Country Traditions

September 15, 2010

Homesteaders: Preparing for a New Life

Filed under: animals, candles, curing meat, farming, tools — Tags: , — dmacc502 @ 4:09 pm

Written by Christopher W. Czajka

Wooden trunks such as this one were used to pack personal belongings.

lanning a cross-country move, even today, is no minor feat. With boxes to be packed, movers to be hired, travel arrangements to be made, relocating is always stressful. But the stresses faced by cross-country emigrants 130 years ago — weeks (or months) of grueling travel, rough (or nonexistent) roads, and few amenities — were monumental by modern standards. Homesteaders traveling to Montana in the 1880s had to abandon the majority of all their material possessions, bid farewell to family and friends who they would often never see again, and prepare supplies that would last not only for the long journey ahead, but for the first few months in their new home.

View Fergus’ complete list.

s a first step, homesteaders planning to “jump off” into the West had to choose their mode of transportation. Travel options to Montana in the 1880s were not as limited as we may be tempted to think. Unlike travelers on the Oregon and California Trails in the 1840s and 1850s, Montana homesteaders had several transportation choices available to them as they headed for the frontier. In 1859, the first steamboat reached Montana, after traveling 2,200 miles up the Missouri River from St. Louis. Commercial traffic began the following year. Cabin fare for the trip was around $300, with a rate of 12 cents a pound for freight — prohibitively expensive for families seeking to farm once at their destination. Aside from the costs of steamboat travel, the journey itself was extremely perilous. The Missouri was navigable for only a few short weeks each summer, and the boats frequently ran aground, sank, or burned after their boilers exploded. However, the lure of the frontier was strong, and between 1860 and 1888, more than 40,000 passengers made the treacherous trip.

frontier fact Conestoga wagons were pulled by teams of six to eight horses and could haul up to five tons of freight on wheels reaching as high as six feet tall.

The steamboat trade, with its expense and limitations, dropped off sharply in the mid- 1880s, as the first railroads reached Montana and opened up to passenger service. “Emigrant cars,” specially designed for the prospective settler, afforded dismal and cramped accommodations to those with enough money to pay for the cost of trip. Passengers in emigrant cars were often forced to spend their journeys sitting upright on uncushioned, backless benches. On many trains, the management offered thin straw mattresses (at a cost of $3.00 each), which could be laid on the floor beneath the benches. One settler remembered, “My mother had a real hard time getting any sleep on the train. Anytime she laid down under the benches, her feet stuck out into the aisle, and the conductor would come along and kick her.”

Donner Lake Encampment

Lithograph of Donner Party encampment at Donner Lake

by C.W. Burton, courtesy California Digital Library.

Wagon and horses. Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.
frontier fact
Some stretches of overland trails were so rough thewagon would bump along hard enough to churn the milk into butter for the evening meal.

rivacy in the cars was minimal, with no dividing partitions and a common toilet and cookstove for as many as 30 emigrants. Wealthier settlers could rent out entire boxcars, in which to transport not only their family members, but also their household goods, farming equipment, and up to six heads of cattle.

The most common means of transport of families to Montana (and elsewhere) was, by far, the covered wagon. In lieu of the huge and bulky Conestoga wagons used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to transport freight, emigrants west of the Mississippi opted for the lighter and more easily managed “prairie schooner,” a converted farm wagon so named because it looked like a boat crossing the “sea of grasses” that made up the Great Plains.

The typical prairie schooner weighed about one ton, was 14 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. Built of seasoned wood such as maple, hickory, or oak, schooners’ only metal fittings were their iron tire rims and reinforcements on their wooden axles. Most schooners had double floors that concealed two foot-deep storage compartments. The wagon box itself was caulked or covered with hides to make it watertight, which was particularly crucial when crossing unbridged rivers and streams.

View Fergus’ complete list.

The canvas top, or “bonnet,” of the wagon, was a tawny double-ply homespun cotton that was treated with linseed oil or tallow to make it waterproof. Often, settlers sewed pockets into the bonnet to maximize their storage space. The bonnet was supported by hardwood bows that were soaked in water until they became pliable enough to bend into a U shape. Openings at the front and back of the bonnet provided ventilation.

Homesteaders had to pack essentials for life on and off the trail into this confined space. Although game could be shot and roots and berries could be gathered while in transit, settlers carried the vast majority of their food in the wagon, taking up most of their storage space. Basic staples included flour, bacon, sugar, coffee, tea, dried fruit, corn meal, and rice. Some resourceful emigrants brought along eggs packed in barrels of flour or meal. Settlers packed minimal utensils for cooking, often limiting themselves to a skillet, a coffee pot, tin plates and cups, a camp stove, and a few sets of flatware.

View Fergus’ complete list.

rucial to any overland journey was a rifle, pistols, powder, and lead, used both for hunting and for self-defense. Typical homesteaders would pack two or three changes of durable, warm clothing, as well as blankets and rubber mats for camping. Many settlers attempted to load books, furniture, and other treasured belongings into their wagons, but these were often left behind after a short time on the road, when draft animals became tired and the load needed to be lightened. Because of the roughness of the trail and the length of the journey, spare wagon parts — such as spokes, axles, and wheels — were often slung under the wagon, while water buckets and water barrels were strapped to its sides. Some emigrants attempted to bring along milk cows and chickens, though the chickens were usually eaten and the cows often died of thirst or malnutrition along the way. Josephine Gage Bartlett, who moved to Montana from Kansas in 1876, remembered:

“We had two eight yoke ox teams drawing two wagons each. Some of the other families [in the wagon train] had horse teams and thought we were too slow. We brought along some calves tethered to the back of the wagon, but they became footsore and we had to put them in a wagon. We also had chickens in that wagon. When we stopped for the night, we would let them run around.”

Planning for any extended overland migration was an enormous financial drain on homesteaders. The wagon and oxen cost about $400, and supplies about $1,000. Additionally, settlers needed several hundred dollars of cash on hand for the trip to pay for supplies that had been used up, ferry tolls, replacement oxen or wagon parts, and food for the first winter on the frontier. Many families had to save for months or years to afford the trip, and had to sell off their lands, household goods and furnishings, and heirlooms to finance their journeys.

After property had been liquidated, supplies bought, and goodbyes said, homesteaders could hit the trail carrying about 2,500 pounds of freight in their ox-drawn prairie schooners. Because the wagons were so full, and because they traveled at the not-quite-dizzying speed of two miles per hour, many settlers — men, women, and children — walked beside their wagons across the continent.

When Minnesota settler Pamelia Dillin Fergus received a letter from her husband James summoning her to rejoin him and bring their four children for a new life in Montana Territory, her husband, keenly aware of the life they would face on the trail and in their new home, provided explicit directions to his wife on how to prepare for the journey. He instructed her to “sell all [she] could at private auction, and bring no poor articles” west with her. He advised her to “have the sides of [the] wagon boarded up high with thin boards to keep things from falling out,” and cautioned her to “never let one of the children go out or in the waggon [sic] without stopping it as many get killed or injured by the waggon running over them.” Remarkably, James Fergus also sent his wife a complete list of items that she would need to bring in the family’s three wagons ranging from 600 pounds of flour to $5 worth of stamps to “whiskey for poisoned cattle.” For a complete list, with Fergus’ spelling preserved, click here.

Those who had “borne arms against the United States, or given aid or comfort to its enemies” were denied homesteads, a significant restriction during and after the Civil War.

amelia Dillin would load the essentials from her Little Falls, Minnesota home into a single wagon, and drive to Illinois, where she would visit briefly with her mother, and meet up with O.J. Rockwell, one of her husbands’ business associates. Rockwell would supply her with two additional wagons, six yoke of oxen, and a milk cow. Rockwell, Pamelia, and the Fergus children would travel to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they would finish outfitting the wagons and be joined by a few other families from Little Falls before “jumping off” and starting out for their new lives in Montana.

There would be rivers to ford, plains to cross, and mountains to climb. Whether it was a terrible ordeal or a fantastic adventure, getting to a new home on the frontier was an experience few settlers ever forgot.


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