Women’s History on the California Trail

I wrote the following entries for March Facebook posts for the California Trail Interpretive Center.

The Frontier Friday posts for March (Women’s History Month) will include diary accounts from women pioneers as they traveled through Elko Valley and Carlin Canyon.

Harriet Sherrill Ward, her husband William, 17-year old daughter Frances, and 11-year old Willie left Wisconsin in April 1853 with two horse-drawn wagons to join their second-oldest son (a 49er) in the gold fields of California. They camped in the vicinity of the present location of Elko on the night of August 29. On August 30, Harriet wrote, “We were all on our winding way at an early hour. Our road led us through a pass in the Humboldt Mountains, the scenery strangely varied and beautiful beyond my descriptive powers to portray, but they are indelibly engraven on my memory, in which they have formed beautiful pictures on which my mind will delight in after years to dwell. We have crossed the Humboldt River four times. Not bad except one sidling bank, where they were obliged to hold the wagons to prevent them turning over. We all came through without accident except Will, who thought he would be very smart and jump onto the bank just before we reached it. His foot caught and down he went into the water. He received a good ducking. The last crossing today brought us into a lovely little valley of not more than twenty acres of perfectly level land, covered with the softest green carpet imaginable and entirely surrounded by high Rocky Mountains; and here we were to all appearance shut out from the world entirely, unless the presiding Giant of these wild mountains should, with his magic wand, unbar the rocky gates and give us permission to mingle with the world again. But a short drive convinced us that we needed no such imaginary aid, for a kind Providence, in the formation of the mountains, had opened a natural gate for us which was hidden from our view by a sharp angle. We no sooner reached that point than a beautiful, smooth road invited us to proceed. We accordingly did and soon found ourselves at our beautiful camping ground on the river’s brink with the wind blowing a perfect gale. Father’s watch, Frankie quite sick. We travelled twenty miles.” Harriet’s diary was published in 1959 as “Prairie Schooner Lady”.

Lorena L. Hays was a young woman in her mid-20s who was very concerned about her spiritual life and was trepidatious about her families decision to make the trek to California, hence the name of the her published diaries – “To the Land of Gold and Wickedness”. On August 10, 1853, while passing through the Elko valley she wrote, “Crossed Humbolt yesterday, and after driving through a most luxuriant field of grass, camped on a pretty stream running into the Humbolt – tried to catch some fish, but there were only a few small ones caught. Started early this morning which was rather cool, and a little after noon camped on another beautiful mountain stream. One or two trout was seen, so we all got our lines and went to the creek, but caught but one or two little fish. We lay by quite often so that the cattle may recruit a little. The dust is still quite bad, with some salaratus on the ground in places, that, or that alkalie, makes our hands and faces chap some, otherwise we have a very pleasant, and easy time generally speaking.”

Mary Burrell was nineteen yearls old during her family’s trip from Illinois to California in 1854. They spent parts of three days crossing through the Elko valley. [?] represent places where the diary was smudged or unreadable. “July 21 – Good roads, fine feed, very dusty. Foster & [?] shot several ducks & divided with us; fish plenty in the stream. Saw Mr Pervis of Joliet; sent [?] address to Plainsfield [?] him. Camped in a perfect meadow [?] intended to have a concert but it turned into a supper of Ducks. July 22 – Ive got my old customers to deal with again. as usual could not get dinner. Finished the first knitted sock for Wm [Hannibal] which I commenced the 19th    Fosters men shot 2 geese & gave us one    Had a jaw with Stucky for calling me a liar, which did not set very well on my rennet     July 23 – Passed some of Zumwalts train; camped with loose cattle. Came to the forks of road; one led over the mountains. the other through the canyon crossing the Humbolt 6 or 7 times, very deep. Went the latter route which is 20 miles shorter     Blocked up the wagon boxes, avoided the worst crossing & camped. July 24 – Had our goose for breakfast     Traveled on. Crossed the river 3 times in the forenoon. Mrs. Hannibal got left because she would not get into the wagon quick enough     Ed had to bring her on horse back. Very warm nooning. Did not cross again. Encamped near the mountain early. Plenty of wild currents. Had a concert in the evening.” Mary’s diary is published in the “Covered Wagon Women” book series (volume 6).

Margaret Frink and her husband Ledyard were merchants in Indian who decided to join the migration to California in 1850 and open a store there. While in the Elko valley on July 25, Margaret wrote, “This morning we were on the road by six o’clock, and soon fell in company with Mrs. Foshee. We saw our friend Miss Cole to-day. Near the crossing of the Humboldt we stopped for the night. The river was too high and we could not cross. In the early part of the day we had taken what is called the ‘Greenhorn Cut-off,’ which required fifteen miles’ travel to gain six miles on our journey. What is called a ‘cut-off’ is a shorter road across a bend. A ‘greenhorn cut-off’ is a road which a stranger or new traveler takes, believing it to be shorter, but which turns out to be longer than the regular road. There were many such on the plains. Mr. Cole’s party caught up with us as we were all starting out of camp at half past four the next morning.” Margaret’s entire diary can be viewed at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101079825640&view=1up&seq=1.

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