Roger M McCoy
Life on the the trail westward was often a special hardship for women. This was particularly true for women without the companionship of other women during the journey. Most travelers on the trail stayed together and provided mutual support. A few others chose to push ahead at a faster pace, resulting in traveling alone much of the time. The Pengras had other friends on the trail and they had all intended to travel together. But for some reason Charlotte and Bynon Pengra moved ahead on their own without the company of a wagon train for a significant portion of the journey.
When Mrs. Pengra became seriously ill with dysentery, likely from the frequent problem of contaminated water, she wrote that her husband, Bynon, tended to her needs: “He gave me a dose of opium and we traveled twenty-two miles.” Bynon gave her bandages, prepared a “Sits bath” and “packed” her with cold compresses, “made a good bed in the wagon,” and moved on.
Later Bynon and their three-year-old daughter, Stella, became sick with dysentery and Charlotte took the task of driving the team of oxen, which means she had to walk beside the near, left, ox. The right ox was the off ox.
“Though Bynon and Sis (Stella) is very unwell they are anxious to go on. …just before we reached the river I was taken in great pain which resulted in the dysentery. I have suffered much pain and feel a good deal reduced, but all are sick and I must keep up to the last.”
When Bynon tried to take a turn at driving he was so weakened that he collapsed. Charlotte wrote:
“I took my turn and drove until I was quite undone. …I am all used up. Dark times for we folks.”
To add further problems they ran out of meat and sugar, and Charlotte’s understated comment was:
“I am somewhat discouraged, and shall be glad when this journey is ended. …I feel lonely and almost disheartened. I feel very tired and lonely.”
Charlotte’s further comments make it clear she felt isolated and missed the company of women, especially during her illness.
A woman sometimes found herself the only female among men, especially if they were not traveling in a wagon train as the Pengras were during the early part of the journey. Her diary mentions that she missed the daily conversations and chore sharing with other women back home. She also missed the company of women when it came to normal bodily functions in a terrain that provided no shelter or privacy. When several women were present they would form a shield to offer privacy to each individual woman in turn. As few as two women with long skirts could provide a bit of privacy for a third. Such necessity for privacy prompted many women to forego bloomers and to shorten their skirts slightly. Full skirts soon became covered with mud, dust, and permanent grime. Imagine Charlotte Pengra’s distress tending to her normal bodily functions alone, not to mention her episodes of dysentery.
A typical day for the Pengra family started before dawn with a breakfast of coffee, bacon, and dry bread. The bedding was secured and wagon repacked in time to get underway by seven o’clock. At noon they stopped for a cold meal of coffee, beans, bacon, or buffalo prepared that morning. Then back on the road again. Around five in the afternoon, after traveling an average of fifteen miles, they circled the wagons for the evening. The men secured the animals and made repairs while the women cooked a hot meal of tea and boiled rice with dried beef or codfish.
Early in a trip there usually was a division of labor in which men drove the wagons, stood guard at night, and hunted for meat. Women collected wood or buffalo chips, hauled water, made fires, cooked, and tended children. Later the demands of travel weakened the distinction between gender roles. Women often shared in driving the oxen and men did some housekeeping chores.
Lucena and George Parsons were newly wed on Monday, March 18, 1850 and the next day she began a journal of her travel from northern Illinois to California. She was twenty-eight years old and had been a school teacher in Janesville, Wisconsin. George was a farmer from Henry County in northwestern Illinois.
In an April 17th entry to her diary, Lucena noted: “Oh, how long this day has been to me not seeing anyone but strangers & no meeting place [meaning a church] within miles that we could attend.”
She was feeling a sense of isolation after a month of travel and they were still in a populated part of the country.
“June 14 I had the pleasure of giving the chief of the Otoe tribe a loaf of bread. He is a very fine looking man. He is called by his people the Buffalo chief.“
The Otoe tribe occupied a large area that included conjoining corners of Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas.
“June 15 The women are washing and baking to start Monday. We traveled only 3 miles & encampt on Three Mile Creek.
“June 16 To day it is very hot & sultry & there are some complaining of the headache. I have the sick head ache today. This afternoon we had preaching in front of the camp. There was an Indian chief visited my tent today gave hime some dinner & he gave me a knife.
“June 20 Travelled over a beautiful country. Passt 6 graves all made within 5 days & all died of cholera. This afternoon passt 2 more graves, they seem to be from the same company as the 6 who died.
“June 21 We have been obliged to stop this morning to bury 2 of our company, the first to die with cholera. We have made 15 miles today & have been in sight of the Platte River. We encampt to night on the banks of Salt Creek. Our company came up with another child dead. They buried it at twilight on the bank of the stream. The wether very hot.
“June 22 This morning we buried 3 more children who had the cholera, they all belonged to one family. …it commenced raining hard & we had to wate some time. It was noon before we started. The worst time we have had since we left Missouri. Severall sick. The wether damp & everything wet with very little fire in camp.
“June 23 These are hard times for us but harder for the sick. Nothing for their relief at all it seems. Still it rains. Very Hot. The roads are very muddy as it rains every day. …We made 8 miles to day through rain & mud. We had a dredfull time. It rained hard & some went to bed without their supper.
June 26 The weather was fine and cool this morning. The sick in our company are getting better. Roads very crooked. Campt on the prairie without wood or water.”
Much of Lucena Parson’s diary tells of more illness and death, and one can imagine the personal anguish of burying a family member in the wilderness and going on without them. She also tallies every death and burial in their company and every grave they pass. It was a bad year for cholera.
Cholera is an intestinal infection transmitted by water or food that has been contaminated with the fecal matter of a person carrying the cholera bacteria. Considering the large number of wagon trains in the 1850’s, cholera could affect many people using one contaminated water source. A healthy adult might survive cholera but children and elderly are most vulnerable.
They are still following the Platte River in central Nebraska. Now we skip July and go to August 1: “Travelled 15 miles. This brought us to Fort Laramie [at the confluence of the Platte and Laramie Rivers] which we were glad to see. …We passt a camp of Indians to day that have the small pox. They have it very bad & many of them have died.
“Aug 7 …It seems a pity to see the amount of property that is left on this road, waggons & cattle & various things. Wether fine. We have good clear spring water & plenty of wood & grass to night.”
Jump forward a few weeks to an extended layover the Parsons made in Salt Lake City. While there Charlotte Parsons had time to get familiar with the environs and the people. Her comments follow:
“ Sept 21 We reached the mouth of the canion about 4 o’clock & came to the city of Salt Lake in the evening, it being 5 miles from the canion mouth. Pleasant weather. Very tired.”
Charlotte’s diary has an unexplained gap and resumes four months later. In late January she filled in some details about their stay in Salt Lake City:
“January 29 1851 By this time we began to learn something of the Mormons & thought there was as much comfort on the road for us as living among a set of pirats. We gave up the idea of going on & decided to tough it out till spring. We hired a room as good as a common hog pen & paid 5 dollars per month.
“…I am bold to say that an honest person can not live six months with them. I know of many instances where they have cheated men out of a whole winters work merely because they did not belong to the church.
“Who could belong to such an unprincipled [sic] sect as these Mormons? I know many men who have mothers and daughters for so called spiritual wives let the number be what it may. These demons marry some girls at 10 years of age. A man will take a mother & her daughters & marry them all at one time. What will become of these men the Lord only knows. …All the preaching & teaching is obedience to rulers & women’s right are trampled under foot. They have as much liberty as common slaves in the South.”
In February the Parsons resumed their trip and following the Humboldt River eventually came to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At that point the diary ends with no explanation nor any hint if they ultimately reached their destination safely.
Holmes, Kenneth L. ed. Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1850. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. 1983. (Holmes was the main source for this blog.)
Schlissel, Lillian. Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken Books. 1982.