Luzena and the “Languishing Spark of Womanly Vanity”

Luzena and her husband and their two little boys were on the western, downward, side of the Sierras and close to the end of the trail—

The first man we met was about fifty miles above Sacramento. He had ridden on ahead, bought a fresh horse and some new clothes, and was coming back to meet his train. The sight of his white shirt, the first I had seen for four long months, revived in me the languishing spark of womanly vanity; and when he rode up to the wagon where I was standing, I felt embarrassed, drew down my ragged sun-bonnet over my sunburned face, and shrank from observation. My skirts were worn off in rags above my ankles; my sleeves hung in tatters above my elbows; my hands brown and hard, were gloveless; around my neck was tied a cotton square, torn from a discarded dress; the soles of my leather shoes had long ago parted company with the uppers; and my husband and children and all the camp, were habited like myself, in rags.

A day or two before, this man was one of us; today, he was a messenger from another world, and a stranger, so much influence does clothing have on our feelings and intercourse with our fellow men.

Ah, the “languishing spark of womanly vanity”! Poor Luzena, to be seen in that state.

We can scarcely imagine how bedraggled and filthy one would become on the overland trek. Think of how grubby you feel after a week of camping and no shower. Then multiple that by twenty. Give yourself at best one change of clothing.

And just try to find a picture that fits this description! No woman would be caught dead having her photograph taken in that condition. Photos of women on the trail are exceedingly scarce. This picture of the Joseph Byington family is an oft-repeated one. Notice the barefoot children. What the women were wearing on their feet is hard to see. Their clothes look clean though, and I am sure this is the beginning of the trail and not the end.

Mormon pioneer Joseph H. Byington and his two families

Hollywood has given us a more appealing image:

Westward the Women with Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel

Imagine what those clothes would look like at the end of the trail. Picture the roughened hands and the sunburnt faces. Not a single woman has a bonnet or an apron. They wouldn’t last a week on the trail.

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A Hard March

All the emigrants on the trail to California faced that desert. Forty miles of sand and alkali with no water. To get across it they had to drive their oxen relentlessly on in spite of heat and thirst. To hesitate, to linger, was death. Here is how Luzena Stanley Wilson describes it:

It was a hard march over the desert. The men were tired out, goading on the poor oxen which seemed ready to drop at every step. They were covered with a thick coating of dust, even to the red tongues which hung from their mouths swollen with thirst and heat. While we were yet five miles from the Carson River, the miserable beasts seemed to scent the freshness in the air, and they raised their heads and traveled briskly. When only a half mile of distance intervened, every animal seemed spurred by an invisible imp.

They broke into a run, a perfect stampede, and refused to be stopped until they had plunged neck deep in the refreshing flood; and when they were unyoked, they snorted, tossed their heads, and rolled over and over in the water in their dumb delight. It would have been pathetic had it not been so funny, to see those poor, patient, overworked, hard-driven beasts, after a journey of two thousand miles, raise heads and tails and gallop at full speed, an emigrant wagon with flapping sides jolting at their heels.

It was an ordeal she never forgot. In her recollection she jumps from the Carson River to the “summit of the Sierra” and says nothing at all about the struggle to ascend the Sierras.

At last we were near our journey’s end. We had reached the summit of the Sierra, and had begun the tedious journey down the mountain side. A more cheerful look came to every face; every step lightened; every heart beat with new aspirations. Already we began to forget the trials and hardships of the past, and to look forward with renewed hope to the future.

They knew they were almost there. Having passed through the fiery trial of the 40-mile desert, they were drawing close to their promised land.

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The 40-Mile Desert

Remember the Independence Company? That was the company of young men who set out, with flags flying and a brass band playing, at the same time as Luzena and Mason Wilson’s wagon train left Missouri. Luzena, afraid of the Indians, begged her husband to “to ask at a neighboring camp if we might join with them for protection.” But the men were in a hurry.

They sent back word they “didn’t want to be troubled with women and children; they were going to California”.

They would meet again, in the “40 Mile Desert,” a desolate and fearsome section of the trail between the end of the Humboldt River and the Truckee River.

The Nevada desert was strewn with dead beasts of burden. The oxen became worn down and when they died they were abandoned by the roadside. Some emigrants were left to pack everything on their backs and continue on foot through a scene littered with dead animals. The stench was terrific. It was a scene never forgotten by emigrants.

Our long tramp had extended over three months when we entered the desert, the most formidable of all the difficulties we had encountered. It was a forced march over the alkali plain, lasting three days, and we carried with us the water that had to last, for both men and animals, till we reached the other side. The hot earth scorched our feet; the grayish dust hung about us like a cloud, making our eyes red, and tongues parched, and our thousand bruises and scratches smart like burns. The road was lined with the skeletons of the poor beasts who had died in the struggle. Sometimes we found the bones of men bleaching beside their broken-down and abandoned wagons. The buzzards and coyotes, driven away by our presence from their horrible feasting, hovered just out of reach.

Sketch by J. Goldsborough Bruff of dead oxen at Rabbit Hole Springs

The night that we camped in the desert my husband came to me with the story of the “Independence Company”. They, like hundreds of others had given out on the desert; their mules gone, many of their number dead, the party broken up, some gone back to Missouri, two of the 8 leaders were here, not distant forty yards, dying of thirst and hunger. Who could leave a human creature to perish in this desolation? I took food and water and found them bootless, hatless, ragged and tattered, moaning in the starlight for death to relieve them from torture. They called me an angel; they showered blessings on me; and when they recollected that they had refused me their protection that day on the Missouri, they dropped on their knees there in the sand and begged my forgiveness.

Years after, they came to me in my quiet home in a sunny valley in California, and the tears streamed down their bronzed and weather-beaten cheeks as they thanked me over and over again for my small kindness.

Do I detect a note of self-satisfaction in Luzena’s account?

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Lightening the Load

Wagon train pioneers inevitably had to lighten their loads. First to go were heavy items like the rocking chair and the cast iron stove. Some emigrants took equipment that they thought would pay off in their new home, like pickaxes and millstones, and those too had to go. The road to California was strewn with cast-offs.

Too much stuff!

Luzena has her own story of lightening the load:

After a time the hard traveling and worse roads told on our failing oxen, and one day my husband said to me, “Unless we can lighten the wagon we shall be obliged to drop out of the train, for the oxen are about to give out.” So we looked over our load, and the only things we found we could do without were three sides of bacon and a very dirty calico apron which we laid out by the roadside.

Luzena had long ago discarded her excess pots and pans. They must have been down to very little other than flour, if three sides of bacon and an apron were going to make a difference.

We remained all day in camp, and in the meantime I discovered my stock of lard was out. Without telling my husband, who was hard at work mending the wagon, I cut up the bacon, tried out the grease, and had my lard can full again. The apron I looked at twice and thought it would be of some use yet if clean, and with the aid of the Indian soap-root, growing around the camp, it became quite a respectable addition to my scanty wardrobe.

The next day the teams, refreshed by a whole day’s rest and good grazing, seemed as well as ever, and my husband told me several times what a “good thing it was we left those things; that the oxen seemed to travel as well again.”

Long after we laughed over the remembrance of that day, and his belief that the absence of the three pieces of bacon and the dirty apron could work such a change.

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The Monotony of the Trail

Nothing but actual experience will give one an idea of the plodding, unvarying monotony, the vexations, the exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived. Day after day, week after week, we went through the same weary routine of breaking camp at daybreak, yoking the oxen, cooking our meager rations over a fire of sage-brush and scrub-oak; packing up again, coffeepot and camp kettle; washing our scanty wardrobe in the little streams we crossed; striking camp again at sunset, or later, if wood and water were scarce. Tired, dusty, tried in temper, worn out in patience, we had to go over the weary experience tomorrow. No excitement, but a broken-down wagon, or the extra preparation made to cross a river, marked our way for many miles.

Oxen are slow beasts, steady and strong, but oh so slow. The company that made 15 miles a day reckoned it a good day. Imagine walking the breadth of Nebraska, flat, featureless, windy Nebraska, at a pace of two miles a hour. The oxen and the wind stirred up the dirt, and it blew about and got into everything. That was the monotony of crossing the prairie.

There were wonders to be seen along the way — “great natural wonders” such as “cathedral-like rocks” and “mineral springs” — but they had no time to stop and admire or explore.

Luzena’s first crossing of the Platte River was fairly unremarkable, for the Platte is a shallow river. But the next crossing that she describes was different:

J. Goldsborough Bruff’s drawing of his company crossing the North Platte River

In strange contrast was the North Platte which we next crossed, a boiling, seething, turbulent stream, which foamed and whirled as if enraged at the imprisoning banks. Two days we spent at its edge, devising ways and means. Finally huge sycamore trees were felled and pinned with wooden pins into the semblance of a raft, on which we were floated across where an eddy in the current touched the opposite banks.

And so, all the way, it was a road strewn with perils, over a strange, wild country. Sometimes over wide prairies, grass-grown, and deserted save by the startled herds of buffalo and elk; sometimes through deep, wild cañons, where the mosses were like a carpet beneath our feet, and the overhanging trees shut out the sunshine for days together; sometimes over high mountains, where at every turn a new road had to be cleared, we always carried with us tired bodies and often discouraged hearts.

A monotonous road, strewn with perils. Who is up for a trip to California?

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On the Trail with Luzena

Luzena Stanley Wilson and her husband Mason, with their two small boys — three-year-old Thomas and almost one-year-old Jay — set out for California one bright May morning in 1849. More than 25,000 people, lit by the lure of gold, would take to the overland trail that year.

The first day’s slow jogging brought us to the Missouri River, over which we were ferried in the twilight, and our first camp fire was lighted in Indian Territory, which spread in one unbroken, unnamed waste from the Missouri River to the border line of California.

That’s the way the American West looked to our pioneer forebears. It was one unbroken waste all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Uncivilized and utterly useless until the gold fields of California were attained. And of all the perils of the journey, there was only one that struck fear into Luzena’s mind. Indians!

Here commenced my terrors. Around us in every direction were groups of Indians sitting, standing, and on horseback, as many as two hundred in the camp. I had read and heard whole volumes of their bloody deeds, the massacre of harmless white men, torturing helpless women, carrying away captive innocent babes. I felt my children the most precious in the wide world, and I lived in an agony of dread that first night.

At this point in the westward migration there was actually little to fear from Indians. But every person in every wagon train had been brought up on tales of Indian depredations, and the fear of “the other” reigned supreme. But the Indians in this border region were only interested in trade.

The Indians were friendly, of course, and swapped ponies for whisky and tobacco with the gathering bands of emigrants, but I, in the most tragi-comic manner, sheltered my babies with my own body, and felt imaginary arrows pierce my flesh a hundred times during the night.

Luzena begged her husband to join with another wagon train for protection, but the nearby “Independence Company” refused to take on women and children.

They sent back word they “didn’t want to be troubled with women and children; they were going to California”. My anger at their insulting answer roused my courage, and my last fear of Indians died a sudden death. “I am only a woman,” I said, “but I am going to California, too, and without the help of the Independence Co.!”

You tell ’em, Luzena!

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Luzena’s Big Adventure

In honor of Women’s History Month, I am going to recycle a series of posts I did five years ago, with a bit of expansion and augmentation.

These are the adventures of Luzena Stanley Wilson, overland pioneer. Her account is one of the most vivid and charming of all the Gold Rush stories that have come down to us. She told her story to her daughter Correnah in 1881 while Correnah was recovering from an illness, and her daughter later published it.

Luzena was thirty years old, living in a log cabin in Andrew County, Missouri, when news of the California gold discovery swept the nation.

The gold excitement spread like wildfire, even out to our log cabin in the prairie, and as we had almost nothing to lose, and we might gain a fortune, we early caught the fever. My husband grew enthusiastic and wanted to start immediately, but I would not be left behind. I thought where he could go I could, and where I went I could take my two little toddling babies. Mother-like, my first thought was of my children. I little realized then the task I had undertaken. If I had, I think I should still be in my log cabin in Missouri. But when we talked it all over, it sounded like such a small task to go out to California, and once there fortune, of course, would come to us.

“It seemed like such a small task,” she says. Just pack up for a summer trip across prairie, mountain and desert. It would be an adventure, and when they arrived “fortune, of course, would come to us.” That’s what all the ’49ers thought, and they couldn’t wait to get to El Dorado.

The Wilsons at the time had two children, Thomas, who was about three years old, and Jay, a baby under one year old. Can you imagine a 6-month long camping trip with two toddlers?

It was the work of but a few days to collect our forces for the march into the new country, and we never gave a thought to selling our section, but left it, with two years’ labor, for the next comer. Monday we were to be off. Saturday we looked over our belongings, and threw aside what was not absolutely necessary. Beds we must have, and something to eat. It was a strange but comprehensive load which we stowed away in our “prairie-schooner”, and some things which I thought necessities when we started became burdensome luxuries, and before many days I dropped by the road-side a good many unnecessary pots and kettles, for on bacon and flour one can ring but few changes, and it requires but few vessels to cook them.

Quotations are taken from “My Checkered Life: Luzena Stanley Wilson in Early California” edited by Fern Henry

So Luzena and her husband make the decision to go, Saturday they pack up bedding and cooking utensils and food in their wagon, and Monday they are off. Just like that. For two years they had lived on their homestead, making improvements and trying to get ahead. Now they leave it all behind, not even trying to sell it. After all, there is a their fortune waiting for them in California.

Would you do it?

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I just learned a new word. I had never heard the word “paraph” before, and I can pretty much guarantee that you have never heard it either.

So what is a paraph?

It is “a flourish at the end of a signature,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary people. It was added to a signature to prevent forgery. A signature might be imitated, but the additional flourish made it that much harder to fake. Each writer would devise his (or her, but it was mostly his) own paraph.

You are probably familiar with John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence.

That squiggle under his name, crossed by two short vertical lines, is his paraph. Most of the rest of the signers didn’t use one on the Declaration, maybe because Hancock hadn’t left them enough room. But Benjamin Franklin included his. You can see how it differs from Hancock’s.

George Washington’s paraph is more modest, almost none existent — just a simple curved line under the “g.” But note the distinctive way he crosses his “t.”

Men were consistent with their paraphs. It wasn’t just any old squiggle. They were identical as much as any signature is, and some could be quite elaborate. Johann August Sutter, being a European gentleman, went in for quite the fancy paraph.

This is from a document concerning a financial transaction, where it would be important to have a verifiable signature. But even in a routine letter to John Bidwell about sheep and cattle, he signed with his personal flourish. Those two dots separated by a double stroke of the pen show up every time.

John Bidwell had his own paraph as well. He didn’t always use it, but the more important the letter, the bigger the signature and paraph. It features the diamond shape more or less under the center, and the curlicue tail at the end.

So now you know — that’s a paraph!

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Farewell to Jennie Carter

Jennie Carter wrote for The Elevator from July 1867 to December 1874. She may have written more, but a number of issues of The Elevator are missing in the years leading up to her death in 1881. Her last offering was a story for Christmas, not a cheerful tale, but a true tale of rival cousins that ended in tragedy on a Southern plantation.

Have you often thought, dear reader, that this world would be far nicer if no one said harsh things, never reproved when necessary, if they had heard wrong, smile and pass on. There are many, yes, the majority who do just do, others like true heroes, count the cost and speak against wrong. Those are our moral surgeons who sever a limb that the body may live.

Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West, pp. 129 (19 December 1874)

Jennie was just such a “moral surgeon,” who did not hesitate to call out wrongs, whether it was the evils of slavery or drunkenness on the street. She wrote in support of women’s rights, temperance, equal education for all children, and the rights of black citizens to have a say in government and community affairs.

Jennie died on August 10, 1881 of what sounds like a heart attack. She was only 50 years old, possibly 51. (My thanks to the author of Following Deer Creek, a Nevada County blog, for making this obituary available.)

The Daily Transcript (Nevada City) 12 August 1881

“When I die, I hope no one will eulogize me, but simply say Mrs. Trask has gone to sleep. That will be the truth.” Jennie Carter, writing as “Semper Fidelis,” The Elevator 9 December 1867.

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A Grand Celebration

For her column in The Elevator Jennie Carter reported on a grand celebration in Nevada City.

Grass Valley Morning Union 13 April 1870

Jennie wrote:

Mr. Editor.– The celebration here on the 12th was a decided success, and has done much to give influence to the colored people. Notwithstanding snow and mud in the morning, the Grass Valley folks were in time, and were met on the edge of town by the Lincoln Club with music, and escorted to the Congregational Church, where all listened to a sermon by Rev. Alexander Packer [Parker], most appropriate to the occasion . . .

At the church a procession was formed, which was something to be proud of here in the Sierras, headed by our band, which can’t be beat.

Jennie’s husband, Dennis D. Carter, was the band leader. But what were the citizens celebrating? They were marking the ratification of the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits denying or abridging a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment was certified on March 30, 1870, and men of color wasted no time in getting their names on the Great Register (although the state of California had rejected the amendment, and would not ratify it until 1962).

Grass Valley Morning Union 13 April 1870

The school children, Lincoln Club, with their beautiful banner, citizens on foot and in carriages, marched through the principal streets, eliciting from many on the sidewalks a hearty “God bless you,” and “ain’t this glorious,” and even the Democrats wreathed their faces with smiles, and only one ventured to spit his spite.

Jennie was consistently critical and scornful of the Democratic Party, which had opposed rights for African Americans.

The procession entered the theater, where the children sang “America,” and several speeches were given. “I never saw an audience kept in such complete good nature, and never did the Democracy [the Democrats] receive a more direct dressing.” (By which she means a dressing-down, or scolding.)

The day proved to be pleasant, the streets soon dried, and all walked about with ease until evening, when a grand ball wound up the affair here.

Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West, pp. 90-91 (excerpts)
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