Tales, trails & trials of pioneer women

By Roseanne McKee

Republished with permission of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise
Mary Alice Sigmon, first vice president of the Oklahoma Questers organization, spoke at the Nowata County Historical Society Museum at 4 p.m. on Oct. 4 about what pioneer women went through as they made their way across the United States to put down roots in areas previously known only to indigenous tribes and a few early settlers.

Sigmon, who has been a Quester for over 40 years, decided to research pioneer women, and the result is the presentation she shared with the audience Thursday at the museum.

“I’ve always felt that there were pioneer women in my past that I’d like to know more about,” Sigmon said.

The Pioneer Woman bronze statue in Ponca City depicts the grit and determination of women of 150 years ago, she said.

“They did not have so many of the conveniences that we take for granted nowadays. … I actually researched diaries of pioneer women. … They actually had a little bit of time in the wagon, if they got everyone to bed, that they could write in their diaries. So, there are volumes of diaries of these women that traveled from the east out west,” she said. “I’m going to give you some excerpts from their diaries and talk a little bit about the era … mainly from the 1840s through the 1870s. By the 1870s the railroad had come through the west through across the plains and there were settlements. It was more civilized, organized. There were churches. There were schools. But, before that time, their school, their church, their everything was in that wagon. She started with a diary excerpt by Tabitha Brown, circa 1954.

“Through all my sufferings in crossing the plains, I have not once got relief by the shedding of tears nor thought we should not reach the settlement. The same faith and hope that I had ever in the blessings of kind providence strengthened in proportion to the trials I had to endure.”

People made the decision to move west with the promise of free land.
“In many cases they didn’t have much, but they sold their farms and their belongings to have enough money to make this trip,” Sigmon said.

As people traveled, they took different trails from various loctions. One starting point for the immigrant travel was Independence, Mo., a major hub for wagons, Sigmon said.

A lot of wagons were manufactured in the Kansas City area and a lot of the travel started from there, she said. St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri, were what Sigmon called “jumping-off points.”

People traveled on the Mormon, Nebraska, Oregon, Santa Fe and California trails, “just to name a few,” she said.

“They would branch off from these major trails that went through Nebraska. Almost all the trails had to go through Nebraska except for the Santa Fe Trail. The northern trails led west of the Mississippi across Iowa and Missouri through the vast plains of Nebraska and Wyoming to the lands of Utah, Oregon and California. …” Sigmon said.

Along the way they drove oxen. They didn’t get to ride often because the children were in the back.

“Oxen were used in the 1840s and 50s mainly. They were strong. They could eat almost anything. They would endure because this was a hard trail for animals and people,” she said.

The Louisiana Purchase brokered by Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States.

“Before that time anything west of the Rockies was just open territories. It added 13 states. It cost $15 million to purchase in 1803. That comparable amount would be $1.2 trillion based on the price of land and acreage that we have nowadays,” she said. “It started with fur traders going in the 1820s and 30s to explore. … Lewis and Clark explored and made it to Willemette Valley, which is outside of Portland. …

“They headed for Oregon, Utah, Colorado and California for adventure, a new life and land,” she said. “The women who walked with them left behind their ancestral homes, brought their children, their basics and their most beloved possessions into a wagon that was 10 feet by four feet.”

The basics included — a cast iron frying pan with three legs on the bottom, called a spider, a spinning wheel to make clothing, iron and tin pots, a coffee pot, candles for lighting, butter churn, a kerosene lamp (toward the 1870s), hog scraper candle sticks, which had a base that doubled as a tool to scrape hog hide, cast iron bean pots with handle, crockery, a kettle, quilts and coverlets.

Sigmon showed a container used to make butter on the trail. The jostling of the wagon for four to five hours would separate the cream from the milk and make butter.

They couldn’t put many heavy items into the wagon because they were too heavy.
They would put dishes into corn meal to cushion it.
It was kind of a basic existence, going about 20 miles per day for four to six months, Sigmon said.

On the trail, people would cook brown beans with slab bacon overnight and have beans for breakfast around 4-5 a.m. They would also make johnny cakes from corn meal in their frying pans. At noon after traveling four to five hours they would stop for a lunch of leftovers. At that time they would rest, feed and water the oxen.

“The food they brought would be 200 pounds of flour, 10 pounds of salt, 20 pounds of sugar and molasses, dried yeast, 150 pounds of cured bacon. … If they had chickens, sometimes eggs might be packed in corn meal. They had dried fruit and 10 to 20 pounds of coffee, which masked the bitter taste of the alkaline taste of water along the way,” Sigmon said.

The cost of this would be $500 to $1,000 — $15,000 or $30,000 today, she said. The family depended on hunting and trading with others, including Indian tribes, for fresh meat. Women also picked berries along the way to supplement the food they had brought in the wagon.

“Fuel for cooking was scarce, so they used buffalo chips or meadow muffins,” Sigmon said.

Aprons kept the few clothes they owned cleaner and bonnets shaded their faces from the sun.

There are seven Questers Chapters in Oklahoma. Each chapter takes on a restorations or repair project.

“Even if you think you’re too busy, we want you. Busy people get stuff done. If you love to learn about new things and preserve the old things, then this is just the perfect place for you to be,” said Questers State President Lynda Constantine.

There are two groups in Bartlesville one that is accepting new members. To learn more about joining an existing group or forming a new one, which only requires eight members, email Mary Alice Sigmon email at masig@cableone.net or call her at 918-519-8340.

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