Originally published in Points West magazine
On the Trail Headed West: Day #187
By Ashley McCarten
Former Public Relations Assistant
Note: This is a fictional journal entry a young girl might have written as her family traveled West.
Every morning at four o’clock, the wagonmaster fires his pistol. It was time to roll out of bed and get an early start on the long day ahead. I was so tired and my body ached with every move. The stars were still shining in the dark morning sky, but my younger brother Michael and I had much to do before the sun came up. We cooped the chickens, rounded up the oxen, gathered buffalo chips for the morning fire, and helped mother start breakfast.
It wasn’t long before the warm sun rose over the clouds and cast a bright orange glow on the tall prairie grass. By now, most of the families had finished their breakfasts and were preparing their wagons for the ride ahead. Our breakfast bread had been mixed with some wild berries that Michael and I had gathered along the trail yesterday evening. It tasted sweet, but I was still hungry. The men had little luck hunting the past few days, so we had no meat to eat.
After finishing breakfast, I gathered up the smaller children and read them a lesson from the Bible. This was one of my duties—to have a short school lesson each morning of either numbers or reading. Mother said we children had to keep learning on the trail, for there were sure to be the best schools out West.
Today was my family’s turn to go ahead of the wagon train. Michael and I like being in the lead. When we have to travel at the rear of the train, we usually walk off the trail to get away from the dust. While traveling on the wagon trail, we regularly round up a few of the other children to play tag or hide-and-go-seek along the way. We are often warned by the adults not to stray too far. They’ve told us many frightful stories about lost children left behind for dead. Mother says mean people capture wandering children, and neither are seen again. Many of the kids don’t have a chance to play games with us, because they have to trail their family’s cattle herds. Their job is to be sure that none are lost. What a hard chore this is! These families often come into camp far behind the rest of the convoy, covered in dust, but unable to bathe because of the lack of water.
The afternoon is always the most unpleasant part of the day. Today 1 was hot and tired and my feet were throbbing from trampling through the prickly pear needles. Sometimes I would hop on our wagon to rest my legs, but the ride was rough and uncomfortable. There is no padding on the seats, and the wagon threw me in the air with every bump.
Late in the afternoon, dark thunder clouds took over the brilliant blue sky and it rained down on us harder than we have ever seen. The captain called for us to circle up the wagons. The prairie rains frequently turn trails into muddy pits that stop the wagon wheels, and even the strongest oxen can’t pull the wagons out. We rarely halt our daily trek before sundown for fear we will not make it to the West before the blizzard snows come. The violent winter storms are one of the most feared dangers of our travels.
Once the tents were pitched in the middle of the wagon circle, the women began to make campfires and prepare for supper. Father and Michael headed out with the other men, hopeful they’d bring back a feast for dinner. Just as mother and I had finished setting up, we heard the men hootin’ and hollerin’ while dragging two large deer into camp. Everyone was excited with their mouths watering for this long-awaited meal. The men skinned the animals and divided up the meat among families. What we didn’t eat tonight we dried or saved for stew in the coming days.
After stuffing ourselves, we all pitched in for cleanup. When the last of the chores were finished, everyone gathered around the wagon master’s campfire to listen to ol’ Charlie Jenkins play his fiddle and share tall tales.
As the sky grew dark, mother led us off to bed. She tucked us snugly in our bedrolls and kissed us goodnight. The night sounds of owls and wolves that usually kept me wide awake with fear had little effect on me tonight. I was too tired to worry, and fell fast asleep. Soon I was dreaming about the new life out West that awaited us at journey’s end.