The first time I came to Kansas was in 2006. My husband, three children, and one cat traveled almost 900 miles across parts of the U.S. in a minivan. I was also in my third trimester of pregnancy, but because the baby was number 4 I was less anxious about traveling and knew there were hospitals along our route. Our household goods traveled independently from us in a moving truck. Every nook and cranny of our house was packed into that truck with items ranging from necessities such as pots and pans, to a collection of school artwork and a scattering of window coverings for each house we’d lived in.
Pioneers emigrating to Kansas in the 1800s painted a very different picture of cross-country travel.
A trickle of pioneers began settling in Kansas in 1830, but it wasn’t until 1854, when Kansas became an organized territory of the United States, that emigrants began relocating in larger numbers. Passed a year after Kansas entered the Union as a free state, the Homestead Act of 1862 inspired thousands of Americans to move to the area from the east. The largest groups of emigrants were people of European ancestry, in particular Swedish and German-speaking people, who came to claim their free or inexpensive land.
Many young families had the confidence to relocate, and they had their own motivations for doing so. Some saw it as an adventure to discover new lands. The promise of independence and a new start enthused families, especially husbands, wives, uncles, brothers, and cousins to make the journey. Diary entries collected in Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel indicate that mothers were concerned with relational values, disease and family matters, and wanted to preserve their families by staying together.
In 1844, a young 13-year-old named Martha Ann Morrison wrote her observations that “The men had a great deal of anxiety and all the care of their families, but still the mothers had the families directly in their hands and were with them all the time, especially during sickness. Some of the women I saw on the road went through a great deal of suffering and trial. I remember distinctly one girl in particular about my own age that died and was buried on the road. Her mother had a great deal of trouble and suffering. It strikes me as I think of it now that Mothers on the road had to undergo more trial and suffering than anybody else.” The grandmother of General George S. Patton, Margaret Hereford Wilson, described her feelings during her journey, saying, “Dr. Wilson has determined to go…I am going with him, as there is no alternative…Oh, my dear mother…I thought that I felt bad when I wrote you…from Independence, but it was nothing like this.” Many women found it their Christian duty to be strong and traveled West in order to stay together as a family and support their husbands’ efforts to better their family’s future.
Pioneer families carefully considered what would be taken in their wagons for their trip due to necessity and the space available. Wagons first had to be built and were typically a flat bed and 10 feet wide and carried about 2,500 pounds. Wagons like the iconic Conestoga wagon were covered with canvas cloth treated with oil to make it water resistant for protection from harsh weather conditions. Families filled the wagon with food and dry goods, clothing, kitchen tools, animals, furniture, and rifles and ammunition. Nancy Wilson described her wagon train as having 25 wagons “nearly all of them ox teams of five yoke…our wagons were big and strong, and had good, stout bows, covered in thick, white drilling so there was a nice room in each wagon, as everything was clean and fresh and new.” Another woman, Helen Marnie Stewart, describes the mass number of emigrants heading on their journey saying, “All around us on each side of the river were sheep, cattle, horses, wagons, men, women and children – more cattle and sheep than I ever saw before in my life; drove after drove, thousands, yes, thousands…It is astonishing to see what a multitude is moving on.”
One of the early settlers in Geary County was Herman Oesterrich. He traveled from Wisconsin to Kansas Territory and claimed land on Lyons Creek in 1856. He returned home in 1859 and married Albertina Frederika Timm with the intention of moving back to Lyons Creek. A 1995 Junction City Union article describes the Oesterriches’ trip as a family affair, saying, “Albertina and Herman started back to the Lyons Creek claim and along with the newlyweds came her parents and their seven children, Charles Brehmer and his wife, and two bachelors, Ed Bruntrock and a Mr. Merman.” The article goes on to say “12 children were born to Albertina and Herman…People outside the family would come to Albertina for ‘mothering advice.’”
Childbirth on the trail was rarely spoken or written about in diaries until a baby was born. Daughters give written accounts of being surprised by the arrival of babies. Families would stop for half a day or a full day to allow the mother to recover and then continue their journey. Mrs. Francis Sawyer describes childbirth on the trail perfectly when she wrote in her diary “I saw a lady where we nooned today who had a fine son three days old…The lady was…in good spirits. I have heard of several children being born on the plains though it is not a pleasant place for the little fellows to see the light of day.” While there were many births, there were also many deaths. Life as an emigrant saw many diseases and dangers: cholera, smallpox, typhoid, measles, dysentery, snakebites, malaria, scurvy, scarlet fever, accidents, Indian attacks, and more. Some diarists recorded the number of graves they passed each day, humans and animals, as there was great loss on the way.
Mrs. Amelia Stewart Knight emigrated from Iowa to Oregon with seven children and one on the way. Her diary tells of the reality of her travels, but she does not complain. Her last journal entry and conclusion to her travels ended with these simple comments, “A few days later my eighth child was born. After this we picked up and ferried across the Columbia River, utilizing skiff, canoes and flatboat to get across, taking three days to complete. Here my husband traded two yoke of oxen for a half section of land with one-half acre planted to potatoes and a small log cabin and lean-to with no windows. This is the journey’s end.”