Children on the Trails

Seeking a Better Life for Families

During the years of greatest travel on the Oregon and California Trails, quite a sizable number of children accompanied their parents on the trek west. Inevitably, they shared the hardships and dangers which confronted their parents.

In 1844, for instance, the Reverend Edward Evans Parrish reported that a small girl named Rebecca “trying to get on or off the wagon. . .slipped and fell, the wagon wheel rolling over and breaking her thigh, a sad accident for her and us all. Glad, however, that it is no worse.” About three weeks later, the minister noted that Rebecca was recuperating as rapidly as could be expected while involved in daily travel by wagon! “She complains not much,” he reported, “except of pain occasioned by the jolting of the wagon over rocks and rough places.”

Such accidents were, unfortunately, not all that rare. Another example is described by a gentleman with the interesting name of Orange Gaylord. In 1853, his daughter, Leonora was injured in a wagon accident before the train ever left the “settlements!” As a result, a doctor set the bone and supervised the construction of a “contrivance, or bed (a little box just large enough to hold the child, the injured limb having previously been encased in a smaller box), to swing from the bows of the wagon top. . .one lady would sit at the foot of the little bed and one at the head and prevent any swinging jars from the motion of the traveling wagon, day after day for weeks and at night time, too, to administer to the wants of the child.”

Some children, of course, suffered the even more drastic tragedy of death. Heading for the Port Neuf River, the train to which Virgil Pringle (1846) belonged “was stopped by an awful calamity. . .Mrs. Collin’s son George, about 6 years old, fell from the wagon, and the wheels ran over his head killing him instantly, the remainder of the day occupied in burying him.” Similarly, three years earlier, “Joel J. Hembree son Joel fel off the waggeon tung & both wheels run over him,” according to William Thompson Newby. The next day, July 19, the train “Lay buy Joel Hembree departed this life about 2 oclock.”

In the gold rush year of 1849, Sallie Hester was even more succinct in her description of tragedy. “A lady and four children were drowned through the carelesnes of those in charge of the ferry.”

Four years later, in 1853, Sarah (Sally) Perkins reported that she and her husband lost their child to an accident. It is understandable why Mrs. Perkins reported the incident so briefly, for it must have been one of the most crushing experiences of her life as well as that of her husband. According to a later biographer, “While they were on the plains, their little two-year-old boy accidently fell into a kettle and was scalded, dying soon afterward.”

Not all children, however, suffered from accidents. As with adults, life on the road west was not all that different from life at home in the “States.”

The girls are washing and baking apple and peach pie, stewing beans and rabbit and appear very happy; all are in good health and no trouble. We have only eight girls to do all the work. The trip is fun to them.

Thus wrote Sarah Sutton in late July of 1854. The same tasks as filled the days “back home” also had to be accomplished “on the trail” after all! And, again as at home, the work could sometimes have modestly entertaining results. Mrs. Phoebe Judson (1853) baked some bread in a Dutch oven, then “turned it out on the grass to coll, while I attended to my housework in our wagon home. Hearing the merry laughter of children, I glanced in that direction, and what to my dismay to see little Annie standing on my precious load. I found that she and little Alta Bryant had been having a most enjoyable time rolling it on the grass!” Little Alta’s mother encountered another type of difficulty with her cooking. Setting her sponge in the bread pan to rise, she left it in the wagon, near where her little two-year old boy was sleeping, while she went for a short walk. Upon her return, she found her little boy in the bread pan, up to his knees in the dough!

Other familiar activities also more than occasionally put in an appearance. Camping on Bear River, 17-year old Eliza Ann McAuley (1852) reported having “fun making pop corn candy” while her older sister, Margaret, “is baking cookies, but the boy[s] steal them as fast as she can bake them.”

Youthful exuberance was as commonplace on the road west as in the settlements. A case in point is Robert, a young boy accompanying the Frink family to Oregon. According to Margaret Frink, Robert somewhere obtained “a pair of Spanish spurs, …put them on…then attempted to ride our smartest mule.” The result was predictable to anyone informed in regard to the normal disposition of mules. As soon as Robert mounted the animal, he “stuck his spurs into his sides, and the Billy sent him flying.” In spite of being worried about the boy, Mrs. Frink couldn’t help laughing because “he looked so ridiculous flying over the mule’s head. We heard no more of Spanish spurs.”

In spite of the incidents related immediately above, the number of accidents, cases of sickness and death of children recorded in emigrant diaries far exceed reported instances of play/enjoyment. Two major reasons appear to account for this reportorial discrepancy. Diarists recorded the negative more than the positive in terms of most trail activities as well as the accidents/sickness/death of children because such events represented a deviation from the norm. Then as now, pleasurable and productive activities were mostly taken for granted and thus were not regarded as significant enough to merit a diarist’s attention . A second reason may also be cited. Children in many instances were assigned various tasks which kept them occupied much of the time. Fulfillment of these responsibilities, as noted above, simply did not seem “newsworthy.” The family of Tucker Scott (1852) admirably illustrates such assignment of responsibilities. As reported by their daughter, Abigail, of the nine children only the 3-year old and the 5-year old were exempted from mandated work! Mary Francis (19) was the cook; Abigail Jane (17) was assigned the task of keeping the family journal; Margaret Ann (15) helped both with the cooking and with keeping the journal; Harvey (14) helped drive one of the wagons; Catherine Amanda (13) drove the loose stock while riding horseback; and John Henry (9) helped drive a wagon.

In some respects, the difficulties afflicting families during trail travel were the price paid for seeking a better life. After all, the sought-after “tommorrow” was a goal parents attempted to achieve not just for themselves, but perhaps even more for their children and their children’s children.