home? How about if it’s destroyed by a hurricane? Uh… rampaging elephants?”
It’s also an inspiration, though. If the many Mrs. Coles who came before us could withstand ALL THAT, surely I can ignore the relatively minor daily inconveniences of my life 🙂
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