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Pathways Through Our Past

Go west old woman

When Horace Greeley said, "Go west young man," that's what he meant, but there were also women of all ages who made the sacrifice to leave their homes that they had help build. These were promises of free land or the rich soil that you only had to drop in a seed and plants sprouted over night. And then, of course, there was the lure of gold if they reached California.

Families from the crowded cities of the east dreamed of finding a place where their families could spread out and grow their own food plus grow some to sell instead of having to buy food that was not fresh, but high priced.

I used to wonder what it was like for the women who followed their husbands in search of that land they could call their own. In most movies they looked so clean, with every hair in place and I am sure it was not easy for them. Most of the time they had to walk so that the animals they had to pull their cart or wagon were not wore out before they reached their destination. They also had to learn how to cook over an open fire using buffalo chips as a fuel source.

Reading some of the history of the search for a new place teaches us that it was not like we see in the movies. Whole families wiped out by contaminated water. Hunting accidents took the father and left the mother and children which were a drain on the entire wagon train. Crossing rivers and having all their belongings taken from them was another hardship. Not all stories like this had a happy ending. I believe we all have heard of the orphan trains where children without parents where placed on a train that stopped at all the small towns along the railway and at each place, the children were taken to the school or church where families needing someone to care for small children or they were taken to do much of the farm work. Many times this was not much better than being slaves.

Well, my experience of traveling west was very different. We left Bemidji at midnight and on arriving in Grand Forks, had our breakfast before leaving on Amtrak at 5 a.m. It was very quiet when we found our seats but as it grew lighter, most of the people woke up and some went to have breakfast in the dining car. It was so nice not to be driving and watching for gas stations or checking the road map.

We saw oil rigs -- some in very wide open spaces. We also saw a lot of cattle which helped my husband to not be homesick. As we traveled further along, off in the distance, we saw our first mountain range but it was in sort of a mist. The land had hills and rocks. We passed through the Blackfoot Reservation. One of the men I work with at the Forest Service grew up there. We passed the fort where Geronimo surrendered and as we traveled closer to our destination, the mountains rose up higher and higher. I then had a real idea of what the first people saw after traveling for many months or even years to reach these same mountains. How would they get over them or around them? Some maybe turned back. Only the very strong made it, leaving their wagons or carts behind and only carrying the very few necessities to survive until they reached the other side, only to find that there were additional mountains to cross.

Our trip to Whitefish, MT only took about 14 hours. We went through Glacier National Park. The wedding we went to was held on one of the smaller mountains with the biggest just behind it. It made a person feel very small. If I had to make the same decision that the early wives had to make, I wonder if I would have made it over the mountain. Women in those days had to be very, very strong to live through all the hardships of just existing. My hat is off to each and every one of them.