15: Across the Continent—On the Plains
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The movement of emigration westward since the early part of the seventeenth
century resembles the great ocean billows during a rising tide. Sweeping
over the watery waste with a steady roll, dragged by the lunar force, each
billow dashes higher and higher on the beach, until the attractive
influence has been spent and the final limit reached. The spirit of
religious liberty and of adventure carried the European across the
Atlantic. This was the first wave of emigration. The achievement of
our Independence gave the next great impetus to the movement. The
acquisition of California and the discovery of gold was the third stimulus
that carried our race across the continent. The final impulse was
communicated by the completion of the Pacific railroad.
At the close of the Mexican War in 1848, our frontier States were, Texas,
Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. With the exception of a few forts,
trading-posts, missionary stations, and hunters' camps, the territory
extending from the line of furthest settlement in those States, westward to
the Pacific Ocean, was for the most part an uninhabited waste. This tract,
(including the Gadsden purchase,) covering upwards of seventeen hundred
thousand square miles and nearly half as large as the whole of Europe, was
now to be penetrated, explored, reclaimed, and added to the area of
The pioneer army of occupation who were to commence this mighty work moved
through Missouri and Iowa, and crossing the turbid flood which formed one
of the great natural boundaries of that wild empire, saw before them the
vast plains of Nebraska and Kansas stretching with scarcely a break for
five hundred miles as the crow flies to the foot-hills of the Rocky
Mountains. The Platte, the Kansas, and the Arkansas, with their
tributaries, indicated the general bearings of the march, the sun and moon
were unerring guides.
The host divided itself: one part spread over and tilled the rich country
which extends for two hundred miles west of the Missouri River; another
part grazed its flocks and herds on the pasture ground beyond; another,
crossing the belt of desert, settled in the picturesque region between the
barrens and the foothills, another penetrated into the mountains and
planted itself in the labyrinthian valleys and on the lofty table lands
between the Black Hills and the California Sierras, another more boldly
marched a thousand miles across a wilderness of mountain ranges and settled
on the slope which descends to the shores of the Pacific.
The rivers and streams between the Missouri and the mountains, and latterly
the railroads, were the axes around which population gathered and
turned itself. Here were the dwelling places of the settlers, here woman's
work was to be done and her influence to be employed in building up the
empire on the plains.
We have stated how, by a series of processes extending through successive
generations and the lapse of centuries, she grew more and more capable to
fulfill her mission on this continent, and how, as the physical and moral
difficulties that beset frontier-life multiplied, she gathered
corresponding strength and faculties to meet them. In entering that new
field of pioneer enterprise which lay beyond the Missouri River in 1848,
there still, among others, remained that one great grief over the
separation from her old home.
When the eastern woman bade farewell to her friends and started for the
plains it seemed to her, and often proved to be, a final adieu. We say
nothing of that large class which, being more scantily endowed with this
world's goods, were forced to make the long, wearisome journey with ox
teams from the older settlements of the East. We take the weaker case of
the well-to-do immigrant wife who, by railroad, and by steamboat on the
lakes or rivers, reached, after a journey of two thousand miles, the point
upon the Missouri River where she was to enter the "prairie schooner" and
move out into that vast expanse; even to her the pangs of separation must
have then been felt with renewed and redoubled force. That "turbid flood"
was the casting-off place. She was as one who ventures in a small boat into
a wide, dark ocean, not knowing whether she would ever return or find
within the murky waste a safe abiding place.
There was the uncertainty; the positive dangers of the route; the
apprehended dangers which might surround the settlement; the new country,
with all its difficulties, privations, labors, and trials; the
possibilities of disease, with small means of relief; the utter solitude,
with little prospect of solacing companionship.
And yet, with so dreary a picture presented to her mental vision, she did
not shrink from the enterprise, nor turn back, until all hope of making a
home for her family in that remote region had fled. We recall a few
instances in which, after years of toil, sorrow, and suffering—when all
had been lost, the heroine of the household has been driven back by a
stress of circumstances with which human power was unavailing to cope. Such
a case was that of Mrs. N———, of which the following are the substantial
While a squad of United States cavalry were journeying in 1866 from the
Great Bend of the Arkansas to Fort Riley, in Kansas, the commanding
officer, as he was sweeping with his glass the horizon of the vast level
plain over which they were passing, descried a small object moving towards
their line of march through the tall grass some two miles to their left. No
other living thing was visible throughout their field of vision, and
conjecture was rife as to what this single moving object in that lonely
waste could be. It moved in a slow and hesitating way, sometimes pausing,
as if weary, and then resuming its sluggish course towards the East. They
made it out clearly at last. It was a solitary woman. She had a rifle in
her hand, and as the squad changed their course and approached her, she
could be seen at the distance of half a mile putting herself in the posture
of defense and making ready to use her rifle. The horsemen waved their hats
and shouted loudly to advise her that they were friends. She kept her rifle
at her shoulder and stood like a statue, until, seeming to be reassured,
she changed her attitude and with tottering steps approached them.
She was a woman under thirty, who had evidently been tenderly reared; small
and fragile, her pale, wasted face bore those lines which mutely tell the
tale of long sorrow and suffering. Her appearance awoke all those
chivalrous feelings which are the honor of the military profession. She was
speechless with emotion. The officer addressed her with kind and respectful
inquiries. Those were the first words of her mother tongue she had heard
for four weeks. Like the breath of the "sweet south" blowing across the
fabled lute, those syllables, speaking of home and friends, relaxed the
tension to which her nerves had been so long strung and she wept. Twice she
essayed to tell how she happened to be found in such a melancholy situation
on that wild plain, and twice she broke down, sobbing with those convulsive
sobs that show how the spirit can shake and over-master the frail body.
Weak, weary, and worn as she was, they ceased to question her, and
preserved a respectful silence, while they did all that rough soldiers
could do to make her comfortable. An army overcoat was wrapped around her,
stimulants and food given her, and one of the soldiers, shortening a
stirrup, and strapping a folded blanket over his saddle, made a comfortable
seat upon his horse; which he surrendered to her. The following day she had
acquired sufficient strength to tell her sad story.
Three years before, she, with her husband and four children, had left her
childhood's home, in the eastern part of Ohio, and set out for Kansas. Her
oldest boy sickened and died while passing through Illinois, and they laid
him to rest beneath the waving prairie grass. After crossing the Missouri
river, her second child, a lovely little girl of six years, was carried off
by the scarlet fever, and they left her sleeping beneath the green meadow
sward on the bank of the Kansas.
After a wearisome march of eighty days, they reached their destination on
the Smoky Hill Branch of the Kansas River, and lying about three hundred
miles west of Fort Leavenworth. Here, in a country suitable for grazing and
tillage, they chose their home. Mr. N. devoted himself to the raising of
cattle, tilling only land enough to supply the wants of himself and family.
She had toiled day and night to make their home comfortable and happy for
her husband and children. Fortune smiled upon them. Their herds multiplied
and throve upon the rich pasturage and in the mild air of the region where
they grazed. Two more children were added to their flock. Their roof-tree
sheltered all from the heats of summer and the bleak winds which sweep
those plains in the winter season. Bounteous harvests blessed their store.
They were visited by the red man only as a wayfarer and friend.
This bright sky was at last suddenly overclouded. A plague raged among
their cattle. A swarm of grasshoppers ravaged their crops. A drought
followed, which burned up the herbage. "Terrors," says, the poet, "come not
as single spies, but in battalions." Pestilence at last came to complete
the ruin of that hapless household. Her husband was first stricken down,
and after a week of suffering, died in a delirium, which, while it startled
and saddened the little flock, kept him all unapprehensive of the evils
which might visit his bereaved family after his departure. The wife dug,
with her own hands, a shallow grave on the bluff where their house stood,
and bearing, with difficulty, in her slender arms the wasted remains, laid
them, coffinless, in the trench, and covering them with earth, returned to
the house to find her three oldest children suffering from the same malady.
The pestilence made short but sure work with their little frames. One by
one they breathed their last in their mother's arms. Kissing their waxen
features, she bore them out all alone and laid them tenderly side by side
with their father.
The little babe of four months was still the picture of health. All
unconscious of its bereavements and of the bitter sorrows of her on whose
bosom he lay, he throve upon the maternal bounty which poured for him,
though her frail life seemed to be passing away with it.
Like some subtle but potent elixir, which erects the vital spirit, and
holds it when about to flee from its tenement, so did that sweet babe keep
the mother's heart pulsing with gentle beat during the days which followed
those forlorn funeral rites.
A week passed, during which a great terror possessed her, lest she too
should have the latent seeds of the pestilence in her frame, and should
have imparted the dreadful gift to her babe through the fountain of
A racking pain in her forehead, followed by lassitude, told her alas! that
all she had shuddered to think of was coming to pass. Weary and suffering,
she laid herself upon the couch, which she prayed but for her infant might
be her last resting place. Too soon, as she watched with a keenness of
vision which only a mother can possess, did she see the first shadow of the
destroyer reflected on the face of her little one. It faded like a flower
in the hot blast of July,
"So softly worn, so sweetly weak,"
and before two suns had come and gone, it lay like a bruised lily on the
fever-burning bosom which gave it life.
Unconsciousness came mercifully to the poor mother. For hours she lay in
blessed oblivion. But the vital principle, which often displays its
wondrous power in the feeblest frames, asserted its triumph over death, and
she awoke again to the remembrance of losses that could never be repaired
this side the grave.
Three days passed before the fever left her. She arose from her couch, and,
with shaking frame, laid her little withered blossom on its father's grave,
and covering it with a mound of dried grass, crowned it with yellow autumn
The love of life slowly returned; but the means to sustain that life had
been destroyed by murrain, the grasshoppers, and the drought. The household
stores would suffice but for a few days longer. The only and precarious
means of subsistence which would then remain, would be such game as she
could shoot. The Indians becoming apprised of the death of Mr. N., had
carried off the horses.
Only one avenue of escape was left her; casting many "a longing, lingering
look" at the home once so happy, but now so swept and desolate, she took
her husband's rifle and struck boldly out into the boundless plain, towards
the trail which runs from the Arkansas River to Fort Riley, and after
several days of great suffering fell in with friends, as we have already
The sad experience of Mrs. N. is fortunately a rare one at the present day.
The vast area occupied by the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, is in many
respects naturally fitted for those forms of social life in which woman's
work may be performed under the most favorable circumstances; a country
richly adapted to the various forms of agriculture and to pastoral
occupations; a mild and generally equable climate are there well calculated
to show the pioneer-housewife at her best.
Another great advantage has been the fact that this region was a kind of
graduating school, into which the antecedent schools of pioneer-life could
send skilled pupils, who, upon a fair and wide field, and in a virgin soil,
could build a civil and social fabric, reflecting past experiences and
embodying a multitude of separate results into a large and harmonious
Visiting some years since the States of Kansas and Nebraska, we passed
first through that rich and already populous region in the eastern part of
the former State, which twenty-five years since was an uninhabited waste.
Here were all the appliances of civilization: the school, the church, the
town hall; improved agriculture, the mechanic arts, the varied forms of
mercantile traffic, and at the base of the fabric the home made and ordered
by woman. Here but yesterday was the frontier where woman was performing
her oft before repeated task, and laying, according to her methods and
habits, and within her appropriate sphere, the foundations of that which is
to-day a great, rich, and prosperous social and civil State. Here, too, we
saw many of the mothers, not yet old, who through countless trials, labors,
and perils have aided in the noble work on which they now are looking with
such honest pride and satisfaction.
For many successive afternoons we passed on from city to city, and from
village to village. The sun preceded us westward; we steered our course
directly towards it, and each day as it sank to the earth, brightly and
more brightly glowed the sky as with the purest gold. The settlements
became more scattered, the uninhabited spaces grew wider. We were
nearing one of the frontiers.
In the spring the mead through which we were passing was a natural
parterre, where in the midst of the lively vernal green, bloomed the oxlip,
the white and blue violet, the yellow-cup dotted with jet, and many another
fragile and aromatic member of the floral sisterhood.
Ascending a knoll crowned by a little wood which lay like a green shrub
upon that treeless, grassy plain, we saw from this point the prairie
stretching onward its loftily waving extent to the horizon. Here and there
amidst the vast stretch arose small log-houses, which resembled little
birds' nests floating upon the ocean. Here and there, also, were people
Among the harvesters were three young women, who were nimbly binding
sheaves, with little children around them. The vastness of the prairie made
the harvesters themselves look like children playing at games.
Some distance beyond us, in the track we were pursuing, we saw what at
first glance appeared to be a white dahlia. As we neared it, this huge
white flower seemed to be moving; it was the snowy sun-bonnet of a young
school-teacher, who was convoying a troop of children to the school-house,
whose brown roof showed above the luxuriant herbage. She seemed to be
beloved by her scholars, for they surrounded her and clung to her. She had
been giving them, it appeared, a lesson in practical botany; their hats
were adorned with scarlet and yellow blossoms, and they carried bunches of
oxlips and violets. The school-mistress had a face like a sister of
charity; the contour and lines showed resolution and patience; the whole
expression blended with intelligence, a strong and lovely character. She
entered the door of the log school-house, and gently drew within it the
youngest of her charges. Around the school-house we saw other groups of
sturdy boys and chubby girls, frisking and shouting gaily as we drove by.
It is under the tuition of the women especially that a vigorous,
intelligent, and laborious race grows up in these border settlements on the
plains. The children are taught the rudiments, and afterwards endeavor to
improve their condition in life. The boys often enter upon political and
public careers. The girls marry early, and contribute to make new societies
in the wilderness. These farms are the nurseries from which the State will
soon obtain its officials and its teachers, both male and female.
The gardens, the cottages, and cabins nearly all showed some external signs
of the embellishing hand of woman. Entering one of these houses, we found
the men and young women out gathering the harvest. An elderly woman acted
as our hostess. She was maid of all-work, a chamber-maid, cook,
dairy-woman, laundress, and children's nurse; and yet she found time to
make us a cordial welcome. The house was only one year old, and rather open
to the weather, but bore the marks of womanly thrift and even of
The matron who entertained us displayed piety, restless activity, humanity,
intelligence, and a youthfully warm heart, all of which marked her as a
type of that large class of elderly housewives who are using the education
which they acquired in their girlhood in the East to form new and model
communities on these wide and rich plains.
We asked her about her life and thus came to hear, without the least
complaint on her part, of its many difficulties. And yet when her husband
and sons and daughters returned home from the field, we could see that it
was a joyous and happy home.
The eldest daughter, Mrs. B———, then a widow of twenty-five or six, told
us the story of her experience in border-life. She was born in Wisconsin,
when as a territory it had a population of only three thousand. Soon after
the removal of her father and mother to Kansas, and at the age of sixteen
she had married one of the most adventurous of the race of young pioneers
which drew their first breath upon the then frontier in Illinois.
Their wedding tour was in a prairie schooner from Atchison to the
semi-fertile region which borders on the desert belt which stretches
through western Nebraska and Kansas to New Mexico. Here they made their
first home. Life in that particular section must be a pastoral rather than
an agricultural one: her husband accordingly devoted himself almost
entirely to the raising of cattle.
We hardly need say, that next to the hunter, the cattle-herder approximates
most nearly to savage life; his wife must accordingly find her position
under such circumstances, a peculiarly trying one. The house in which Mrs.
B——— and her husband lived was a simple hut constructed by digging away
the side of a hill which formed the earthen rear and side walls of their
dwelling, the top and front being of logs also covered with earth. Their
kitchen, sleeping-room, dining-room, and parlor were represented by a
single apartment Three men with their wives were their companions in the
enterprise, and all lived in similar houses.
As most of the men's time was occupied in looking after their herds and
preventing them from wandering too far or from being stamped and stolen by
thievish savages, a large share of the other out-door labors fell upon the
women. Cheerfully accepting these burdens Mrs. B——— and her three female
companions tilled the small patches of corn and potatoes which with pickled
beef formed their only food. Much of the time they were left entirely alone
and were alarmed as well as annoyed by frequent visits from Indians, who,
however, abstained from violence, contenting themselves with eating what
was given them and pilfering whatever stray articles they could find.
Three years were passed by the little colony in this wild pastoral life.
Though the heats of summer and the sudden storms of wind in winter, were
severe, disease was never added to their list of ordinary discomforts and
privations. Two of the men twice a year drove their cattle two hundred and
fifty miles to the nearest railway station, but none of the women
accompanied them on these trips, which were always looked forward to by
their husbands as a relief from the monotony of their life as herders.
The third summer after their arrival was extremely sultry, and the drought
so common in that region, promised to be more than usually severe. The
crops were rapidly being consumed by four weeks of continuous hot, dry
weather, when one day late in July, the four housewives, who were sitting
together in the cabin of Mrs. B———, observed a sudden darkening of the
western sky, and felt sharp eddying gusts of wind which blew fitfully from
the southwest. A succession of small whirlwinds carried aloft the sand in
front of their houses, which were ranged not far apart on the hillside.
These phenomena, accompanied with various other atmospheric commotions,
lasted for half an hour, and ceased to attract their attention. The wind,
however, continued to increase, and the ears of the four matrons anon
caught the sound of a dull, steady roar, which rose above the fitful
howling of the blast. They ran to the door and saw a dark cloud shaped like
a monstrous funnel moving swiftly towards them from the west. The point of
this funnel was scarcely more than one hundred feet from the earth, and
swayed like the car of a balloon descending from a great height.
Dismayed by this extraordinary spectacle they hastened in doors. Scarcely
had they gained shelter when their ears were saluted by a sound louder than
the broadside of a double decker, and the next moment the roof of the house
was torn away with tremendous force and almost at the same instant a flood
of water twenty feet deep swept the four women with the débris of
the house down the hillside and whirled them away over the plain.
Three of the women, including Mrs. B———, severely bruised and half
drowned, emerged from the torrent when it spread out and spent itself upon
the level; the fourth stunned by a blow from one of the house-logs, and
suffocated by the rush of the waters, could not be resuscitated. The
water-spout, for such was the agent of the destruction which had been
wrought, had fallen on the hillside and swept away two of the other houses
besides that of Mrs. B———, and for ten days, while new dwellings could
be constructed and the furniture and other articles carried away could be
recovered, the three houseless families were quartered partly in the
remaining house, and the rest encamped under the open sky, where they
suffered additional discomfort from the thunder storms in the night, which
followed the water-spout.
The next summer they were visited by another disaster in the shape of
grasshoppers. Often had these terrible pests of the settlers in that and
the adjacent regions, flown in immense clouds over their heads during
former seasons, winging their way to the richer country which lay to the
east, but never before had they been attracted to the scanty patches of
corn and potatoes which skirted the hovels where the herders dwelt. But
early in July of that year a swarm settled down almost ancle deep on the
little strip of ploughed land, and within the space between the rising and
the setting of the sun, every vestige of greenness had disappeared as if
burned with fire.
After a short consultation that evening, the whole party determined to take
time by the forelock, and abandoning their cabins remove with their
household goods and herds of cattle before the insect plunderers had
prepared the way for a famine which they were certain to do before many
days. Hastily loading their carts with their household goods and stores,
and collecting their cattle, five hundred in number, they set out for the
Missouri River, three hundred miles distant.
Having reached their destination they sold all their cattle, and after
resting a few days joined a company of five pioneers who were traveling
over the military road, via Fort Kearney and through the Platte valley,
with the intention of settling in the picturesque and well watered region
east of the foot-hills of the Rocky Mountains, and slaughtering buffaloes
for their skins.
Mrs. B———, and her two female companions, with a shrewd eye to profit,
concluded an arrangement with the hunters by which they were to board and
make the whole party comfortable, in their capacity as housewives, for a
certain share in the profits of the buffalo skins, their husbands joining
the party as hunters.
All the necessary preparations having been made, they set out on horse-back
with ten pack-mules, and made rapid progress, reaching the buffalo country
without accident in twenty-two days.
Here the women occasionally joined in the hunt, and being fearless riders
as well as good shots added a few buffalo robes to their own account. On
one of these hunts, Mrs. B———, becoming separated from the party while
following a stray bison with too much ardor, reached a small valley which
looked as if it might be a favorite grazing ground for the brutes. The wind
blew in her face as she rode, and owing to this circumstance, the bison
being a quick scented animal, she was enabled to approach a solitary bull
feeding by a stream at the foot of the hill and dispatched it by a shot
from her rifle.
Dismounting, she whipped out her hunting knife and was proceeding to flay
the carcass, when she was attracted by a low rumbling sound which shook the
earth, and looking up the steep bluff at the foot of which she stood, saw a
herd which must have contained ten thousand bison, plunging madly down upon
her. Her horse taking fright broke away from the bush to which he was
fastened and galloped off. Mrs. B——— ran after him at the top of her
speed, but was conscious that the black mass behind her would soon overtake
and trample her under foot, such was the impetus they had received in their
course down the hill.
Not a tree was in sight, but remembering two or three sink-holes which she
had seen beside a clump of bushes near the spot where she had taken aim at
the bull-bison, she hastened thither and succeeded in dropping into one
some ten feet in depth just as the leaders of the herd were almost upon
her. Lying there panting and up to her waist in water, she heard the shaggy
battalions sweep over her, and, a moment after they had passed, caught the
sound of voices. Emerging cautiously for fear of Indians, which were
swarming in the region, she saw four of the hunters whom she had left an
hour before galloping in hot pursuit of the herd. The five other hunters
coming up in front of the herd as it was commencing to climb the bluff on
the other side of the valley, succeeding in turning the terrified multitude
to one side, and when they came up with Mrs. B——— she saw they had
caught her horse, which had met them as it was galloping homeward.
Thus supplied with a steed she mounted, and regaining her rifle which she
had dropped in her flight, nothing daunted by the danger she had so
narrowly escaped, joined in the hunt which ended in a perfect
battue. The hunters succeeded in driving a part of the herd into a
narrow gorge and strewing the ground with carcasses.
Three months of this wild life made our heroine pine for more quiet
pursuits, and she induced her husband to return to the frontier of eastern
Nebraska, where, with the profits of the cattle enterprise and the hunt, a
large tract was purchased on one of the tributaries of the Platte. Here,
after six years of labor, they built up a model farm, well stocked with
choice breeds of cattle, planted with nurseries of fruit trees, and laid
down to grain. Attracted by the story of their success, other settlers
flocked into the region. The completion of the Pacific Railroad soon after
furnished them with an easy access to market. Every thing went on
prosperously till the death of Mr. B——— from a casualty. But
notwithstanding this loss, Mrs. B——— kept up the noble farm which her
energy and perseverance had done so much to make what it was. She was then
on a visit to her father's family in Kansas, where we met her, and had
invited her father, mother, and sisters to remove to her home in Nebraska,
which they were intending shortly to do.
The whole family showed evidence of the possession of the same bold and
energetic character which the eldest daughter had displayed during her ten
years' experience on the extreme frontier, beside those other qualities
both of heart and mind which mark the true pioneer woman.
Heartfelt kindness and hospitality, seriousness and mirth in the family
circle,—these characteristics of border life, when it is good, had all
been transplanted into the western wilderness by these colonists. That day
among the dwellers of the plain; that fine old lady; those handsome,
fearless, warm-hearted, kind, and modest young women; that domestic life;
that rich hospitality, combined to show how much happiness may be enjoyed
in those frontier homes, where woman is the presiding genius.
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