Summary: This story is a blend of fiction and historical fact. Ben keeps a journal of his wagon train trip to the West with Inger and Adam at his side.
Rated K+ (5,190 words)
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
BEN’S JOURNAL – THE HARD TRAIL WEST
Author’s Note: I have taken many liberties with blending fact and fiction with this story. Some of the names are fictional, some are factual. Time periods may be slightly out of order or entirely fictional and I have stretched a few points to make them fit into the story. Places along the route are historically accurate, and I will try to add a note to point these out. I also have “borrowed” some of the story and some of the names from the Bonanza movie, “Journey Remembered.” But this story is not a repeat of that movie – by law, that would be considered plagiarism of a registered movie. A bibliography can be found at the end of the story.
Inger Borgrstrom Cartwright looked at her husband and recognized the faraway look in his eyes, the newspaper in his hands. Ben was daydreaming again – about going West, about finding the wide open spaces that he longed for. About finding just the right place where there was peace and quiet, finding huge trees, wildflowers and lush green grass. He wanted horses and cattle. He wanted land to call his own. He had spent many years at sea and now he wanted to plant his feet firmly on the ground and to raise a family. Inger smiled at him.
“Ben, you are day-dreaming again,” she said in her Swedish accent. “But I have the same dream that you do. We have saved much money now. Why should we wait any longer?”
Ben pulled Inger to him and kissed her solidly. “You’re right! There’s no reason to wait!”
“Wait for what, Pa?” the five-year old Adam asked as he entered the room.
“We’re going on a great adventure, son. One that you will remember for a lifetime. A story that you can tell your children and your grandchildren.”
Inger added, in her singsong voice, “We can live where there is lots of land, where we can grow things and raise all kinds of animals, where the noise of these city streets won’t keep us awake at night.”
“Can I have a pony?” Adam asked.
Ben swept his son up into his arms and twirled him around. “Of course you can have a pony! But you must feed him and groom him and keep his stall clean. Will you promise to do that?”
“Yes, sir!” Adam exclaimed enthusiastically. “But where do we find this land, and how do we get there?”
Inger and Ben sat down at their small kitchen table while Ben spoke as he glanced at the newspaper.
“First, there is a thing called ‘The Homestead Act’. In 1862, Congress passed this ‘Act’ which basically says that the head of a family can acquire one hundred and sixty acres of land, settle on it and cultivate it for five years. When these things are done, at the end of the five years, the land belongs to the head of the family.” (Author’s Note: The Homestead Act pertained to California and Oregon but did extend to other territories. By 1890, all available federal land in California and Oregon had been settled by the pioneers. I took creative license here in extending the area into Nevada territory.)
Adam piped up. “But how do we get there?”
Inger smiled and pointed to a sketch in the newspaper. “We go in a big wagon with a cover on top to keep out the wind and rain.”
Adam studied the sketch. “Do we go all by ourselves?”
Ben laughed. “No, Adam. We don’t make the trip alone. We go with other people who dream of a new land. It’s a long trip, son. And it has its hardships. But it’s worth it.”
Adam read the headlines on the newspaper. “It’s called ‘The Great Western Experience’. And it says here that hundreds of people are going in those wagons. It sounds like fun to me!” Satisfied, Adam jumped up from the table and skipped away into another room.
Author’s Note: From 1840 to 1860, the Humboldt Trail was the highway across Nevada territory. Some 200,000 people made the difficult trip to California. This was the greatest peacetime migration in history. Some 53,000 people took the Oregon Trail.)
Ben continued to read the newspaper article while Inger sang and cooked supper. Every now and then she would stop and look at Ben and smile. They would be living their dream sooner than they dared hope.
Both Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, were the outfitting towns for the families headed West. Ben picked St. Jo as the place he wanted to start from on the long journey to California. One big reason was that he had read so many good things about the Studebaker brothers, famous builders of covered wagons. (Author’s Note: Yes, these are the ancestors of the men who built Studebaker cars in later years.)
St. Joseph was bustling with activity. While Ben and Adam looked around for the person in charge, Inger mingled with the other women. It was here that she met Mr. and Mrs. Payne and made her first friends who shared the same dreams that Ben and Inger did. They became immediate friends. And it was Mr. Payne who took Ben to the corrals to pick out either oxen (four to six oxen would cost $25 each) or mules (six to ten mules would cost $75 each). Ben chose mules after Mr. Payne informed him that oxen, though strong, could be undependable due to their unruliness. (Author’s Note: Mules would be replaced by horses in the following years.)
Mr. Payne introduced Ben to one of the Studebaker brothers, and Ben paid the man $400 to build the covered wagon. This had turned out to be an expensive proposition, but it was worth it to both Ben and Inger.
Outside the meeting hall, the Cartwrights mingled with a mob of people who were waiting to go inside and listen to what they could expect on the wagon train and to meet the wagonmaster/guide/scout. The most common question among the travelers was the one pertaining to why each family was heading West. The answers were varied – the weather conditions were supposed to be ideal and good for one’s health; the crops were touted to be better in California and Oregon (especially wheat, clover and turnips); people were tired of city living and longed to have land of their own; the adventure appealed to large groups of people seeking a better life. There were Germans, Irish, Scottish, some French and even some Russian families that would become part of the wagon train.
The Cartwright family made friends quickly. Adam and some of the other children were already playing marbles out in the street when Ben and Inger met a young lady named Rachel, a man named Lucas Rockwell and one who was simply called Tulliver, and a nice man who insisted on being called by his first name which was Simon.
Finally, the meeting hall doors opened and the crowd of people entered the large building, taking seats wherever they could find them. Some families had to stand up as there were no seats available. In the front of the room were several men, ready to discuss the upcoming journey and to answer questions. Inger held Ben’s hand, and Adam held Ben’s other hand. A hush fell over the room.
“Welcome, adventurers!” said one of the Studebaker brothers. “You are about to embark on a journey that will one day be written about in history books. Even now, the guides who are mountain men are becoming household names – men like Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Baker, James Bridger and William Sublette. It might interest you to know that between the years of 1840 to1848, approximately eleven thousand five hundred and twelve people made the journey to Oregon. Two thousand seven hundred and thirty five went to California. Yes, some people did turn back – mostly for reasons of poor health or fear of Indian attacks. I won’t lie to you. The journey is hard and long but well-worth the hardships you must face. I have taken the liberty of passing around fliers of what you can expect, what you will need to take with you and what you will need to leave behind. After this meeting, you will be directed to your guide – he is a man who knows the route to be followed and who also knows the best places to camp. Now, let us begin with the wagons themselves.”
The fliers were passed out to the head of each family. There were too many pages to read and to try to listen to the speaker at the same time, so Inger put the fliers in her purse.
Mr. Studebaker continued. “Let’s discuss the wagons first. I’m sure you have all seen sketches of the Conestoga wagons. These are entirely too heavy to travel in, even though they provide more room. They are used to carry freight and often have mule teams of up to twenty animals. The wagons that are used today are smaller and lighter. Pay attention to the specifications and don’t accept anything of less quality. The wood used is hickory, oak or maple. These withstand the elements of sun, wind and rain much better than other kinds. The wagon itself is approximately four feet wide and ten-to-twelve feet long. If you add on the length of the tongue and the neck yoke, the length will be about twenty-three feet long. The wheel base is over five feet wide. The weight of an empty wagon is approximately thirteen hundred pounds. You will see curved wooden slats rising from one side of the wagon to the other. Over these slats will be a covering of canvas, stretched tightly across and covered with linseed oil. This makes the wagon waterproof and will provide a good shelter from the elements. This canvas covering is called the “bonnet.” The rear wheels are bigger than the front ones. This is not a mistake. The smaller front wheels will allow the wagon to make sharper turns. There is a big box on the outside of the wagon which will hold tools and other items such as iron bolts, linch pins, nails and a jack. A big water barrel is an absolute necessity, and it will have a place to be supported by and lashed to the wagon itself. Other items to be carried on the outside might be a butter churn, axes, shovels, a tar bucket to grease the wheels, an extra wheel, a feed trough for the animals, and even a chicken coop. Are there any questions so far?”
(Author’s Note: The term “prairie schooner” was penned in the 1870’s. The wagon was never referred to as such during the time of the emigrations.”)
Inger raised her hand. “What about the inside of the wagon?”
Mr. Studebaker smiled. “That’s a very good question, Mrs… ?”
“Cartwright,” Inger answered. “This is my husband, Ben, and this is our son, Adam.” Inger looked around and saw smiling faces.
“Well, Mrs. Cartwright. You are asking a question that women really want to know. It’s true that the inside of the wagon is not large, so only necessities can be carried. A fold-down small bed can be constructed. But you will find that most people sleep in tents outside or under the wagons or even under the stars. My advice is to hang as many hooks from the hoops as possible, strong hooks, to hold pots and pans, weapons, clothing, milk cans and anything else you can think of. Remember: You need to have enough room in your wagon for food – and lots of it!”
Mrs. Payne, gaining confidence from the fact that Inger asked questions, asked one of her own. “How much food will we need?”
“That’s covered in the flier but it certainly is worth discussing right now. A family of four might carry eight hundred pounds of flour, two hundred pounds of lard, seven hundred pounds of bacon, 200 pounds of beans, 100 pounds of fruit, seventy-five pounds of coffee, and twenty-five pounds of salt. One might also take yeast, crackers, cornmeal and potatoes. A good idea is to take several bolts of cloth, several needles and lots of thread. Clothes can be made or patched as needed.”
Simon stood up. “How long will it take to get to California? Or Oregon?”
“Another excellent question. The trip is approximately two thousand miles. On good days, the wagon trains can travel ten to twelve miles per day. The pace is slow and the speed is about two miles per hour.”
There was a general murmuring among the travelers. This was the first time many of them realized how great an undertaking this move would be.
A man stood up. “My name is Tulliver. I’d like to know what kills people on the trail and what does a person do with the bodies? And what about having no doctor and no medicine?”
“Mr. Tulliver, you’ve brought up an interesting set of questions. Let me tell you that the main cause of death is due to accidental shootings. The next cause of death is from drowning. There are many rivers to cross with apparently calm surface water but with treacherous undercurrents. Families must take the utmost care when making these river crossings. (Author’s Note: More than three hundred people died this way.) Minor illnesses can cause death. If you will take the time to talk to pharmacists here, you can learn about the use of herbs, roots and even tree bark that will relieve symptoms of illness. (Author’s Note: The pioneers knew nothing about germs and often shared bedding and dishes which hastened the transmission of germs.) And, let me add, that there have been occasional outbreaks of cholera and smallpox. Though there are many friendly Indian tribes who are interested in trading for food or cloth, there are some tribes that attack and kill pioneers. It is with sympathy and regret that I must tell you of how to deal with the deceased. Bodies must be buried in graves along the trail, covered by dirt and rocks and even gunpowder to keep the wild animals from digging up the dead. This is not a pleasant subject but it is a fact.”
Ben stood up. “We thank you for your honesty. I think we are all aware of the dangers of this journey, and some people may choose not to go. But others of us are eager to get started. How soon will that be?”
Mr. Studebaker smiled again. He was a kind man and wanted to be of help. “It’s now nearing the end of March and we’re getting a later start than usual. Wagons need to be built for those who don’t have them. The very beginning of Spring is the best time to leave. You need to get through the mountains before the snows close the passes. Also, Spring is the time when the grass is the most lush and provides good fodder for your animals. You’re all cutting it pretty close and you’ll have to hunt for a guide.”
Ben and this large group were lucky that their wagons would be ready in time to make the trip. But finding a guide was difficult. The one that was found was Mr. Wilkes, who promised to take those who were ready as far as Ash Hollow, Nebraska territory, where they could join a larger wagon train, the Ryan Company, and continue to California. He had maps and seemed to know what he was doing, so he was hired. Each family would pay one thousand dollars to Mr. Wilkes to guide them to Ash Hollow, payment to be made when they got there safely.
Finally it was time. Wilkes led his party a few miles north where everyone crossed the Missouri River. The grass, which would support the stock, was usually tall enough by mid-April until about the middle of May, and Mr. Wilkes allowed the travelers a few days for the stock to graze and feed boxes to be filled. Then, with high hopes and high spirits, the families began their long journey.
Every evening, Ben would write in his journal. He had kept a captain’s log when he had been at sea and he wrote about this new experience out of sheer habit. Inger would smile and watch – and sometimes she would tease her husband. Ben had looked at Wilkes’s map so often that he had memorized it and entered it into his journal also. As they traveled, he would enter the names of friends, places, what they did, what they ate, and any other thing that interested him. Inger understood this writing in a journal – her own father had kept a journal of the family’s travels from Sweden. She had kept the journal for years as a reminder of her family and of the happy times of her childhood.
Every day became a routine. They would get up early every morning, usually while it was still dark, and start a fire. Breakfast would be cooked; livestock would be gathered and hitched up to each wagon; clean cookware quickly and then start on the trail. It wasn’t too hard to follow because there were so many ruts of wagon wheels that had gone before them. There would be a one-to-two hour stop for lunch and then they would travel until four or five o’clock. The wagons would either form a circle or a square for two reasons – to keep the livestock where they couldn’t escape and to protect against any marauding Indians that might be around. Camp fires would be started, supper would be cooked, pots and pans and dishes would be cleaned, and bedrolls or tents might be set up for sleeping. Ben and Inger decided to let Adam sleep in the wagon while they slept in a tent outside. They had the privacy they wanted and, often, Adam could hear soft murmurs coming from the tent. He was too young to understand what they meant…
And what did the children do? It wasn’t fun and games for them all the time – there were chores to be done. Children would milk the cows, fetch water from a nearby stream or river, help in the cooking of food, wash dishes, collect buffalo chips or wood for the campfires, or hang jerky in the sun to dry.
Adam had made many friends. The sound of children’s laughter always put a smile on many faces. Though Adam never skipped rope like the girls did, he played chasing hoops. He, his friends, and the girls would often play tag. There were homemade toys to play with, and Ben took time to teach his son how to whittle and carve things from wood. The girls would learn to make cloth dolls.
Many were the nights when the travelers would gather ‘round and have a songfest. There were harmonica players and guitar players and banjo players, and the nights would resound from the happy singing and music – and even dancing. Inger particularly liked “Green Grow the Lilacs,” “Oh, My Darlin’ Clementine,” “Buffalo Gals,” “Cindy,” “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” and “Home on the Range.” Ben’s deep voice always thrilled Inger, and she loved it when he would grab her around the waist and dance her around the huge campfire in the center of the wagons.
Ben found out almost immediately that Inger could do just about anything. She could drive the team of mules as well as any man could! Ben had been elected as “captain” of the wagon train, and he was riding up and down the length of all the wagons checking on how people and animals were getting along. He rode up close to his own wagon and could hear Inger singing Swedish songs to Adam, the lilt of Inger’s voice always touching Ben’s heart. And Adam would always try to follow along with a word or two; if he didn’t know the words, he would hum to the lively tunes.
“Is everything okay here?” Ben asked.
“Of course,” Inger smiled. “Adam and I are just singing – I think the mules like it!”
Ben laughed and headed on to the next wagon.
Adam looked at Inger. “When will we get to California?”
Inger never lied. “We still have a long, long way to go, Adam. We will see the full moon many times before we reach California.”
Adam sighed. Usually he walked with the older children, skipping and throwing buffalo chips at each other. But he was ready to have a real home to live in. Most adults preferred to walk rather than to be jounced around inside the wagons.
One evening, as Ben and Inger looked out from their tent, Inger told Ben her secret. She was pregnant. She had waited a long time to tell him – he had been so busy and she hadn’t wanted to worry him. But she could hide the fact no longer as her belly was already swelling and other women had begun to notice. She didn’t want Ben to hear the news from somebody else. Ben, of course, was overjoyed at the news, so much so that he woke Adam to tell him that he would have a new brother or sister before they reached California.
Not all the times were happy times. As Mr. Studebaker had foretold, people died. Women died in childbirth and their babies lived; babies died and their mothers lived. People became ill and died. There were accidental shootings, and there were drownings during the crossings of many large rivers. The bodies were buried in shallow graves, marked by a homemade cross; the wagon train would be forced to move on.
Many people, upon reaching the Great Basin, decided they would rather turn back than to go into such an arid and hostile environment. Some would go back only as far as the last trading post and would make their homes there. Some would go on to Missouri.
Mr. Wilkes continued onward. The Cartwright family went with him – and so did many others. There were visits by friendly Indians along the way and trading took place between them and the pioneers. But there were attacks by unfriendly Indians who hated the thousands of people crossing their land and scaring the buffalo away. The land would be littered with homemade crosses, and still the wagon train would go forward.
The desert was hostile. The sun scorched the earth during the day. Water holes dried up. Animals died in their traces from lack of water. Sand sucked at the wheels of the wagons and made the going slower than usual. People were forced to throw out everything except the bare necessities to make the wagons lighter; the land was littered for miles with abandoned belongings from earlier wagon trains. Game was scarce. Women had to be imaginative cooks to make meals. The nights were cold, and poisonous snakes slithered around in search of whatever small animals they could find. Some would bite people – another cause of death. Scorpions would crawl into bedrolls and sting the unlucky occupants. Some would die; some would survive. Spirits sagged.
Outside of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, the land turned green once again. Animals were rested and could feed on the green grass. People could bathe and refresh their water barrels there. They also could climb the high hills and inscribe their names and the date on outcropping of rocks. (Author’s Note: Those names can still be seen today. I know, because I joined the Oregon Trail Wagon Train for five days and nights and traveled, pioneer-style in a wagon and on horseback, and saw those names and the dates. The ruts are very prominent through this part of the land, and artifacts can still be found there. We ate authentic pioneer food – buffalo hump stew and buffalo tongue sandwiches. The biscuits were made in a Dutch oven over an open fire. Butter was made by hanging a bucket of milk under the wagon in the morning and by the end of the day, it had churned itself into butter. We took strips of beef and hung them outside the wagons on small sticks and made our own beef jerky.)
Inger gave birth to a son, quite a large baby, somewhere near Scottsbluff. Ben was so proud, and he and Inger decided to name the child “Erik” after Inger’s father. But Ben had remembered that Inger’s brother, Gunnar, had asked that a son be named “Hoss.” Ben and Inger decided to see which name “fit” best as the child grew. Adam was delighted to have a baby brother in the family and watched carefully over the child as the wagon train continued on.
Not far from Ash Hollow, Nebraska, where there was a natural spring and plenty of firewood and green grass, hostile Indians attacked. The wagon train fled to this trading post and began to fight for their lives. Inger was struck by an arrow and lay dying as Adam held the new baby in his arms in a corner of the room.
The Indians, realizing that they were losing too many braves, rode away. Ben ran to Inger’s side.
“Inger!” he called, his eyes brimming with tears.
“Ben,” she answered softly. “Take care of our boys. I love you – and them – with all my heart.” Her soul left her body.
Ben wept openly and unashamedly, holding his dead wife close to him. Adam cried – he had never known his own mother and now Inger was gone too. Like all the others, she was buried outside of Ash Hollow, beneath a huge tree, with only a homemade wooden cross as a reminder that a life had been lost there.
His heart full of sorrow, Ben gathered Adam into his arms. They wept together.
“What do we do now, Pa?” Adam asked.
Through his tears, Ben replied, “We go on, son. Inger would want us to.”
A wet nurse was found for the new baby, and the wagon train continued its journey.
The wagon train had missed the Ryan Company group and had to go on. Wilkes was paid his money, some of which he gave to another guide. Wheels rolled and the group began to move once again.
Ben was impressed with the Nevada territory. Stops were made at Genoa, founded in 1851 as a trading post and a place to serve passing wagon trains.
In Lovelock, Nevada, there was another comfortable place to stop and rest. The land was green and heavily wooded. Ben didn’t forget the Nevada territory; it stayed in the back of his mind and called to him as he went southwest toward California.
Managing so many wagons up and down the mountains was a nightmare. Extra teams of mules had to be added to get the wagons up the mountains, and then the rear wheels had logs tied behind them or jammed into the rear wheels to keep from having a wagon roll down the mountain and be destroyed. Tempers flared, some wagons fell over and were rendered useless. And still the wagon train rolled on until it reached California.
Ben hired a housekeeper/wet nurse for his new son. Adam went to school. But Ben never forgot Nevada. The name “Hoss” stuck as the younger son grew older – he was a big boy, gentle of nature like his mother and with his mother’s bright blue eyes.
One night, Ben spoke to his sons about what he remembered about the Nevada territory.
“I want to go back there where the Ponderosa pines grow so tall that they seem to reach the sky. The grass grows thick and tall, and the soil is rich for planting. I want to build our home there.”
Adam remembered a little bit of what he had seen. “It was pretty there. I think we should go.”
Hoss was willing to go anywhere at any time. He was in agreement also.
And so it was that the Cartwright family loaded up wagons and returned to Nevada. Eventually it would be a State but that was far in the future. Ben built a small ranch that grew into an Empire with the discovery of gold and Ben’s wise investments. The ranch would be called “The Ponderosa” due to the plethora of Ponderosa pines.
Ben and his sons looked out over Lake Tahoe. There were the Sierra Nevadas in the background and tall trees behind them. This would be where they would build their home.
James Finney and his partners struck a rich deposit at what was to become Gold Hill. Finney was known as Old Virginny and is credited with naming the town after his native state.
Ben kept all this information in his journal and, finding the journal one day, he read it aloud to his sons – Adam, Hoss, and now with the addition of Little Joe. As he had hoped, the story eventually would be passed from generation to generation.
Today, Virginia City is one of America’s largest Historic Landmarks. It was the first truly industrial city in the West. Though silver was found there in the 1850’s, more people were interested in the gold in California. In 1859, gold was found at the head of Six-Mile Canyon on Mt. Davidson by two miners – Pat McLaughlin and Peter O’Reilly. Henry Comstock, a fast-talking con man, stumbled upon the find of these two men and promptly claimed it was his own property – the two miners actually believed him. The giant lode was named “The Comstock Lode.” Comstock sold out for $11,000 and committed suicide a few years later. Peter O’Reilly sold out and ended up in an insane asylum. Pat McLaughlin died penniless.
Soon, silver ore was found – worth over $2,000 per ton!
At its peak, Virginia City had nearly 30,000 residents and was visited by many celebrities, on of whom was Mark Twain. There were mansions and opera houses.
Virginia City had the first Miner’s Union in the United States. The International House (a name known from “Bonanza,”) was six stories high and had the only elevator between Chicago and San Francisco.
Until the mountain of silver ran out, the best estimates say that from 1859 to the end of the century, the Comstock Lode yielded one billion dollars in silver and gold.
Other Stories by this Author
- Adam and Sam – Bringing Up Babies (by acspeej)
- Adam’s Journey of Memories (by acspeej)
- Our Favorite Story (by acspeej)
- Choices (by acspeej)
- Adam’s Surprise Visitor (by acspeej)