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This story is atypical of many groups who headed west in the earliest migrations. Getting a late start, a small group of wagons left Sapling Grove, Missouri on May 12, 1841. In the group were 35 men, 5 women and 10 children. about 20 miles west or Independence, MO., and not one of them had any notion of what lay ahead.

Of the women in the group three were married, one was a widow and one was a girl of marriageable age traveling with kin. Totally unprepared for the vast journey into the unknown, they listened to a story one man told of seeing a map showing a great lake with two rivers running out of it clear to the Pacific. It would be simple. All they need do was find the lake and follow the rivers to the sea and there lay California.

With no compass, they turned their teams west and followed the Platte River.  It was amazing that they managed to reach 'Fort Laramie, unbelievable that they found South Pass and headed across the Rocky Mountains. What isn't amazing is that by mid-July seven men decided they'd had enough and turned back. Undeterred, the remainder moved on, and July 30 celebrated the wedding of the widow who decided to marry one of the men in the company. The emigrants had covered 1200 miles.

At Fort Hall some of them continued north on the road to Oregon; others kept on toward California.

Among these was Nancy Kelsey and her baby. Married at 15 Nancy had decided to accompany her husband rather than remain at home. She remarked, "I can better endure the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband."

One of the party members later said, "With no guide, we were forced to smell our way west."

What they did know was there there was supposed to be a river called Mary's River or Ogden's River or the Humboldt River, but where would they find it? By August 22 food was low. The animals were tired and by August 26 they were completely lost. The exhausted emigrants kept moving west. As they grew more desperate, they abandoned a wagon and slaughtered the oxen for food.  

On Sept. 7 the ragged group again divided, two wagons were going south with some Indians, six wagons remained in camp. The next day they reunited, dismissed the Indians and continued looking for a river. It's not known precisely why they separated then got back together. But they continued to blunder on into the middle of September. At that point they abandoned all the wagons and tied their belongings onto the remaining oxen. Incredibly, they found Mary's River but they could not find the road that would lead from there to the Truckee River. By then they weren't traveling west, but south.

On Oct. 22, trapped in the almost impassable canyons of the Sierra Nevada mountains, they killed the last ox. Mule meat became a delicacy but every time they killed one someone else had to walk. They shot jackrabbit and coyote when they could. Nancy walked and carried her year-old baby in her arms. They tried boiling acorns but no one could eat them. Oct. 30 they finally staggered into the San Joaquin Valley, alive but gaunt and exhausted. 

Nancy did not write a diary, but years later was interviewed for a newspaper. Her experiences could have forwarned other travelers, but her telling of them was years too late for many who tried the same trip.

Women seldom had any say in making this trip. The decision rested with the men, and farm men of the early 19th century were not inclined to excuse women from their daily responsibilities to prepare for such a common thing as childbirth. Women were expected to be strong enough to serve the ordinary needs of the day, and strong enough to meet the extra ordinary demands as well. The society of the early 1800s offered little comfort to frailty or timidity, or for that matter to motherhood.

This story is not unusual, but more common for the day. Most women had eight to twelve children, and they were expected to do so whether working in the fields, traipsing cross country or helping with the butchering. Come what may, the work had to be done.


Check out my books on Kindle. They follow these strong women who traveled west to find a new life, their hopes and dreams, the men they loved and those they didn't.

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