“Covered Wagon Women” is a fascinating non-fiction account of fourteen pioneer women traveling west in the 1840’s. The book was edited and compiled by historian Kenneth L. Holmes. It is a remarkable book in that it consists of primary source, unedited diary entries, letters and other correspondence. The editor left the women’s narratives unedited as the women actually wrote them, replete with original syntax, spelling, and punctuation, and the mistakes made therein.There are additional “Covered Wagon Women,” volumes in a series. I read volume two and found it equally compelling.These unedited first person narratives give the reader a genuine sense of who these women really were, what they were seeing, experiencing, and feeling. Of course the unbelievable hardship, birth, death and tragedy are heart wrenching, but these incredible women’s intelligence, courage and appreciation of the beauty of their experience is also made abundantly clear. The women’s observations are reminiscent of the biographies of the famous male explorers, at times scientifically dispassionate, as they keenly and in detail, describe the new flora and fauna, terrain, climate, and Native Americans they encounter. They were after all, explorers as well.
They are also most effective in relaying their feelings. Take for example this excerpt from Tabitha Brown about her experience traveling west in 1846, now left to her own devices as she struggles on with an old, feeble, near death companion who was unable to care for himself or offer her any assistance,
“Here the shades of night were gathering fast and I could see the wagon tracks no further. I alighted from my horse, flung off my saddle and saddle bags and tied him fast with a lasso rope to a tree…..his senses were gone…..I covered him as well as I could with blankets…and helped the old gentleman, expecting he would be a corpse by morning. Pause for a moment and consider my situation-worse than alone; in a strange wilderness; without food, without fire; cold and shivering; wolves fighting and howling all around me; darkness of night forbade the stars to shine upon me; solitary- all was solitary as death…. As soon as light had dawned, I pulled down my tent, saddled the horses, found the Captain so as to stand on his feet…”
And she continues on towards Oregon. Remarkable. And there are many more narratives like this in the book.
I read a lot of these non-fiction pioneer and Native American history books (more about these in a latter review) as I traveled recently through the west, crossing and re-crossing the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. I read books about a woman homesteading alone on the prairie, the first homesteading couple in what is now Glacier National Park, another about a widow hiring a helper and traveling on the first trek over the Oregon trail where they broke the trail, a book about a woman and her family crossing the Mojave Desert and this incredible collection of women’s narratives and I realize we’ve all been robbed with the books, movies and folklore of “the old west,” that have focused on the cowboys and male explorers, and mostly ignored the incredible fortitude, bravery and contribution of these pioneer women.
Riveting reading. Highly recommend.