Chapter 3 – Into the Sea of Grass
From Doctor Townsend’s journal:
“Seventeenth of May, 1844… the die is cast; we depart on the morrow, in company with Thorp’s Oregon-bound party. The grass is well-grown, we have made such last-minute preparations as are necessary, made final additions to our supplies and sent last letters to such kin and loved ones as we have remaining behind. We have taken every care against such contingencies as we may expect, and asked His blessings upon our journey. My good and trusty friend Elisha Stephens has been elected Captain of the party…”
John sat on the wagon-seat with his writing desk in his lap, and the sheltering wagon cover drawn tight over the first bow. The securing flap had not yet dropped over the opening into that tiny, canvas room that had been their home for a month and would be for many months yet. A few night insects fluttered around the lamp, depending from the wagon bow over his head, which cast just enough light for him to write. He could look out as if through a round window, to the last of the pale color fading from the sky to the west, and the stars just winking into view.
All among the trees, yellow lantern and candle-light light glowed within wagon tops and tents, coloring them a darker gold, like the Chinese paper lanterns that a friend of his fathers who was a tea-clipper captain had brought from Canton and given to him when he was a boy.
Enough of looking out; he had a need to write an account of the meeting, held in the largest clearing amongst the trees, and lit by lanterns hanging from the branches overhead. They had brought chairs and benches, kegs, boxes, blankets and ground-cloths from the wagons, and roughed out some tree-trunks to serve as seats for the assembly. It was indeed like a camp-meeting, as Elizabeth had foretold. John and many of the other men had put off their rough work-clothes for the occasion. He himself donned his fine broadcloth coat, and Elizabeth tied his best neck-cloth, and adorned her own dark travel dress with a white lace collar and linen cuffs.
Stephens did not: he came in his soot-covered work-clothes, straight from the little forge. He had set that up at the edge of the camp and been kept busy ever since with mending this and that. This had resulted in Stephens becoming at least well known in the emigrant camp, if not as well-liked as he would have been if he were a more gregarious man. He had hired a single teamster to help with his wagon, a silent, wiry New Orleans Creole named John Flomboy who was as unforthcoming about himself as Stephens.
Stephens now sat next to John, Elizabeth, Moses and the Montgomerys, his arms folded, and watched impassively.
“…speeches interminable, discussion endless, much as expected” John wrote, “reviewing the required hours of travel per day, rotating the order of daily march, the observance of the Sabbath and the mechanics of managing the campsite; at which juncture I had my professional say regarding the situation of privy-pits at a good remove from any source of water we may hope to use, since the miasma arising from such may adversely affect the health of our party…all serving as a prelude to the serious business of selecting a leader for our enterprise, but first, another wrangle over franchise; it being manifestly clear that those who owned property, viz a wagon, should have a clear say in deciding matters affecting the party, having the most to loose.
Much pointless discussion incited by one Mr. Hammer, a Quaker gentleman from Pennsylvania who attempted to scrape acquaintance with me by calling on connections with my father’s acquaintances in the place of my birth; he insisted that heads of families should also qualify as voting on party matters on similar grounds. It eventually was determined that there existed no particular class among the entire party who were head of family, but did not own a wagon. Mr. Hammer placated into silence by inclusion of this stipulation, although I have no notion of why he took this so vociferously, save that perhaps he is of that vainglorious breed who takes an unseemly delight in the sound of their own voices.
I had been called on previously to serve as recorder, and now fell to me the task of making a complete roll of those qualified to vote…”
John re-inked his pen, and savored the memory of the consternation among Thorp and the other Oregon bound when Isabella Patterson stood up, and calmly demanded to be included on the voter’s roll, indisputably the owner of a wagon, and the head of a family.
“You can’t be a voter!” cried Thorp, and an especially argumentative Oregon-bound emigrant named Shaw added, in some outrage,
“You’re a woman,”
“That is not in dispute here,” Isabella returned dryly “However… I own a wagon, being deputized by my dear husband, who is thousands of miles away from here and cannot speak for his interests himself. In his absence, I am head of my family. And I am going to California… with my wagon… and my family. Kindly explain to me why I should not be able to exercise the responsibilities deputized to me by my husband in this assembly as regards our journey to rejoin him.”
John, inwardly amused, cleared his throat, and solemnly read what had been discussed and decided upon by all present.
“ ‘Franchise is to be held by every owner of a wagon, and/or the head of a family, along with the right to call for, and to speak in any assembly of the party.’ Gentlemen, I think Mrs. Patterson has us there.”
“And rightfully so,” Old Martin Murphy spoke up, “’Tis only right and fair, and by the rules we set for ourselves.”
That surprised John, who had no idea what would move him to be such a stout or effective ally, since when Old Martin spoke, he spoke for his sons and kin, and therefore a large part of the California-bound party.
“But what about Mr. Hitchcock, your good father?” ventured Thorp with some indignation. Old man Hitchcock took a malicious pleasure in baiting, provoking or arguing with his daughter at every turn. He had taken his two mules and a length of canvas and had gone off to share a campfire with his old friend Greenwood and his Indian sons on most nights, although he was usually somewhere to be found about the Patterson camp during the day. Isabella retorted,
“He is neither the owner of mine and my husbands’ wagon, or the head of our family, just a shiftless old vagabond with two mules to his name.”
“But what of your oldest son…might he be deputized to speak for you?” bleated the luckless Mr. Thorp, and received a glare of such concentrated and withering contempt from Isabella that John thought he must surely melt into a small and steaming puddle.
“After such an unexpected diversion,” John wrote,”We bent our energies to our original and long-expected agenda, that of electing a leader for this perilous passage. Mr. Thorp being nominated by those intending for Oregon, there was discussion in consideration of Young Martin Murphy; who has much to commend him, being in the prime of years, sober and the head of a family himself, but--- and this was unspoken--- unquestionably a Papist, unlikely to win much favor with the Oregon party. So I took it upon myself to nominate Stephens, both as a compromise, and the man I honestly think fittest for the task, tho’ it is plain to me that I may have more faith in him than he does himself.”
So Stephens, competent, inarticulate and solitary was overwhelmingly voted in as captain of the party and John himself was chosen to be recording secretary for the company and implicitly Stephen’s right-hand in the running of it. Under the lamplight in the council grove, Stephens was acclaimed as captain, and stood up on a crate, as John had whispered he must speak to all the company, now.
“What do I say, now, Doc?”
“Not what they want to hear,” John replied, “Thank them for their vote, and then tell them what you’re going to do.”
Stephens stood awkwardly on the crate for a moment, an ugly and gangly big man, ungainly in his sooty work-clothes, sweating under the pale lantern-light, and John realized piercingly that Stephens was in that place he hated most of all, the middle of a crowd of people, all looking expectantly at him. Finally, Stephens cleared his throat and said,
“Thank-ee for your vote, folks. I promise I’ll get you to Californy…or wherever you’re going. We’ll cross the river a week tomorrow; the grass’ll be growed proper by then. Good night t’ you-all.”
Then he jumped down from the box, and shouldered hurriedly away through the crowd. John was detained by Allen, who said quietly,
“Well, he don’t seem like much, John, but I think we can work with him…better than that fool Thorp, any ways.”
“I am elected recording secretary as expected, and the California party has voted to hire Greenwood and his sons as guides as far as the great Rocky Mountains, over the vociferous objects of Thorp and the Oregon faction, who object to what they term an unnecessary expense, as they insist the trail has itself been so oft-traveled and clearly marked that no guide is necessary. They steadfastly refuse to share in any of the cost for his hire.”
“Dearest, why do you trust Captain Stephens so?” Elizabeth had asked sleepily, after the election meeting when they were curled up spoon-fashioned, in their bed; that mattress laid over three flat-topped trunks and boxes in the wagon, which took up better than half the space in it.
John considered his answer carefully; truth told, it was instinct, the instinct that served him well in the practice of medicine, but difficult to put into words. He had learned through hard experience not to ask where it came from, or worry about possible outcomes, just pay attention to that quiet little whisper of absolute conviction. He ignored it at his peril; it served him well to listen.
“He’s good with the animals,” he replied at last. ”And he knows what he is about once we cross the river, better than any of us, except maybe Greenwood and Hitchcock. We… most of the rest of us, we have moved before. We have taken our wagons and our families from here to there, but there was always a road. We could often buy supplies, or another draft ox, and we were never at it for more than a month or so. This is…” he paused and thought, carefully,
“When I was a boy, I was taken to an acrobatic exhibition, of performers who did hand-stands and tumbles, hanging by their hands from swings, high above the ground. They would leap off a little stand, catch the swing by their hands, and go soaring through the air, all across the hippodrome… and at the right moment, let go and turn a somersault in the air, and catch another swing, in mid-air… all with perfect timing. We are about to step off the platform, Liz… from now on, we must be able to dare… and to trust. And we must have a trail-captain who knows what it is like to be out there, for months and months.”
“I trust you, Dearest,” Elizabeth had said sleepily, and thinking of that, John looked out of their wagon through the little round opening, at the stars and the river, and wondered if she had any idea of how immense the wilderness was, or how alone they would be, once they had swung away from their perch on the river heartland.
Perhaps it was best, he decided, that she and the other women and children did not, or they would not be able to sleep so sound.
Even tonight, the night before their momentous departure, Elizabeth slept, breathing easily, her silver-gilt braid woven up for night and lying across the pillow like a bit of fine embroidery. She was happy with the buckskin pony, had petted him, and ridden him every day that they waited in camp for the grass to grow.
“I have no proper side-saddle,” she lamented to Isabella, and that formidable little woman, fresh from her victory at exercising the franchise, replied,
“Then ride astride … who is there to see you being unladylike, on the other side of that river? Besides, you won’t fall off so easily. Wear a pair of your boy Moses’ trousers under your skirt and don’t pay anyone any mind about it.”
And John had noticed how Elizabeth and Sarah Montgomery had both looked thoughtful, as if they suddenly comprehended the kind of freedoms that lay across the river, besides the much-advertised perils.
Children’s voices from the Patterson camp, sleepy and querulous; John smiled to hear them. Sadie had almost stopped sucking her thumb, and learned to say a few emphatic words now that her mouth was not corked up by it; “Don’t! Horsie! Mine!”
Eddie alternately charmed and appalled, with his total and complete fearlessness in every situation. John felt that children being frightened was a good thing; they were kept from danger by their fears, but Isabella averred that Little Eddie feared nothing in the world, and moreover, usually walked serenely straight in the direction of any available danger, which of course, frightened the very daylights out of her.
“…We are to assemble tomorrow, before dawn, and move to the riverbank to begin crossing,” John wrote carefully. “Where there is a rough landing, and a single flat-bottomed scow, to ferry the wagons over, thereby saving considerable time. Capt. Stephens plans to swim the stock, against the advice of Thorp and the Oregon party. I spend much time in vexatious dispute with these gentlemen…”
The sky had entirely darkened now, pricked by a brilliant spangle of stars. John sighed, and corked his ink-bottle; enough of this for tonight. He closed the lantern and let the canvas apron fall over the round opening, but even when he was in bed, he lay awake for a long, long time, looking up at the curving canvas roof and remembering the acrobat, soaring confidently through the air.
It did not go well in the morning, for dawn came under lowering clouds, and they packed the last of the cooking things in a fine drizzle of rain, and left the cook-fire to go out of itself.
“You’re needed down at the river, Doc… you an’ the boy, too, if your man can manage your wagon hisself,” Stephens appeared out of the grey rain, his hat-brim dripping like a roof-edge. ”We’re going to start swimming the stock.”
“I shall stay in the Montgomery wagon, and keep Sarah company,” Elizabeth pulled her shawl around herself. She had meant to ride, on this first day, but she gave the reins over to Moses with a certain amount of relief. They had been ready for several hours, waiting in a huddled mass of wagons and teams for their turn to cross the river. It looked to be a tedious business, unhitching two wagons at a time on the river-bank, man-handling the wagons onto the waiting ferry, and diverting the loose stock into a steadily growing herd, milling about on the riverbank.
The ferry lurched ungainly in the river, poled away from the landing by two of the Indian crew. They were entirely naked save for a brief loincloth, even to their heads, shaved of all but a long top-knot like a horses’ tail. They seemed stoically indifferent to the rain that streamed down their bodies.
“Dollar a wagon,” said Stephens, laconically. “Extra for stock. Good business, while it lasts. ”
Out on the river, the current caught the flatboat, and pulled it swiftly along the heavy line strung between banks. They could just see the opposite bank, where more of the shaven-headed Indians hauled away at a long rope attached to the flatboat. A similar rope paid out from the near bank as the scow moved away, close to where Stephens and John watched.
“Dropped the rope,” Stephens remarked, as there was a flurry of shouts and gesticulating from the Indians on their side of the river. ”Current’s got it.”
“What’ll they do?”
A small dug-out canoe shot out from the riverbank, two Indians digging short paddles into the muddy water, achieving a nice burst of speed, aimed at where the tow rope had dropped down into the water. One of the paddlers slipped into the river as smooth and confident as an otter, and vanished under the surface.
“They can swim?”
“Handy thing to know, living on the river,”
The swimmer surfaced a few seconds later, bearing a loop of rope, and handed it to his confederate in the canoe. They paddled back to the riverbank, and beached it on the bank.
“Fine show for us,” Stephens remarked. “A little fun for them. Start moving the cattle towards the river… force them as far out as you can, until they begin swimming for the far shore. You mind getting wet?”
“I can’t swim.” John pointed out, gamely.
“That horse of yours can, Doc. When he gets deep in, take your feet out of the stirrups and hold on to your saddle horn.”
But even with the assistance of men and boys on foot, shouting and waving their hats, the cattle would not go far enough into the swirling river; they turned back, and clambered over each other, bellowing frantically, or were swept down to the mud-flats below the landing, and mired to their shoulders.
Finally, nothing could induce them to venture in farther than the shallows, even as their numbers were added to, as wagons were unhitched and slowly rolled onto the ferry landing. John wearily concluded that in a brute physical contest between a two hundred pound man and a two-thousand pound ox, the ox was eventually going to win out on that one. He found Stephens, helping Old Man Hitchcock and a resentful Mr. Shaw, trying to dig one of the stuck oxen out of the muck.
“Captain, I think we’re going to have to try something else.”
“Agreed, Doc.” Stephens looked around, very thoughtfully. “You know, they ain’t real bright sparks, oxen. Not like dogs.”
“Or pigs… real clever, pigs. I saw an elocutin’ pig once, in a traveling menagerie,” mused Old Man Hitchcock. “But an ox ain’t any great shakes, no more’n sheep, an’ they have to put a bell on the lead sheep, ‘cause all the rest are too dumb to figure out how to get out of their own pen.”
Stephens suddenly lifted his head.
“Doc,” he asked casually, “Who has the most biddable, tamest ox in this party?”
“That ‘ud be Izzy,” Old Hitchcock answered right away, and John nodded agreement, “I seen her and the other children yoking them together of a morning, and Eddie driving them, an’ that lil squirt ain’t but knee-high to a grasshopper.”
“Doc… get one of Miz Patterson’s boys, ask him to bring one of theirs on a long halter, down to the landing. Hitchcock, see if you call to mind any of that Injun sign-talking, and get those two with the canoe to row a little ways out in the river.”
Hitchcock began chuckling, wheezily.
“Cap’n, that’s a notion in a million… how to lead an ox to water, an’ get him in the drink.”
John spotted the saffron-yellow wagon-top easily enough; just a little ahead of his own, already unhitched by the landing. He waved to Sarah and Elizabeth, and leaned down to speak with Isabella, and the boys.
“Captain Stephens requires the loan of the most biddable of your oxen, and Oliver, with a very long halter. He has an idea to get them into the deep water.”
“Socks,” replied Isabella decisively, “He’s as tame as a kitten. He would follow any of us into a house and curl up in our laps, if he could. Oliver, find Socks and take him to Cap’n Stephens.”
Oliver took up a long halter from their wagon, and John gave him a boost up to ride behind him, into the milling herd of muddy and unhappy cattle penned by the river bank. They located Socks, easily enough, and Oliver snubbed the long halter around his horns. He clumped readily after them, waded hock deep, knee-deep, chest-deep in the water, as Oliver tumbled into the canoe, and the two Indians slowly paddled out into deeper and deeper water. Socks followed, trustfully, swimming strongly, and Stephens commanded
“Now! Get ‘em going!”
Slowly and ponderously, other oxen moved into the water, deeper and deeper, in Socks’ wake; a few, a scattering, then as if reassured, more and more of them, a broad and threshing arrow of nostrils, horns and backs cutting across the river. The trampled riverbank emptied and as other teams were unhitched, they trotted obediently into the river, hardly needing encouragement from the horsemen and boys waving their hats and shouting.
Two and two the wagons made the slow trip across. In the late afternoon, with only a portion of the wagons and most of the cattle on the other side Stephens sent Old Greenwood and his sons across, to scout for a good camping place. They swam the last of the loose cattle, and sent a party of young men to stand guard over the cattle and horses, since they could not move the remaining wagons and families over until morning.
From E.S. Patterson Interview, University of California Local History Archival Project 1932:
“We’d only gotten some of the wagons over, by the end of the day, so there we were, half and half. Ours was over, and Mr. Martin Murphy, and John Sullivan’s and one or two others. Doctor Townsend sent his foster-son and some other of the young men to mount guard, fearing that the local Indians would try and steal cattle, for they had that sort of reputation then. Amongst the guards that night was my brother Oliver, and Moses Schallenberger, the doctor’s boy, and Johnny Murphy, all bright and daring young sparks. They had pastured the cattle, and let them feed, and then rounded them up into the corral, made from chaining the wagon tongue of each wagon to the rear wheel of the wagon before, or chained them to the wagons, and around midnight they became bored with watching the cattle and the wagons, whilst all slept.
They had a mind to play a trick on John Sullivan, who was something of a sober sides, for all that he was not that much older. He was continually nervous about the Indians, and about his oxen being stolen, and he was plagued particularly as he had a very pretty sister, and always had to act the part of a severe papa. She married a Mr. Sherbeck in San Francisco, eventually, but not after leading all the other single men of the party in a merry dance.
It was Oliver’s idea, and he put it to Moses who thought it very funny, but he worried that the Doctor and Captain Stephens might be angered, so they went to Martin Murphy, who was more or less in charge, and put it to him. They might not have worried, for Martin thought it a fine jest, too. They had pastured the cattle, put some of them into the corral for the night, and chained others of them outside to the wagons.
In the wee hours, Oliver quietly unfastened John Sullivan’s cattle, and drove them into the woods, and after some minutes Moses and Bernard gave the alarm. John Sullivan sprang up and gave chase after his property, and after some brisk exercise and listening for the jingle of their chains, recaptured them and brought them back to his wagon, where he chained them to the wheels again, and returned to his bedroll. In a little while, Oliver loosed them, and drove them farther into the woods, and Moses giving the alarm. John Sullivan sprang up with some uncomplimentary words about the pesky Indians and gave chase again.
This time Oliver had driven them much farther away, and when John Sullivan stood himself up on a fallen tree to listen for the jingling of chains, Johnny Murphy was hiding close by and fired off a shotgun, both barrels full of bird-shot into the air. John Sullivan went running back to camp, shouting that the Indians had shot at him, and talked ever afterwards of the narrow escape he had. Meanwhile, Oliver and Moses brought back his cattle, circling around from another direction.
Over the next days, Captain Stephens made mention of their determination and skill at retrieving John Sullivan’s animals twice… and then remarked at how odd it was, that no one else’s stock had been disturbed. But my brother Oliver spoke up and said, it was that John Sullivan’s cattle were white, and thus were better seen in the dark, and Captain Stephens, he smiled a little. I think he knew, or guessed something of what had really happened, but he said naught else on the matter, even when John Sullivan told the tale again of how the Indians had tried to steal his oxen and shot at him.
The Doctor did give a great lecture several days after to the corporals of the guard, and all the young men, about the seriousness of their duties, and not to give way to the temptation of larks and practical jokes…”
From the Diary of Dr. Townsend: “We are at last over the first obstacle on our journey, at some cost, having lost some cattle to the river, being swept away, or stuck in deep mud and drown’d… this also being the cause of some lack of amity between’st ourselves and the Oregon party.
I was called to attend to Mrs. Thorp, she being ill, and Mr. Thorp himself blaming Capt. Stephens for his insistence upon haste… Much contention from Mr. Hammer who insists on being solely guided by divine revelation revealed through his dreams, and Mr. Shaw, guided by a penchant for trouble-making, who seems to have quarreled with one and all.
We must now make preparations for crossing the Elkhorn River, by constructing a boat, from two wagon-boxes waterproofed with hides sewn closely over all. Capt. Stephens revealing peculiar foresight by having provided his wagon with a number of stout metal pulleys, such as are used on ships of the line, and a great quantity of good rope… The contents of each of our wagons and the wagons themselves must be thus laboriously transported… My Dearest Darling and the other women went aside from the scene of our toils to perform their own toils, viz. laundry, it for one being a fine, fair day with abundant sunshine…”
Elizabeth carried a large bundle of bedding, packed into her washtub, leading her pony along the riverbank, towards where the women of the party had set up an open-air laundry under the poplar trees. She recognized Mrs. Thorp, and some of the other Oregon-bound, a little further along at the water’s edge, where the water ran clear over a clean gravel bottom, as if they were holding themselves a little apart from the Murphy women and the out-spoken Isabella. She had two more bundles of clothes and bedding tied to her horses’ saddle. Laundry day, such as it was, and perhaps a chance to properly dry out some things that had been damp and musty, seemingly for weeks; A day not to spend in the saddle, or in the wagon, not to be incessantly moving.
A warm breeze rustled the ever-trembling poplar leaves, and cloud-shadows chased each other over gentle-rolling hillsides of grass. Sheets and blankets were already spread out to dry on the sweet clean grass, the prairie grass they had waited for to grow, and feed their cattle. There was the sound of laughter, as merry as school-girls, under the trees, and Elizabeth unaccountably felt old. Dear Isabella was the only woman older than she, and Sarah, just lately wed, the only one without children, and sometimes Elizabeth felt quite alone; alone and isolated by her husbands’ profession and stature. It had not mattered so much, back in St. Joseph, where there were many other women, where she had affectionate and longtime friends and neither Sarah nor Isabella would have been counted amongst them, then, except in the most cursory fashion.
But today she had put on a faded old wash-dress, with the hem turned up, and she had brought a bucket of soap, and gone to seek the company of other women and Isabella looked up from her scouring to smile, and exclaimed
“My dear Elizabeth…you are an angel, I had wondered how we were to carry all this back with us… and you have brought more soap, and another tub! We are boiling water to scrub everything as clean as can be, and the girls are rinsing it all in the shallows. We may not have such another chance for weeks, so Mr. Greenwood has told us.”
She gave another vigorous scrub at her washboard, and tossed the results to her daughter Nancy, who stood in the water with her skirts kirtled up above her knees, along with Helen Murphy, and Mary Sullivan. The girls were rinsing the laundry clean in the shallow current, splashing back and forth with joyous energy. Eddie and Willie Miller, and Willie’s stair-step cousins, Martin Murphy’s little boys, were spreading out the clean rinsed laundry over the prairie grass to dry.
They had kindled a fire, over which a number of steaming kettles were set. Sarah, and Mary Miller and the Murphy brother’s wives, Annie and Mary-Bee had placed their washtubs close together. Elizabeth placed her own next to Sarah, regarding it with faint loathing. She did not much care for doing laundry, but it was a woman’s lot, and might as well do it with a fair face, and in good company. Eddie magically appeared with a bucket of water, dipped from the river, and ran back and forth alternately with kettles from the fire, and buckets from the river, until her tub was full enough to begin.
“I think it very well, that I was advised to make all our trail bedding from dark calico,” remarked Isabella. “This will all smell quite fresh, and at least, I can think it clean, for a while yet, without the evidence otherwise that only white bed linen would present.”
“God tempers his winds to the shorn lamb,” remarked Annie Murphy. Her black hair gleamed in the speckled sunshine with a bluish luster like a blackbird’s wing. “I can only hope that He (and she crossed herself, hurriedly) is doing the same with regards to our bedding, and taking away something of our sense of….”
“Smell?” said Mary-Bee Murphy: she was young Martin’s wife, and their four little boys were distinct among the children as they had her own dark-auburn hair and unfortunate freckles. ”I dearly hope so, since the smell of salt-junk makes me so ill in the morning of late.”
“You are not… truly…” said Mary Miller, laying a hand on her belly, which, while generous, barely showed, under her loose wash-dress and full apron.
“I think so,” Mary-Bee Murphy sighed, “I have not had my courses since we left home, and I thought it was worry… and no little grief at leaving the little one…”
Annie reached over and patted her hand, comfortingly. Elizabeth already knew from John, how Old Martin’s wife and Young Martin’s and Mary-Bee’s baby daughter had all perished together in the worst of the epidemics, some two years ago; and now this new grief, of leaving their graves behind.
“Perhaps the blessed Virgin will grant this one be a girl,” Annie said softly and Mary-Bee smiled a little tearfully, and answered
“I do hope so, those imps of mine need a sister to tease and torment them.”
Isabella had the absorbed face of a woman rapidly doing up sums,
“My dear, do you realize, your child shall be born when we are just arrived in California; such good fortune for you both that we will have a doctor among our company.”
Mary-Bee looked a little cheered, and Isabella whispered to Elizabeth,
“You should tell your husband, my dear Elizabeth, I have served as a midwife on many occasions, and will be more than happy to be of assistance… Mary will be brought to child-bed in the next two months, I judge. On the trail, but a blessed event, none the less. You are not hoping for such for yourself, then?”
“I might yet,” Elizabeth said, tranquilly, “My husband has been very tender of my poor health until now, and would not permit me such a risk… but they say the air in California is marvelously healthy… so healthy, I vow the very thought of breathing it has made some improvement. I have not had one of my sick headaches for some weeks, now.”
“You are out in the fresh air, every day… indeed, we can scarce avoid fresh air,” Isabella said, robustly, and the other women laughed,
“And I think if you did not lace your corsets so very tightly, you might find you can take in more of that good air.”
“I should then have no shape at all,” Elizabeth protested, “And what of the support that tight lacing lends to a woman’s weak bones?”
“It hardly matters to your weak bones, if custom demands that women be laced so tightly that a woman of fashion cannot walk across a room without fainting,” Isabella replied.
“Why, Mrs. Patterson, I believe you are an advocate of rational dress!?” Elizabeth exclaimed, and Isabella giggled like a school-girl and lifted the hem of her stout dark-colored wash-dress to reveal a pair of voluminous, baggy pantaloons of the same material, gathered at the ankles. Elizabeth clapped her hands,
“How very, very clever, and completely modest… but you must be very brave to wear such a daring garment. Mrs. Bloomer insisted that such things would be very, very comfortable and healthy. But I would fear the laughter of all. What does Mr. Patterson think of this?”
“He has more sense than to care for such matters,” Isabella replied, “But Oliver liked to die of embarrassment, and Samuel and John made much sport of my Turkish trousers, until I challenged them all to a footrace and won.”
Elizabeth had a sudden mental vision of the tiny woman, limbs pumping madly and her hair falling out of her pins, hurtling across a meadow in a blur of rational costume, just ahead of her teenage sons.
“And at the end of it, I leaped over the fence, with perfect modesty,” Isabella added smugly. “Not a word from any of them, after that but I made my skirts just long enough to cover them. I have not Mrs. Bloomer’s capacity for absorbing ridicule… but out here, they can ridicule away.”
“I believe they have no time for anything but the teams and wagons,” remarked Mary, “Mr. Miller has barely spoken to me in days. He attends to Willie and the girls for a little while in the evening, and falls asleep where he sits, with his plate in his hand. Were it not for him snoring in bed, and his dirty shirts, I would scarce know I had a husband at all.”
“And for that, also…” Annie roguishly glanced at Mary’s bulging apron-front, and they all dissolved in shrieks of laughter, which only stilled when the old trail-guide, Mr. Greenwood, appeared silently in the grove, almost within their circle.
“Good morning, ladies…” He looked around, nodded to them all and spoke softly, ”Just to let you know… my boys are standing watch on us all, yonder, from the top of that hill… the country round here is safe enough, commonly, but it’s best to practice keeping watch now, for the odd ruffian.”
“Oh, we are safe enough,” Isabella said firmly, and from a basket of clean laundry at her side, she produced an ancient dragoon pistol. The corners of Greenwoods’ mouth quirked, and Isabella added,
“It’s loaded, and I keep it near me always. Mr. Patterson had me practice with it, before he went to California. For all I must use both hands, I am quite a fair shot.”
“Doubtless,” Old Greenwood answered, with dry amusement,” It relieves my mind, ma’am, knowing you had thought on certain precautions for this journey.” He nodded at them all again, and departed as quietly as he had appeared.
“Does he not frighten you a little?” Asked Mary with a shiver, “He dresses so like a savage himself, I am sure he is gone over to them entirely… and the boys are hardly any better.”
“He does not frighten me,” Elizabeth answered, thoughtfully, “He speaks well, like an educated man, now and again. He may dress like a savage, but I don’t think he is one at heart. He is rather more like a hero in a Leather-stocking tale.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Isabella snapped, “He is just one of those silly men who wanted to go wandering around in the wilderness, instead of settling down and working at a good trade to support his family.
The other women were a little taken back by her vehemence, and it was a few moments before Mary-Bee ventured,
“Still… have you noticed? He is quite a handsome man, for all of his considerable years.”
“He is, that,” agreed Annie, ”Curious, isn’t it, that most men are handsome in youth and decline from that, as they age, but there are some who are plain youths, but make handsome and vigorous old men.”
“Quite vigorous,” agreed Mary, coloring a little. “He claims to be four-score, at least… but his sons are just barely out of boyhood…” She blushed even more deeply, as her sisters and Sarah giggled, and drew a shocked rebuke from Isabella,
“Mrs. Miller! Consider the girls! Little pitchers have big ears!”
Elizabeth bent over her own scrub-board, to hide her own smile, as Sarah said,
“Whatever tonic Mr. Greenwood has taken all these years, I hope then that my own husband never partakes of it!”
“Mrs. Montgomery, for shame!” said Isabella, scandalized, and Elizabeth hid another smile, and wrung out one of John’s shirts, thinking as she did so, that in such company, this journey might just not as terrible as she had feared.
From E.S. Patterson Interview, University of California Local History Archival Project 1932:
“There was always much to do, with crossing rivers, and it seemed like we were forever having to stop and cross one. Sometimes the men could double-team a wagon through a shallow river, since enough of the oxen would have their feet on the river bed to keep it steady and moving. Captain Stephens turned out to be good at organizing river crossings; he was a fair hand at judging if we could just go straight over, one at a time, or if we might have to set up a ferry as we did on the Elkhorn. There had been a lot of rain that spring, and the rivers all remained higher than most years for many, many weeks.
For a lot of us this established him as a good leader almost at once, but Mr. Thorp and the others in the Oregon party were galled by his leadership and contested his every decision. It was often up to Dr. Townsend to intervene and smooth things over…”