“Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849,” by Kenneth L. Holmes

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“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.

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286 thoughts on ““Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849,” by Kenneth L. Holmes

  1. Sounds like a fascinating book. I love to read these kind of accounts (and being UK rather than US they are new to me). Gonna try and find the book! Thanks for the review.

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  2. Reblogged this on Dogs On My Mind and commented:
    When I was in kindergarten my teacher let me read her copies of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories about her life. I loved them so much. My mom and I would read them. It was a nice way to learn to read. I think now that I am older, and a girl who wants to write for a job, this book will be a good step to take.

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    • I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was young too. I wanted to live her constantly moving and adventurous pionner life. She was remarkable. I would very much like to know what you think when you read the book. And more to the point, I love your blog! You keep on writing Piper. You are a writer.

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    • I believe you are absolutely right. These stories are true masterpieces of the way life was during their lifetime. Anyone who has not investigated or researched history to learn of this fascinating journey from the somewhat tamed Eastern U.S. to the wild unknown West will never understand how mankind has remarkably survived the extreme hardships these people endured during their 5 to 6 month journey through praries, rivers, mountains, deserts, heat, cold, starvation and thirst. Determination, courage, and faith was the drive that brought these folks to their destination. I honestly don’t believe most people living today could actually have done what these pioneers were able to do and accomplish. I must say that the pioneers who made America what it is today are indeed worthy of being some of the greatest explorers of all time. They are all truly truly heros.

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      • I agree with you and all your points. There was a sense of optimism in these narratives, a feeling of adventure and faith that they pioneers would be able to build a prosperous life in the west. I think we have lost so much in the modern world by our dependence on cities, employing organizations, grocery stores, all the trappings of “civilization.” I was struck by how many pioneers left comfortable lives because of the opportunities offered by the western frontiers and their desire to make an independent life for themselves. I think young people today no longer have this sense of optimism, or the belief that they can live independent of civilization, and for this us modern folks are the losers. We all have become dependent on civilization and we have lost the pioneer spirit and the pioneering opportunities. This is sad for us.
        Sometimes I wonder, if a new frontier opened up, ‘stake your claim for free, build your cabin, hunt and gather, plant your food, breed your livestock,’ would there be anyone left who knew how to do any of these things?

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    • Piper, just reading your post about the Laura Ingalls Wilder books gives me a feeling of wonderment. I don’t remember which teacher read those to us in elementary school, but I am grateful they did. Say “Little House in the Big Woods” and it takes me back to something unmatched in my years of reading.

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  3. Thanks so much for liking my author blog posts , and for liking my music blog posts for another site. However, do please pop over to the actual articles on Creative Frontiers and let me know what you think, by commenting there if possible. I’d appreciate feed-back. I loved your post above. It is so descriptive and I enjoyed it so much. Reminded me of years ago when I had a band with me on our of the USA and we drove up from Denver to Seattle via the Cascade Mountains. We stopped off for a look at a petrified forest in a place called Vantage and there was a plaque there to the Native American Indians who’d lived there by a canyon with a dry river bed (now), and as we got out of the limo I can recall being blasted by the dry heat and it was a nightmare, we got back in the limo and had bottled water to hand. I thought about the early settlers and their covered wagons, the women in their skirts and petticoats and the heat and lack of water or shade. How the Native American Indians survived I’ve no idea, but they were used to it. How on earth those Europeans did is beyond me. You just reminded me of this, thanks so much. 🙂 Jane

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    • Sounds like a powerful memory. It is hard to even imagine the fortitude of the early pioneers. Many of them would not have survived the early forays without the help of The Native Americans who knew how to survive in the lands that were their homes for thousands of years. Truly incredible history.

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      • I know I often think that when visiting some of the less populated areas which I have done on various tours of the US. Always amazes me and the generosity of the First Nation has always inspired me, so amazing that in the end it counted for nothing. Thanks for this and your blog, love it.

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  4. Pingback: “Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849,” by Kenneth L. Holmes | Eslkevin's Blog

    • Thank you so much. I am very pleased that the book is getting the attention it deserves. There is a book series of these first person narratives from pioneer women and they are all fascinating and important to read.

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    • Yes, I agree with you. Truth is far more amazing than fiction. Plus, I have read the entire collection now, and these women are role models to be incredibly proud of. We really never learned about them which is a huge loss for everyone.

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  5. Pingback: AB’s Awesomeness Award – Thank you all | Perspectives on Life, the Universe and Everything

  6. What a fascinating blog. I did not know much about paternal grandfather until I moved to Texas and then discovered that my great-grandparents had moved to McKinney, TX in a covered wagon where they married. I can only imagine the hardships they went through back in the 1800s. After I researched this, I visited the library in McKinney to look for their marriage certificate. The lady was overwhelmed that someone with a Scottish accent, that looked like me, could have great grandparents from McKinney! I take great delight in letting people know that I am probably more Texan than they are…

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  7. Pingback: Fascinating, first person narratives (letters, diaries) written by pioneer women... - Urban Angels

  8. Thanks, Cindy, for sharing this review of what sounds like an intensely interesting book. Mr. Holmes seems to have found a subject that needs to be written about more often. It reminds me a bit of the “Little House” series, only stressing the women’s views more.

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    • Yes, some similarities to Laura Ingalls Wilder, but definitely written by and for, an adult perspective. Holmes did a whole series of books on pioneer women’s personal narratives and they are all fascinating. Glad you enjoyed the review my friend and cheers to you~

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  9. Your review prompted me to buy the book and I have to tell you how much I am enjoying it. I just finished Elizabeth Dixon Smith’s diary last night and it was amazing. I really got a sense of what the trip west was like. The details of weather and distance traveled put other books and movies into perspective. Thanks for the tip!

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    • Plus didn’t the intelligence of these female pioneer/adventurers strike you? They were so observant of their surroundings and made such detailed notes. I read all the books in the series and ended up with a profound appreciation of these women.

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      • Yes! I marvel that they had the energy to write during the trip. I write a lot of detail, but I take a lot of pictures to remind me and I use a voice recorder to remember it at night!

        I am wondering why so many otherwise healthy people, got sick and died mysteriously. Bad water?

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      • Imagine, seven months on the trail, living on baking soda biscuits, small quantities of dried game, no fruit, vegetables or dairy for weeks on end. Limited water. Physically and emotionally grueling long days. Uncertainty everyday. I am far more surprised any of them survived at all and I agree the letter writing and documenation was genius on their part because it gave us these amazing narratives, so they, and their experience would not be forgotten. Cheers to you Dinata and so pleased you read and heard their voices.

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  10. You are absolutely right. I have a bookshelf full of these accounts, and they are riveting. I think of that saying–that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. Not so different for the pioneer women. Thanks for sharing, Cindy.

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    • Exactly, they were doctors, naturalists, documentarians, animal managers, trail breakers, river-fording explorers. They were mothers, cooks, defenders, they gave birth on the trails, they adopted children of people who died. They were incredible.

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    • Yes they do open your eyes and mind, and they make you stop and think. How could these women have been so tough, so intelligent, and so compassionate? How come we never grew up learning about what they really did? Seems pretty central to history doesn’t it? Makes it too clear about how many other peoples historical perspectives we haven’t adequately heard, and that is sad.

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  11. Women today don’t know how easy they have it! I have to yell at my wife twice sometimes to get me my beer from the fridge while I watch my football. (Joke, of course, please don’t take it seriously!) Now, true factoid I believe, learned from Norm at Cheers, the once great automobile company Studebaker previously made such wagons in the 1800s.

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