I’m lucky to have grandmothers on both sides that researched and wrote about my ancestors. Mom went even further and wrote a western history Along the Rivers which recounts, as she put it, “three stories, the Pioneering Story, the Mormon Story, and the Indian Story.” And as she told these stories, interwoven are my ancestors’ adventures as they interacted with those larger movements.
So with her book as a reference guide, my four sisters and I traversed across six states to find our roots and make memories in mid-September.
We went East on the same route our families came West. We started at Bear River where it makes a hairpin curve south. At this point the emigrant trail splits, with those heading to California going south and those headed to Oregon going north.
We continued on into Wyoming and followed the Sweetwater, then the North Platte that guided travelers westward. We learned about the handcart pioneers, of which our great grandfather was one, and the tragedy that befell those who got caught in an October blizzard in Martin’s Cove, now a welcoming visitor’s site southwest of Casper.
We saw wagon ruts, actually a deep trench through sandstone, near the town of Guernsey, Wyoming. Register Cliff is nearby too, where emigrants carved their names and often the year of their travel. We even found the name “Just” which may have been placed there by our very own great grandfather. The date was 185- (the last digit illegible). Our Just family traveled in 1857. Could it be? My sister proclaimed on the spot, “We’re owning it!”
We stopped at Fort Laramie, a large restored complex of barracks, officer quarters, etc. of a fur trading post turned military fort in the 1800’s. We watched a live demonstration of heavy artillery put on by park employees in period soldier dress. They did the cannon shuffle for us, the five person dance of loading and firing each round. We also learned that these large arms were mostly for scaring the Indians, their most frequent use being the raising and lowering of the flag each day.
We drove through miles and miles of corn and soybeans that defined our route in rural eastern Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. With neatly mown and manicured roadways and farmsteads it was stunningly beautiful. And it's green because it rains so much there in the summer. But the conservationist in me wonders why they can’t leave some plants to mature for the birds and bees and butterflies.
We toured the old townsite of Nauvoo, Illinois, where our Mormon ancestors, the Webbs and Carlings who were Blacksmiths, and the Brownings who made guns, were important to the Mormon emigration to escape persecution. I'm not a Mormon, but the site is a joy to visit. And don't miss the performing missionaries if you go. They sing and dance like professionals.
Human history aside, one of my favorite stops was to venture into a stand of restored tall grass prairie full of buzzing wildlife.
All of us being ranch raised, we especially enjoyed the oxen ride at Nauvoo. Any breed of cattle, mostly male and castrated, is called an ox if it’s used to do work. They need to have horns so the yoke will stay put. For wagon trains, oxen were preferable to horses because they were gentler, stronger, could eat a wider array of forages, would not be stolen by the Indians, and were cheaper to purchase, They also required only a yoke, no harness and reins like horses. The “bull whacker” would walk beside the yoke of oxen (one pair) or two or three, calling “gee” and “haw” (directional demands) to keep them moving ahead. The families walked alongside as the wagon would be carrying their supplies.
We kept going east to Springfield, Illinois, to visit the Lincoln Museum and Library. It was good fun plus educational. The lifelike figures of Lincoln and his contemporaries bring the past absolutely alive. The exhibits profile a complex leader and a time of great divisiveness in our nation. It gives a useful perspective on our current quagmire. As a country we got past it then and will do so now.
Five women (someone said “elderly," I said “middle-aged") taking off alone for 4,000 miles? Crazy? We thought perhaps so when our left wheel sped past us while we were traveling on a country road near Torrington, Wyoming. We pulled off safely and the tire landed in a canal which was only mud not water. Through the kindness of a cowboy and a farmer/cop, we were back on the road the next morning.
Yes, we went to learn about our ancestors, but we mostly learned about us as sisters. We got along well as usual. Ok, so there’s a few subjects we avoid, but we thoroughly enjoyed the hours of drive time, the conversations over the less than luscious continental breakfasts offered by our lodging hosts, the comradery shared as we built sandwiches on various picnic tables across this beautiful country, and imagining our Mom's excitement as we cemented our relationships with each other and with the brave souls that preceded us. We made friends with strangers, found out google maps were amazingly helpful and flawed at the same time. And we couldn’t help but marvel at how in 170 or so years we’ve gone from weeks of near starvation and camping in the elements to queen beds in crisp sheets, hot showers and an array of dining choices at our every beck and call.
Oh how lucky we are. To live where we do. To have the parents we did. To be so similar, yet so different. And to be the very best of friends.
|reading from Mom's book at Chimney Rock, an important landmark along the Emigrant Trail|
|restored gun shop owned by our Browning ancestor|
|discussing strategy with McClellan and Grant|
Lincoln Museum, Springfield, Illinois
|how great grandfather Nels's family did it|
Martin's Cove, Wyoming
|Love the native prairie grass and forbs|
|my valiant sisters|
me, Donna, Becky, Kittie, Merle
|wagon ruts at Guernsey, WY|