Women’s diaries provide some insights to life on the trail for the nineteenth century migrant. They tend to tell interesting details about what they packed, and how they felt. Here are a few good examples of women’s experiences on the trail beginning with Mrs. Frink.
In 1850 Margaret Frink traveled with her husband by wagon train from Independence, Missouri to California. She kept an interesting diary telling about the life they left behind, how they prepared for the journey, and describing life on the trail. Based on her descriptions, the Frink family appeared to be somewhat more affluent and literate than some migrants.
Among the equipment they carried was a newly purchased sheet-iron cooking stove and two India rubber bottles holding five gallons each for carrying water. Unfortunately only a few of her diary entries are dated, but we know they left home in late March, 1850.
Excerpts of Mrs. Frink’s Diary
“Mr. Frink was a successful merchant. The exciting news coming back from California of the delightful climate and abundance of gold, caused us to resolve, in December, 1849, that we would commence preparing to cross the plains by the spring of 1850.
“The first thing on Mr. Frink’s part was to have a suitable wagon made for the trip while I hired a seamstress to make up a full supply of clothing. In addition to the finished articles of dress, I packed a truck full of dress goods not yet made up.
“We knew nothing of frontier life nor how to prepare for it. We were met with all the discouragements that our neighbors could invent to induce us not to attempt such a perilous journey.
“The wagon was packed and we were all ready to start on the twenty-seventh day of March . The wagon was designed expressly for the trip. It was so arranged that when closed up, it could be used as our bedroom. The bottom was divided into little compartments. After putting in all our provisions, and baggage, a floor was laid over all on which our mattress was laid. We had an India rubber mattress that could be filled with either air or water. We also had a feather bed and feather pillows.
“The wagon was lined with green cloth to make it pleasant and soft for the eye, with three or four large pockets on each side to hold many little conveniences—looking-glasses, combs, brushes and so on.
“Our outfit for provisions was plenty of hams and bacon, covered from the dust. Also apples, peaches, and preserved fruit, rice, coffee, tea, beans, flour cornmeal, crackers, butter, and lard.
“We were all ready to start the next morning, the 27th of March. On the evening before the whole family, including my mother, gathered together looking as if we were all going to our graves instead of starting a trip of pleasure. There we sat in such gloom that I arose and announced that we would not start in the morning or until everybody could feel more cheerful. I think no one slept very much that night.”
[Mrs. Frink relates their passage through Illinois, and Missouri and eventually reaching Independence, the starting point for trails west. Finally facing the immensity of the land ahead of them Margaret Frink wrote…]
“I think none of us realized until now the perils of this undertaking. During the past week not much has been discussed but the Indians. Printed circulars are distributed informing the emigrants of many Indian depredations. Now I begin to think that three men, one woman, and one eleven year old boy only armed with one gun and one Colt’s revolver are but a small force to defend themselves against many hostile tribes along a journey of two thousand miles. During the day I began to feel, and so expressed myself to the rest, that for greater safety it would be well if we could fall in with some strong company and unite with them for mutual protection.”
[It’s surprising they were so uninformed in the beginning. She reveals that they originally thought they would be alone on the trip…not with a wagon train.]
“Some trains would try to pass others to be sure they got grass before others did. We felt it was better to maintain a slower steady pace to better conserve the strength of their horses. .. I was half frantic over the idea that every blade of grass for miles on each side of the road would be eaten off by the hundreds and thousands of horses, mules and oxen ahead of us. And worse than all, there would only be a few barrels of gold left for us when we got to California.”
[They were following the Platte River]
“This morning we started again at half past six on the well traveled road which had been used for many years hauling supplies to the frontier forts like Fort Kearney and Fort Laramie and Fort Hall. The road was in good condition, all the bad streams being bridged.”
[Unfortunately, in this area Margaret Frink lost her prized stove.]
“It was in this camp that we had to leave our cooking stove which we found so useful ever since crossing the Missouri. It being light, we always carried it lashed on the hind end of the wagon. Some careless person in a hurry drove his team up to close behind, and the pole of his wagon ran into the stove, smashing and ruining it. After that we had to cook in the open air. We would excavate a narrow trench a foot deep and three feet long in which we built the fire. …we found this a very good substitute for a stove.
“The country was so level that we could see the long trains of white-topped wagons for many miles. It appeared to me that none of the population had been left behind. …I had never seen so many human beings in all my life before.
“Some buffalo were sighted and a number of men took off on horseback to chase them. They gave our horses a fatiguing run but not without a reprimand from Mr Frink when they returned. He informed them very distinctly that he had not started for California to hunt buffalo.
I would not, for a good deal, have missed the sight of that great chase over that grand plain. Someone gave us some buffalo steak so that we were not without a share of the prize.”
[By June they had left the plains and passed through hilly land of western Nebraska into eastern Wyoming, still following the Platte River.]
“The heavy sand and hard climbing begin to tell on the strength of our horses. Feed is often scarce and they suffer the consequence.
The mail carriers passed us on a trot this morning heading for the Rocky Mountains [South Pass], where a post office for the accommodation of the emigrants was established.”
[At Ft Laramie, Wyoming].
“This is the last place of human habitation we shall see until we reach Ft. Hall five hundred and thirty miles further on.
“We started at twelve o’clock today, traveled fifteen miles and went into camp at five o’clock. The road was very rough.
“Many wagons are being abandoned. Every day we pass good wagons that have been left for anyone that might want them.”
[South Pass, Wyoming]
“ …the American flag was flying to mark the private post office established for the emigrants wishing to send letters to friends at home.”
On each letter we paid express charges of $1.00. Messengers took the letters to St. Joseph and in due time they reached their destination 1,438 miles distant.”
[Fast forward to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By now they were on the California Trail]
“Friday, August 30. It is five months this morning since we left home. We are now about to climb the main ridge of the snowy mountains, called the Sierra Nevada. The snow is ten to fifteen feet deep. It was a hard struggle for the weak horses. Though the wagons were nearly empty we had to stop often to let the animals rest.
“The snow on the road had melted to the bare rocks, but stood in snow walls 10 to 15 feet high on both sides.”
[Arrival in Sacramento and end of the diary]
“…We never had occasion to regret the prolonged hardships of the toilsome journey that had its happy ending in this fair land of California.”
Margaret Frink’s writing was unusual for its style and vocabulary. She certainly had some education and the Frink family were financially able to order a prefab house before they left Indiana. The house shipment arrived by boat and was waiting when they arrived in Sacramento...within a week it was ready to to move in. At that time Sears and Roebuck catalogs offered complete houses of several designs and sizes from small bungalows to large two-story frame homes. They came with pre-cut lumber, all necessary nails, and complete instructions.
Another migrant woman, Sarah Davis, also kept a diary. Her diary also makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the migrant experience. A few of Sarah’s entries are shown here.
Excerpts from the Sarah Davis Diary
“Sunday July 28, near South Pass Wyoming
we went on to little sandy [river] distance twelve miles and their stoped for the day and to grase our catle we had to drive them five miles to grase and whilst the men ware gone with the catle this large train [wagon train] come in one mile of us and camped. their a rose a quarel with them and what quareling I never heard the like they werted whiping a man for whiping his wife he had whiped her every day since he joined the company and now they thought it was time to whip him and they caught him and striped him and took the ox gad [goad] to him and whiped him tremendous she screamed and hollerd for him till one might have hare him for three miles.
June 6 we traveled on for the day and nothing hapened of any importance”
[Many of Sarah’s entries often mention the number of graves they passed on some days.]
“June 13 I think we travel vary well we travel about ten miles farther we past thirteen graves
June 17 their was three large white wolfs attacked a cow and calf…whilst they were eating their kill [the calf] mr crous shot one…but he rose and run of I saw thirteen graves today”
[From this brief exposure to travelers’ diaries we get the merest sense of the life on the trail. Most migrants made a successful trip to their destination, but a future blog will describe more about the hardship of illness and death as told by women on the trail.]
Davis, Robert E. Following Sarah: Sarah Davis’s 1849-1850 Journey from Michigan to California. Twentynine Palms, CA: Quiet Creek Publishers. 2013.
Holmes, Kenneth L. ed. Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1850. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. 1983.
Schlissel, Lillian, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, New York: Schocken Books. 1982.