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Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849

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The women who traveled west in covered wagons during the 1840s speak through these letters and diaries. Here are the voices of Tamsen Donner and young Virginia Reed, members of the ill-fated Donner party; Patty Sessions, the Mormon midwife who delivered five babies on the trail between Omaha and Salt Lake City; Rachel Fisher, who buried both her husband and her little girl The women who traveled west in covered wagons during the 1840s speak through these letters and diaries. Here are the voices of Tamsen Donner and young Virginia Reed, members of the ill-fated Donner party; Patty Sessions, the Mormon midwife who delivered five babies on the trail between Omaha and Salt Lake City; Rachel Fisher, who buried both her husband and her little girl before reaching Oregon. Still others make themselves heard, starting out from different places and recording details along the way, from the mundane to the soul-shattering and spirit-lifting.


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The women who traveled west in covered wagons during the 1840s speak through these letters and diaries. Here are the voices of Tamsen Donner and young Virginia Reed, members of the ill-fated Donner party; Patty Sessions, the Mormon midwife who delivered five babies on the trail between Omaha and Salt Lake City; Rachel Fisher, who buried both her husband and her little girl The women who traveled west in covered wagons during the 1840s speak through these letters and diaries. Here are the voices of Tamsen Donner and young Virginia Reed, members of the ill-fated Donner party; Patty Sessions, the Mormon midwife who delivered five babies on the trail between Omaha and Salt Lake City; Rachel Fisher, who buried both her husband and her little girl before reaching Oregon. Still others make themselves heard, starting out from different places and recording details along the way, from the mundane to the soul-shattering and spirit-lifting.

30 review for Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849

  1. 5 out of 5

    aPriL does feral sometimes

    ‘Covered Wagon Women’ is not only a collection of letters and excerpted diaries written by women who traveled across America in covered wagons. I discovered there are informative introductions to each woman as well, written by researchers who tracked, through official records births, deaths, marriages and real estate documents, supporting information which fills out the historical context behind the letters and diaries. The researchers also interviewed descendants. There is a map included and it ‘Covered Wagon Women’ is not only a collection of letters and excerpted diaries written by women who traveled across America in covered wagons. I discovered there are informative introductions to each woman as well, written by researchers who tracked, through official records births, deaths, marriages and real estate documents, supporting information which fills out the historical context behind the letters and diaries. The researchers also interviewed descendants. There is a map included and it shows the routes taken by the wagons. This particular volume, Volume 1, covers the time period from 1840 to 1849. There are additional volumes in the series which include more letters and diaries from later years. For example, the next book covers the year 1850, a year which gets a single volume because 1850 saw far more emigrants making the journey to California and Oregon from the eastern United States. The letters and diaries are printed almost exactly as they were originally composed, with misspellings and strange punctuations. Although many of these women were obviously minimally educated in the art of writing, and up till now, ignored by historians, they had important things to say about their journey, amazing and powerful things. It is crystal-clear to me that domesticity is a means to survival, much on the same level as a gun. They cooked meals every day under dire circumstances. They sewed, weaved, knitted and mended clothes and bedding. They washed up when they had enough water, but went dirty for weeks if required. They walked miles over some of the roughest terrain America possesses - rocks, sand, dust, mud - over flat rutted trails and up and down mountain paths. They fed and milked cows, helped keep oxen and horses alive, birthed babies and buried them. They wrote back to relatives giving them advice about what to bring if they made the trip. Many included prices of items they purchased from the occasional store or farmer they came across, and told of trading with various Indian tribes. While many women would not have chosen to move west in a covered wagon, they went because their husbands wanted adventure, wealth (the gold rush of California) and land. However, as some of these letters make clear, there were women who wanted adventure, wealth and land as much as their husbands did. They found beauty, peace and a vigorous life they enjoyed very much, as much as the men, and established businesses and families with determination and hope for the future. Some died in their 40’s, others lived long lives into their 80’s and 90’s. I was surprised at how many marriages these folks had - most had buried two or more spouses before they moved west, along with multiple sets of babies and toddlers. Some arrived in Oregon or California alone, having lost their spouse (and children) during the journey. Most quickly remarried - a married couple received more acres of property from the government. They could buy land outright, or work it for three years with the hope of having the money through farming, home businesses and the raising of animals for sale. Not many made a fortune through gold mining, although some mined enough gold (a few women, too) for a stake in a business or to buy land. There is much unsaid in these letters. They rarely speak of their personal suffering, but instead relate what happened simply and factually. Despite the brevity, when a letter mentions how long they went without water and how many animals and people died because of it, it is easy to read between the lines. The most amusing revelation is how much the Mormons scared people. It becomes obvious from some of the letters that many Americans traveling west thought the Mormons were more dangerous than the Indians! People might keep a hand on their guns when Indians came around (mostly because of theft problems), but if they heard rumors that Mormons were in the area, they went miles out of their way to avoid them. A letter from a Mormon woman is included in the book; they hid their religious affiliation from fellow travelers in order to trade or travel safely with others they met. The Mormons did indeed practice polygamy and child marriage, and it was these particular tenets of their religion which seemed to damage their reputation most among the other emigrants, causing terror along with disgust. One of the things I took away from the experiences of these women: never take so-called cutoffs or shortcuts, especially if the advice comes from a guide who wants to be paid for revealing the secret path which is guaranteed to get you there first to good land. Included in this volume are letters from survivors of the Donner party - yes, that Donner party!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Cindy Knoke

    “Covered Wagon Women” is a fascinating non-fiction account of fourteen pioneer women traveling west in the 1840’s. The book was edited and compiled by historian Kenneth L. Holmes. It is a remarkable book in that it consists of primary source, unedited diary entries, letters and other correspondence. The editor left the women’s narratives unedited as the women actually wrote them, replete with original syntax, spelling, and punctuation, and the mistakes made therein. There are additional "Covered “Covered Wagon Women” is a fascinating non-fiction account of fourteen pioneer women traveling west in the 1840’s. The book was edited and compiled by historian Kenneth L. Holmes. It is a remarkable book in that it consists of primary source, unedited diary entries, letters and other correspondence. The editor left the women’s narratives unedited as the women actually wrote them, replete with original syntax, spelling, and punctuation, and the mistakes made therein. There are additional "Covered Wagon Women," volumes in a series. I read volume two and found it equally compelling. These unedited first person narratives give the reader a genuine sense of who these women really were, what they were seeing, experiencing, and feeling. Of course the unbelievable hardship, birth, death and tragedy are heart wrenching, but these incredible women’s intelligence, courage and appreciation of the beauty of their experience is also made abundantly clear. The women’s observations are reminiscent of the biographies of the famous male explorers, at times scientifically dispassionate, as they keenly and in detail, describe the new flora and fauna, terrain, climate, and Native Americans they encounter. They were after all, explorers as well. They are also most effective in relaying their feelings. Take for example this excerpt from Tabitha Brown about her experience traveling west in 1846, now left to her own devices as she struggles on with an old, feeble, near death companion who was unable to care for himself or offer her any assistance, “Here the shades of night were gathering fast and I could see the wagon tracks no further. I alighted from my horse, flung off my saddle and saddle bags and tied him fast with a lasso rope to a tree…..his senses were gone…..I covered him as well as I could with blankets…and helped the old gentleman, expecting he would be a corpse by morning. Pause for a moment and consider my situation-worse than alone; in a strange wilderness; without food, without fire; cold and shivering; wolves fighting and howling all around me; darkness of night forbade the stars to shine upon me; solitary- all was solitary as death…. As soon as light had dawned, I pulled down my tent, saddled the horses, found the Captain so as to stand on his feet…” And she continues on towards Oregon. Remarkable. And there are many more narratives like this in the book. I read a lot of these non-fiction pioneer and Native American history books (more about these in a latter review) as I traveled recently through the west, crossing and re-crossing the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. I read books about a woman homesteading alone on the prairie, the first homesteading couple in what is now Glacier National Park, another about a widow hiring a helper and traveling on the first trek over the Oregon trail where they broke the trail, a book about a woman and her family crossing the Mojave Desert and this incredible collection of women’s narratives and I realize we’ve all been robbed with the books, movies and folklore of “the old west,” that have focused on the cowboys and male explorers, and mostly ignored the incredible fortitude, bravery and contribution of these pioneer women. Riveting reading. Highly recommend.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    I have ready all 11 books in this series. The early volumes are a tough read, but very interesting. The early travelers weren't always the best school educated women so their entries are short, but still interesting. The later volumes usually have entries that are more story like in their account of their daily chores/events and I seriously wanted to hear more about the women's life after they got to CA, but.... either they stopped writing (they were busy with their new life) or they just weren' I have ready all 11 books in this series. The early volumes are a tough read, but very interesting. The early travelers weren't always the best school educated women so their entries are short, but still interesting. The later volumes usually have entries that are more story like in their account of their daily chores/events and I seriously wanted to hear more about the women's life after they got to CA, but.... either they stopped writing (they were busy with their new life) or they just weren't included. It took me time to read the earlier volumes since they are a bit slow/boring, but I still enjoyed seeing what these women wrote. The later volumes are an easier read. This is a part of history that we are not (sad to say) taught in school, but it's still a major part of this country!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kati

    I read bits and pieces of this book containing diary entries from women who traveled west in the 1800's -- many of their entries are very interesting. Reading things like this really makes one appreciate our modern conveniences such as automobiles. To think they only traveled as far in a day as we can in roughly 1/2 an hour really makes you realize just how long these trips took.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    This is one of those books that makes you appreciate our ancestors who crossed the continent to settle the West. Women had worked so hard to keep their families fed and cared for while traversing through rough country and tough times. Every time I cross the desert in a car, on a road, with air conditioning I think of these women and admire them.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    Diaries & letters from the women who, with their families, traveled the covered wagon trail to the Western U.S. The book gives us a hint of the extreme strength it took to make this arduous, long journey and the dangers they faced but they did it almost as "matter of everyday life". Incredible stories! Diaries & letters from the women who, with their families, traveled the covered wagon trail to the Western U.S. The book gives us a hint of the extreme strength it took to make this arduous, long journey and the dangers they faced but they did it almost as "matter of everyday life". Incredible stories!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    I am a sucker for trail diaries, so it is hard to be objective, but this was pretty great. It includes advice from a member of the Donner Party not to take any cutoffs, and relates the story of an angry woman traveling overland who torched her family's wagon.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Pletcher

    This book is a collection of letters and diary entries made by the women who crossed the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. They speak of the troubles they came across, the death of husbands, children, loved ones. They talk about how their wagons overturned, and how they had to lay under their dogs at night to keep warm. There is a story of a midwife who delivered babies while she was on the Trail - how she would travel back 5-10 miles sometimes to reach a woman in labor. The collection comes from many This book is a collection of letters and diary entries made by the women who crossed the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. They speak of the troubles they came across, the death of husbands, children, loved ones. They talk about how their wagons overturned, and how they had to lay under their dogs at night to keep warm. There is a story of a midwife who delivered babies while she was on the Trail - how she would travel back 5-10 miles sometimes to reach a woman in labor. The collection comes from many museums across the United States. It was interesting to hear the journey from a woman's point of view. Very rarely did the woman complain about her dire circumstances, or about the death of her loved ones. They would bury their husbands and children, and the next day they would start again on their travels. Most of the women had around 8 children to care for, plus her husband. They would cook for their families and keep things in order day after day. Through the snow and rain and across the Snake River. It was truly remarkable to read. I really enjoyed this book, and cannot believe I almost forgot to blog about it!! GREAT book - check it out. I can't wait to read volume #2.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rusty Watson

    I loved this book! While it was not a story but rather factual research reporting on the many brave and not so brave emigrants that traversed our land, hoping for a change in their status quo. I found it essential reading for a novel I am currently exploring and hope to write soon. I appreciated the statistics of emigrating west, the number of graves passed and the letters the women wrote home or in their diaries. I will use much of the information as a foundation for my story.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Paula Singleton

    Letters from diaries of the settlers western journey Fairly interesting book of letters written by women as they traveled the trails to the west. I think it would have been better if there was not as much of the back stories told before each letter. I am going to read another volume to see if I am more interested in these letters to see if I want to read the rest of the volumes.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Connie B

    I'd always wondered how the settlers of the West could have the energy to move by covered wagon. Taken from actual hand written documents, these are the women's (often mis-spelled) musings, wonder, and disappointments. Very special compilation.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Marcie

    Unbelievable stories. Women's diaries from their covered wagon move across the country. 1800 miles, walking, horseback, covered wagon covering 10 to 15 miles a day! Crossing rivers and mountains to fulfill their dreams. It did get a little monotonous reading.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Cindy

    Entire series: Covered Wagon Women Entire series: Covered Wagon Women

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy Lee

    Much of elementary school history in California used to be spent on the 1849 gold rush and overland travel. As I delved deeper, I discovered there was nothing more interesting than the personal narratives. Individual stories of those times were nakedly harsh, stark, and would convey the difficulties endured far more effectively than any dry historical summary. There are many complete books, focusing on a individual's story, whether written at the time (you can find a diary of traveling across Dea Much of elementary school history in California used to be spent on the 1849 gold rush and overland travel. As I delved deeper, I discovered there was nothing more interesting than the personal narratives. Individual stories of those times were nakedly harsh, stark, and would convey the difficulties endured far more effectively than any dry historical summary. There are many complete books, focusing on a individual's story, whether written at the time (you can find a diary of traveling across Death Valley, for example, with the ill-fated group that mistakenly headed that way) or years afterwards. I'm afraid my disappointment with this book was that, because it is a compilation of letters and diaries of the overall western journey, it's short on offerings/relevant history, and long on rather gratuitous footnotes. I have seen the Virginia Reed materials before (edited), and fortunately read extensively about the Donner party (enough to be able to understand what she was writing about). I found Sallie Hester's materials and Louisiana Strentzel's letters most interesting. I do appreciate that they made an effort not to add punctuation or [sic] everywhere. However, I will not be going for the additional editions to this series. I prefer to enjoy the many volumes available that provide complete diaries, rather than short exerpts, of the old west. As someone who reads quite a bit of history, I was disappointed in this specific effort. I finished it feeling like someone got his masters degree, and some university class has to read this every quarter.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Prelude

    Writings taken from the personal diaries of settler women on the trails across early America, these are fascinating insights into what life was really like for these ordinary people. Included in this edition are accounts of the Donner party's experiences.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Gail Pool

    Like other American youngsters, I learned about the 19th-century pioneers heading west seeking a new and better life. But my knowledge about their travels was limited, an abstract concept. I certainly had no sense of the remarkable journeys fleshed out by the pioneers themselves in these letters and diaries. Covered Wagon Women 1840-1849—the first in an eleven-volume series—brings together writings of thirteen pioneer women, including survivors of the Donner Party that went so tragically astray. Like other American youngsters, I learned about the 19th-century pioneers heading west seeking a new and better life. But my knowledge about their travels was limited, an abstract concept. I certainly had no sense of the remarkable journeys fleshed out by the pioneers themselves in these letters and diaries. Covered Wagon Women 1840-1849—the first in an eleven-volume series—brings together writings of thirteen pioneer women, including survivors of the Donner Party that went so tragically astray. Most of the women are Anglo Saxon Protestant, but among them are a young Quaker and a Mormon midwife, who delivers babies on her journey from Nebraska to Salt Lake City. The letters, and especially the extended journals, offer great detail about the daily travels, as the groups move slowly onward—“made 12 miles,” “made 20 miles,” “made 4 miles”—struggling with bad weather, bad water, steep inclines, hard-to-ford rivers, runaway cattle, illness, and many deaths. These writings, Kenneth L. Holmes observes in his introduction to this meticulously prepared book, have not been “edited for readability.” Wisely, he has left alone the misspellings, poor grammar, and incorrect punctuation that convey the authenticity of the accounts and allow us to hear the writers’ voices: individual, down-to-earth, moving. “I have not told half we suffered,” writes Elizabeth Dixon Smith, a mother of eight, who in 1847 crossed from Indiana to Oregon, where she encountered rain, cold, hunger, and lost her ailing husband. On Feb. 1st, nine months after leaving home, she writes: “rain all day this day my Dear husband my last remaining friend died.” By no means is everything grim. The women here express interest, curiosity, and a sense of adventure, as they describe the foreign landscape, report on the price of goods, and give advice to those who may choose to follow them west. Wear buckskin, says Smith, and “any body in preparing to come to this country should make up some calico shirts to trade to the indians in cases of necessity you will have to hire them pilot you a cross rivers.” But as the travelers grind on, fearful of the Indians, anxious, nightly, to find a campsite with wood, water, and grazing for their cattle, and dealing with setbacks, we are always aware of just how hard these journeys are. “May it be to you my friends a year of jubilee,” writes Dr. Strentzel wryly in an addition to his wife Louisiana’s letter to her family back home. “And if you have enemies persuade them for a land journey to California.” **Also recommended: Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865, by Sarah Raymond Herndon. First published in 1882 in The Husbandman. Burr Printing House, 1902. TwoDot, 2003, 128 pp. (Available on kindle.)

  17. 5 out of 5

    Derinda Babcock

    All of the books in this series were very helpful for my research. The letters allowed me to read first-hand accounts of life on the trail from different women's perspectives. If I were to rate it based on helpfulness, I'd have given the book at least 4 stars, I gave it an overall 3 star rating for enjoyment, because some of the letters were hard to read due to non-standard spelling and punctuation (though this was authentic), and some of the letters were repetitive in content (they were daily j All of the books in this series were very helpful for my research. The letters allowed me to read first-hand accounts of life on the trail from different women's perspectives. If I were to rate it based on helpfulness, I'd have given the book at least 4 stars, I gave it an overall 3 star rating for enjoyment, because some of the letters were hard to read due to non-standard spelling and punctuation (though this was authentic), and some of the letters were repetitive in content (they were daily journals). The repetitiveness had value, though, because I was able to compare and contrast what each woman saw and experienced on her journey. I wondered what plants and animals they saw, and how trail conditions differed depending on when the woman started. The book(s) helped me answer my questions.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Karina Halle

    I read this for researchy purposes for an upcoming novel - almost got through it all, then had to return to library (I'll be getting it out again when it comes time to write the book). It's obviously a history book, but one I found fascinating thanks to the actual letters written by pioneering women. It really gives you a glimpse into the day-to-day life and personalities of the women who came out West. And yes, as per my childhood hours spent playing The Oregon Trail, a lot of them really did d I read this for researchy purposes for an upcoming novel - almost got through it all, then had to return to library (I'll be getting it out again when it comes time to write the book). It's obviously a history book, but one I found fascinating thanks to the actual letters written by pioneering women. It really gives you a glimpse into the day-to-day life and personalities of the women who came out West. And yes, as per my childhood hours spent playing The Oregon Trail, a lot of them really did die of dysentery.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Marty

    I think this is one I have in a box under the bed to read. I'm working on genealgy and this brings the age of my great-grandmother to life. I've read many books along this line and enjoyed each of them.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    A fairly decent collection of letters and diary entries by the women who pioneered our country.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I enjoy this book, but it is one of those that I put down and come back to every once in a while. It's not a story, so it's easy to read in bits.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Very interesting stories. I don't know if I would have the courage or stamina to go through such a trip.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Barb Bailey

    Letters and partial diaries of women who traveled West in covered wagons from 1840-1849.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Boehm

    Excellent book on the emotions, relationships and life of different women who went on the covered wagons from the east to the west. Excellent

  25. 5 out of 5

    Connie

    Very interesting, but I did not read the entire book because the letters became tedious. I would have preferred an actual narrative or even historical fiction.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    I have only read 1 book in this series, but would love to own the WHOLE set. Yes, they are that good.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Noel

    Volume 1 - wonderful, rich writings from the women who crossed the prairies.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    I loved this book and learned so much from these women. These wives, mothers, daughters and midwives were such brave and courageous women. I loved reading their stories and learning from them.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andd Becker

    The diary is a wonderful way to grasp thoughts and feelings of pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Holly Weiss

    Tough read about early pioneer experiences. So much longing for news of family back east and deprivation.

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