As people moved West, in search of the wide open spaces, they were leaving the hustle and bustle of the big cities behind…in search of not only a better life, but maybe for the quiet life too. The East was crowded, and loud, and those people who were ready for something different, decided to make the trip out West, where there were still wide open spaces. The funny thing was that they didn’t even have to go all the way to the West coast to be west of where they were. Many families made it as far as what we would call the Midwest, but that was good enough. There was plenty of land to spread out on and it was available. And so the country began to grow. It really was inevitable anyway, whether it happened then or later. As people grow up and have families, the population grows. It just doesn’t take long to overpopulate a small area. There are few options left, the best one being for some people to move away.
I understand how they feel. While I have had my time living in the country, and I would not go back again, I am also drawn to the wide open spaces…or at least the long trails. It is such a great feeling to be able get away from it all, and just listen to the quiet for a while. Of course, the quiet is never totally quiet, but rather is has many sounds in it, like the birds chirping, the breeze blowing, bugs making their sounds, or a creek bubbling along. Nevertheless, quiet or not, it’s different, and that makes it the kind of peaceful sounds you need. And for me, a few days hiking on a long trail through the mountains and forests, is just what I need to renew my sense of balance and peace. Does that mean that I would love to have been one of the pioneers who went out West to find a better life…no, I don’t think so. Life was hard for the pioneers. In reality, they paid dearly for the quiet life. There were no stores, or at least, not many. Water was scarce. They have to grow food. They worked hard…from morning to night. Yes, it was the quiet life, but it wasn’t easy…and that’s for sure.
The San Francisco gold rush was a crazy time in American history. It was almost giddy in many ways. Gold does funny things to people. Just the thought of striking it rich made people pull up stakes and move west to try their hand at gold mining. Once people had made their fortunes, many decided to head back home to the east. Apparently the idea of wagon training back was not so appealing on the journey home, so these now, people of wealth decided to go by ship. The easiest crossing was through the Panama area. Of course, the Panama Canal was not built yet, although the French had tried to do so, but it wasn’t done yet. So the trip became a two ship journey.
On August 20, 1857, several hundred passengers in San Francisco boarded the SS Sonora, of the Pacific Mail Steamship Line, and headed south toward Panama City. The 1857 value of the gold on board was 1.6 million, so just imagine today’s value. Thousands of freshly minted 1857-S double eagles, some earlier $20 coins, ingots, and gold in other forms were among the treasures. Some of the double eagles were stacked in long rows or columns and nestled in wooden boxes. Elsewhere around the ship, passengers had their own stash in purses and boxes reflecting their success in the land of gold. Once they arrived in Panama City, they were transported by train to on the Panama Railroad, which was a 48-mile line, completed in 1855 and had facilitated the crossing of the isthmus in about three or four hours as opposed to paddling and tramping through the jungles for several days. When the train arrived in Aspinwall, the passengers disembarked, and the treasure was transported to storage.
The next leg of the trip was aboard the side-wheel steamer SS Central America. The ship had been called the SS George Law, but the name was later changed to the SS Central America. It was now on its forty-fourth voyage for the Atlantic Mail Steamship Company. The Atlantic Mail Steamship Company was operating under federal mail contract to provide mail to the people between the east and west. The steamers had Navy captains at the helm, men of proven reputation and experience. Capt. William Herndon commanded the Central America.
In early September 1857, the gold treasure was carefully packed aboard. The passengers found their cabins, and all were ready for the pleasant voyage to New York City. It was an ideal time of year for travel. A few days later, on September 7, 1857, the ship docked in the harbor of Havana. It was a popular stop for the passengers, who set about buying souvenirs and exploring the sights of the town. The trip toward New York continued to be pleasant. The skies were sunny and the sea smooth…temporarily.
At 5:30am on Wednesday, September 9, the ship’s second officer noted that the ship had gone 286 nautical miles in the preceding 26½ hours. He noted that a breeze was kicking up, and perhaps they were in for a storm, but expressed no concerns, because they were experienced and could handle a storm should it occur. That would prove to be the first mistake made. The storm grew furious and they were too far from a port to do much except keep the SS Central America into the waves. By Friday morning, September 11, the crew was still in control, but the ship was taking on water through the drive shaft, broken or open lights and elsewhere. The ship was tossing violently. It was virtually impossible to feed coal into the boilers.
At 11am Captain Herndon told the passengers that the ship was in grave danger. He enlisted the help of all men to bail water with a bucket brigade. By 1:00 in the afternoon the rising water in the hold doused the boiler fires. The ship’s paddlewheels stopped. The SS Central America was at the mercy of the sea. By Saturday, the 12th of September, 1857, the storm started to pass, but it was too late. The SS Central America was doomed. The people were told to abandon ship, and the SS Central America went down with all of their treasure. In all, 425 lives were lost to the sea. Only 153 were pulled from a watery grave by the brig Marine, which was also damaged by the storm, though not to the degree of the SS Central America. The ship was discovered again on September 11, 1988, almost exactly 131 years after she went down in a hurricane on September 12, 1857. It was a rich find for Thomas G Thompson and his crew…and the museums who would reap much of the benefits.
This summer when Bob and I were in the Black Hills, we were looking around in the gift shop at Mount Rushmore, when I came across a book called “Women’s Diaries Of The Westward Journey.” Since then, I have been thinking about what it must have been like to travel in a covered wagon…especially for a woman. Of course, times were different back then, and people did not have the luxury of a daily shower, or even a real bathroom…and that was in their own homes. So, imagine what life would be like on a wagon, traveling in a wagon train headed west in the mid-1800s. As the emigrants were traveling west, they were making their own roads, hunting their own food, and cooking over a campfire. For a lot of people, I’m sure this sounds like going camping, but then imagine doing it for months at a time. A day’s travel averaged about twelve to twenty miles, meaning that on the plains, they often stopped for the day within sight of the site they had just left that morning. For travelers now, that would seem insanely slow, but for the wagon trains, it was just the normal day’s journey. They knew no other way.
People back then would have been somewhat crazy to set out alone for the west…or to set out any later than spring, because either scenario was bound to fail. They needed the protection of the wagon train, as well as the additional supplies, should a wagon be lost to fire, a river crossing, or an attack by Indians. It was their back up plan. They couldn’t just stop at the next town at a store and buy more supplies. There were no towns, stores, or even roads. When we travel, even in the rural state of Wyoming that I live in, we are used to seeing miles with very little to catch the eye, other that an occasional farm house, and an occasional town, but remember that we have roads to follow so we don’t lose our way. And even then, many of us use GPS to make sure we are taking the right road. They had none of that. They had to use the sun and landmarks to make sure they were going the right direction. They depended on people who had taken this trip before them. It was all they had. I think most of us today would go nuts if we never saw a house, a road, or a town. We would wonder if we were insane for setting out on this crazy adventure at all. One woman wrote to her husband, who was waiting at the end of the line, with the spelling ability she had at the time, “I can tell you nothing only that were hear and its strange I wish we had never started … it seems impossible to get their.” She had set out in a wagon train with her four children, without her husband, and that in itself must have been scary.
Days on the wagon train began long before dawn with a simple breakfast of coffee, bacon, and dry bread. After breakfast, the people secured their supplies, hitched up their teams, and hit the trail by seven o’clock in the morning. Most people walked because of lack of space, and the fact that the wagon was so uncomfortable. The train stopped at noon for a cold meal of coffee, beans, and bacon, which had been prepared that morning. During this break, called nooning, men and women would gather and talk, children would play, and animals would rest. After that, the travel would continue until around six o’clock in the evening, when they wagons would circle for the night. Some people would visit after supper, but most went to bed, because they were exhausted. Some slept in the wagon, but most slept on the ground, because oddly enough it was more comfortable. While traveling west on the wagon trains was a necessary journey to be made to grow this country, it was not an easy journey to make, and for that reason, I have to stand in awe of those who did it.
I often wonder how it must have felt to live in a time when so many things were changing in ways that man had not seen before. Things like the automobile, the airplane, the light bulb, the telephone, and the telegraph, all came into being between the 1800s and the early 1900s. Prior to these things, our world was rather primitive concerning things like travel, communication, and even the home life…at least by today’s standards, anyway.
When families began moving West to find land and adventure, it was often a very sad time, because many of these people would not see their loved ones again. They might not even hear from them. This really seemed like an unacceptable situation for most of the people on both sides of that spectrum. The people needed to hear from their loved ones, and so like every other idea, from necessity came a solution…the Pony Express. Prior to the Pony Express, people might try to send a letter with a wagon train heading West to see of they could manage to get it to a loved one who had left a year or more before. Imagine the impossibility of that feat. The person with whom the letter was sent, might not even know the person to whom the letter was being sent. It meant asking around in the area they had planned to settle in, and if they had moved elsewhere…well that is the real definition of the dead letter.
The Pony Express became the first dedicated postal service ever, on this day, April 3, 1860, but it was a far cry from the mail service of today, about which many of us complain. The men who chose to be Pony Express riders had to be told about what they might be riding into. There were Indians, who did not like the White Man. Treaties had been broken, and the White Man was considered an intruder on Indian land. To say that the White Man was not welcome in the West, was putting it mildly. Every time the Pony Express rider set out, he was taking on the risk of never coming back. The Help Wanted posters clearly stated the dangers, and the riders had to be single young men preferably under eighteen and preferably orphans!! Not a glowing help wanted ad, for sure, still there was a need, and these brave men took the challenge and made it work. The Pony Express was a short lived phenomenon, however, lasting just eighteen short months. I suppose something had to be done to make mailing a letter safer. At the point when the last Pony Express rider rode his route, the telegraph had somewhat taken its place. Most what had been needed was to be able to let people about the death of loved ones and other urgent or important news, so it seemed like an unnecessary risk to place on these men, when a safe way had been found.
The first Pony Express rider to make the run has been a matter of dispute, but historians have narrowed it down to Johnny Fry or Billy Richardson. James Randall was credited with being the first Eastbound rider, heading out from San Francisco to Sacramento, and William (Sam) Hamilton took the mail from there to the Sportsman Hall Station, where he handed it off to Warren Upson. Other riders were Gus and Charles Cliff, Robert Haslam, Jack Keetley, Billy Tate, and the famous William Cody, known to most of us as Buffalo Bill. Together, these men rode into history as some of the bravest men who ever lived. Riding alone through dangerous territory, risking their lives to make life a little easier for the ever expanding nation we lived in.
In days gone by, there just weren’t a lot of construction companies out west. People built their own houses. Of course, if a man has to build his own house, you can bet it took him a while to complete it. I don’t really think a lot of people built their house all by themselves however, because if they lived anywhere near the neighbors, people just seemed to show up to help. I’m not sure just how they knew that you were in the process of building a house or barn back in the old west, but somehow they did, and so they came to help. There was a camaraderie back then that doesn’t always exist today. Too many people don’t want to get involved, or they just decide that they are too busy with their own lives to go and spend time helping others.
With droughts and thunderstorms causing buildings to burn, and no fire trucks or fire stations available, your neighbors always seemed to be the first responders to fire emergencies, or any other emergency, for that matter. Unfortunately with the neighbors living so far away from each other, the house or barn was usually gone before anyone could get there to help you put out the fire, and when all you are using is a bucket and a wet towel, it’s pretty much a lost cause before you even start. Nevertheless, they were right there to help you rebuild, so that you weren’t left without shelter for your family or your animals. That was just how neighbors were in the old west.
When you think about it, it was how they had to be in order to survive. With the Indian uprisings, and the old west outlaws, the pioneers had to stick together. There wasn’t a lot of lumber companies, and if they homesteaded a piece of land with an abundance of trees on it, they could cut down the trees to clear the field, and use the logs to build the cabin too. That was doing it the hard way, of course, so having friendly neighbors to help you get the job done before winter set in was essential. And of course, meeting the neighbors and offering to help them with their house or barn always meant a big potluck dinner and barn dance when the work was done. They didn’t have to get all dressed up and go somewhere fancy to have a great evening, they just got together with the neighbors and had a hoe down.
With time and modern equipment, came more construction companies, big cities, and less neighborly camaraderie. In fact, people these days are as likely not to know their neighbors as they are to know them. Sad when you think about it. We don’t live in such a big city, that all of that has gone away. Our neighbor, Bill has a snow blower, and if it snows while we are at work, he is out there with that snow blower doing the sidewalks and driveways for about half the block. It’s very nice for Bob to be able to come home and not have to get out the and shovel every thing off. Of course, Bill knows that anytime he needs help, all he has to do is ask, because we will be there with bells on, and likely as not, Bob is out there doing something for Bill before he has a chance to ask. I love our neighbors, and after all, that is what being neighborly is all about.
In years gone by, most farmer’s children worked on the farms of their parents. Many still do, but the way they worked has change quite a bit. Back in the old west and beyond, the fields were plowed on foot using team of horses or oxen to assist in pulling the plow through the hard ground. It has hard work, and usually resulted in the blistering of hands that were not used to it. In those days, the women didn’t usually work the farms, unless there simply was no other choice, and women with calloused hands were looked down upon and thought to be…well, not really a true lady…at least, not by Eastern standards. They just didn’t understand what it took to build the West. Many times, people moved out West with the promise of a homestead, and 5 years to prove the land. Money was scarce, and you did what you had to do…including setting your children to the task of helping out on the farm.
It is my opinion that the way things were done in the old West better trained the children for adulthood. I have watched so many kids go through life without having to shoulder any responsibility, and then continue on in life in the same way. Some becoming “professional students” so that they won’t have to get a job, while their parents pay their way. It’s a sad, sad situation, and one the parents find themselves having trouble getting out of.
The kids in the old West understood that their help was needed or the family was not going to make it. School became a luxury and one that often ended after the eighth grade, if not before. Their time was needed elsewhere. Things have changed dramatically since then. Farm equipment has made the work on the farm much easier, and the children aren’t needed to the degree that they used to be. That is a good thing in that more kids finish school.They also have time to just be kids these days. I’m still not sure which is better…or maybe there is no better…just different.
For any one whose ancestors came out to the West, homesteading probably is a word we know, and something we know a little about. Even if it is back in the history of our family, we knew that yes, the land was given to the homesteader, but in reality, they earned every blade of grass that was on their homestead. Homesteading was no easy way to live. Homesteading began when the United States government decided to give 65 acres to anyone who wanted to move out west and settle. They had to work the land for 5 years and then it became theirs. This all sounded like an amazing opportunity to many people, but there were many who came out west to get a homestead and then went back home before the 5 year timeframe was passed. They just couldn’t make it. The didn’t have what it takes. Homesteading was not a lazy man’s way to get land. This land was hard and full of rocks and trees. It had not been plowed and planted before. They would be the first to do that, and they didn’t have all the equipment we have these days to plow up the hard soil so it was suitable for growing crops on.
My grandparent were among those who came out and earned that homestead, by working that land and making it grow the crops they wanted it to grow. I doubt that they got by without ever losing a crop, because hail, drought, flood, fire, and tornados were bound to have happened at least once during that 5 year timeframe, but they stuck it out and made it work. They proved that they were tough enough to earn that homestead…to the government and to themselves.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that the ones that went home were no good, they just didn’t have what it took to make it in the old west. This was rough country, and you had to be tough to stick it out here. They had to learn to get along with the Indians too, because the Indians weren’t real happy with the White Man being here at all. Treaties had been broken to allow the west to be settled, and they didn’t like it one bit. I think we can all agree that this country was going to expand one way or the other, because as people have children and those children have children, and those children have children, and so on…well, more space was bound to be needed. Still, I suppose we should have handled it in a different way. Nevertheless, many White Men made peace with the Indians, and learned to live together. The White Man had come to the West. He was here to stay, because he had earned that homestead.
Remember when life was simple. You were a kid with no responsibilities. You went to school and then you went outside and played with your friends. Sometimes, when life gets to be too much and my stress levels are through the roof, I really wish that I could go back there again, but then I suppose many people do. Life wasn’t always so complicated. Back in the old west, people didn’t have so many places to go. Families spent time together. Kids seldom went to play at someone else’s house, and spending the night was something saved for trips back East to visit family that you had not seen for many years.
The kids in a family had really two places the went…school and church. Other than those places, they were at home, helping out around the place or doing their homework. With no television or radio, there was no big news story to occupy their minds. They used their imaginations to pass the time. Kids might pretend to have families, or they might pretend they were on a train to visit famiy, or maybe even fighting Indians, although I seriously doubt that many girls played that game.
Today, the kids get bored if they don’t have a video game to play, or the MP3 player playing their favorite tunes, or television coming up with newer and more exciting ways to entertain them. Reading books is almost a thing of the past, and I don’t mean because of the Kindle, which I consider to be a form of reading a book, but because they would rather watch a show on television than read about it. Their imaginations don’t seem to be able to take them into the book like we used to be able to do. It’s all about what action is put in front of their eyes, not about turning words into pictures in your imagination.
Now, life is so hectic. Most people have several places to be right after work, and they can’t go home for an hour or more after they get off work. Dinner is often late, or picked up at a fast food joint along the way. There is just no time for a home cooked meal, unless maybe it is on the weekend or in a crock pot. No wonder TV Dinners became so popular…and the microwave, of course. I mean who has time to cook stuff in the oven either. No one!! Life was so simple then…what happened?
As I was sending out a text today, I began to think about the changes in communication we have had through the years. In the very early years of our nation’s history, when a child married and decided to move West, it sometimes meant that family members never heard from each other again, and if they did, it was hit and miss. I’m sure that there were many broken hearted parents as a result of those moves, and I am equally certain that those moves brought about the changes in communication that we see today.
First, of course came the Pony Express, which while it greatly improved things, was still pretty slow, and news of family members passing or giving birth arrived quite some time after the fact. Not that anyone would have been able make it back in time, but it would be hard to find out after it is all over. The invention of the telephone greatly improved communication, and I’m sure people found it comforting to be able to hear the voice of their loved ones once again.
Today, with so many forms of communications, as well as ease of travel, we are able to see loved ones so often that we, maybe take it for granted. Even if you can’t be with family members, you can Skype, Video Chat, and Face Time, so not only can you hear their voice, but you can see their face, in real time.
Our modern communication abilities have maybe spoiled us to a degree. We have so many ways to talk and travel, and yet, I don’t know about you, but one of the main ways we communicate…texting, is probably the least personal. It seems like in our busy world, it is easier to text and then wait for the answer, than to talk on the phone. The main reason for this is that you have to hold the phone to talk, so unless it is a long conversation, or one that should be held in a more personal way, we choose the more impersonal…texting. Many people think we text too, as a way of not being too social, and maybe that is so. It seems like we are becoming more of a solitary people in some ways. Still, texting, like the Pony Express, the postal service, the telegraph, telephone, computer, and cell phone are all ways of keeping in touch.
Many of the school children in Wyoming have had the unique opportunity to take a field trip to Fort Laramie, but most people didn’t go there as a family trip. My family, or I should say, my parents, liked a lot of things about the old west, especially any historical sites or trails. Over the years, we went to many of the sites around Wyoming and the surrounding states. Living in Casper, we have seen Fort Caspar, of course, but there have also been trips to Fort Laramie. One such trip, taken after I was married, and so not including my sister Cheryl or me…something that probably didn’t bother us then, but now, looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t get to go…mostly because Dad’s knowledge of the history of these places, and his love of teasing or role playing at these places always made things interesting. Dad would pretend to be one of the soldiers, or a trapper, or a shop keeper, so that he could pull us into the history of the place…hoping to pique our interest in the rich history of the area we live in. Most of the time, at least as we grew into our teens, his efforts failed to do much for us, other than maybe get a laugh if he was really acting funny, but as the years have gone by, I find myself very interested in the history of our great nation.
Fort Laramie, for example, was originally established as a private fur trading fort in 1834, but later evolved into the largest and best known military post on the Northern Plains, before it was abandoned in 1890. It was originally named Fort William after it’s founder William Sublette, and was purchased in 1841 by the American Fur Company and renamed Fort John. In 1949, it was purchased by the United States Army to protect the many wagon trains of migrant travelers on the Oregon Trail. At that time it was known as Fort John on the Laramie River, which later became Fort John-Laramie, and finally Fort Laramie. As a side note, the Laramie River was named after Jacques La Ramee. In 1815 or 1816, Jacques and a small group of fellow trappers settled in the area where Fort Laramie would later be located. He went out alone to trap in 1819 or 1820 and was never seen again. Arapaho Indians were subsequently accused of killing La Ramee and putting his body in a beaver dam. The river was named “Laramie” in his honor, and the name would later be given to the Laramie Mountains, the fort, and the towns of Laramie, Wyoming and Fort Laramie, Wyoming.
Today, I find all that history very interesting, but as a kid, history seemed like dry memorization of names and dates. Now I think I wouldn’t have minded living in those exciting times, or maybe just have the ability to travel back in time once in a while to see what The Old West was all about. I suppose I am a little too tech-minded to really have enjoyed that more primitive time for very long. Nevertheless, I guess my dad accomplished his goals with me. I do love the history of The Old West.