Monday, August 15, 2011

Whispers from the Pioneers: Remember Our Stories, Pass on Your Own

""I WANT to be a pioneer!" exclaimed Annie Foley, 9, of Omaha, climbing on a teeter-totter made of old wagon wheels and a wooden board at the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in De Smet, S.D." in The New York Times article "Trading Tiaras for Calico on the Prairie." I wrote earlier this year on Wendy McClure's charming The Wilder Life, a must read for all fans of the book and or series.

Pioneers always seem to be calling out to me in art forms - written, film and television, and sonic shapes. I would not want to be one. But their stories intrigue me. Perhaps it was my early love of Little House on the Prairie (the show, not the books, the latter of which I plan to read).

There's a 10,000 Maniacs song, Gold Rush Brides, which starts out very romantically,

"There's no way to divide the beauty of the sky from the wild western plains.
Where a man could drift, in legendary myth, by roaming over spaces.
The land was free and the price was right."

Only a few lyrics later, a darker tone:

"The land was free, yet it cost their lives.
In miner's lust for gold a family's house was bought and sold piece by piece.
A widow staked her claim on a dollar and his name so painfully.
In letters mailed back home her Eastern sisters they would moan as they would read accounts of madness, childbirth, loneliness and grief."

Consider the letters that were sent, and also the diaries that were kept.

In Sandra Dallas' The Diary of Mattie Spenser, which is a work of fiction, a neighbor comes across the diary of the grandmother of an elderly neighbor which marks her passage from Iowa to the Colorado territories in 1865. She is instantly is drawn to it, knowing diaries...

"fall into two categories. Most were for public consumption. They were lengthy letters written on the trail, then sent to the folks back home to read aloud to friends and neighbors. Parts of them were even printed in local newspapers. Rarer were journals women kept for their eyes only. Having no women friends with whom they could confide during the hazardous trip, women used their journal as confidantes, recording private thoughts they never expected anyone else to read....

She wrote on the page the usual way. Then she turned the book sideways and wrote across the original writing. People did that back then so they could double the number of words they put on a page. Imagine being that hard up for paper."

Imagine also how different a world we live in now, where emotions are broadcast in real time constantly. Imagine also what those who came before us endured.

After a harrowing attack by the Indians that ended in bloodshed, Mattie notes,

"There is an irony in the events of the trail, for our lives here are the twain of both great and ordinary events: I discovered that following the Indian attack, the bread dough, which I had set in the morning, had risen quite nicely."

An aside, Mattie's story found me the way most stories find me - because someone purchased a physical book and passed it on - in this case to a library book sale where I purchased it for 25 cents. My mother and I devoured it in record time. I love "real" books, and hope they don't go the way of letters - a dying breed. I loved Mattie's story, and think you might too, so am "passing on" the book in this way. I also found thrifted copies of Nancy E. Turner's These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901, Arizona Territories and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy, although I haven't read either yet. You can visit the Wilder homestead which Farmer Boy is based on in New York State.

This year, I watched the film Meek's Cutoff. No romantic look at life on the Oregon Trail here. Walking for 10 miles a day. False hopes of water. Dropping family heirlooms off the wagon. Hunger. Broken wagon wheels. Loneliness. Fear of the unknown.

In 2002, PBS did an outstanding documentary called Frontier House, which followed three families who lived for several months in Montana as if they were preparing for winter in 1883. It is well worth putting on your Netflix queue or checking out at the library. It reminded me of what historian David McCullough said of how we are not utilizing television as a teaching tool. His sentiments were along the lines of "We've created fire, but we're burning down the house." This is an example of television as a teaching tool at its best.

I, too, wonder as in the 10,000 Maniacs song, "Who were the homestead wives? Who were the gold rush brides? Does anyone know? Do their works survive their yellow fever lives in the pages they wrote?"

I consider their letters leaving a paper trail of not only the history of our young country, but of a family history, and how much family history is lost if we don't ask our parents and grandparents and keep this history alive. Then there's the sad case how the elderly descendant of Mattie Spenser had none of her own, and those family stories would evaporate. All those hardships, but also all those joys, forgotten.

Are you interested in stories of the pioneers? How about your family history? Do you have any favorite books, films or other resources you'd like to share? Please feel free to leave your thoughts. I love hearing from you.

Learning to love history: children at play during the Bergen County Historical Society's Pinkster Fest.


  1. I LOVED the Little House books as a child growing up in the 70's (I was born in 1967, one hundred years after Laura Ingalls Wilder)and we used to play "pioneer" all the time. I read the books to my son (10) starting last fall and he loved them, too. (This is why it's great to be homeschoolers, I'm sure it wouldn't be "cool" for him as a boy to have enjoyed them if he were under the influence of the alpha boys peer group at a school!) I hadn't seen them in 30 some years, though, and there were a lot of things in there that are racist (she was a product of her time, for sure) but which went over my head as a child. We had some great discussions of how much life has changed.

  2. Hi. Thanks for the comment! I was reading that Farmer Boy was intended to draw boys into the series. How great that you read the books to him and that you home school. My boyfriend's sister in Iowa home schools three girls. McClure wrote about how the series was popular with people who home school. I can't wait to read them!