Pioneer Children on the Journey West

Pioneer Children on the Journey West

Pioneer Children on the Journey West

Pioneer Children on the Journey West


Between 1841 and 1865, some forty thousand children participated in the great overland journeys from the banks of the Missouri River to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. In this engaging book, Emmy Werner gives 120 of these young emigrants, ranging from ages four to seventeen, a chance to tell the stories of their journeys west. Incorporating primary materials in the form of diaries, letters, journals, and reminiscences that are by turns humorous and heartrending, the author tells a timeless tale of human resilience. For six months or more, the young travelers traversed two thousand miles of uncharted prairies, deserts, and mountain ranges. Some became part of makeshift families; others adopted the task of keeping younger siblings alive. They encountered strangers who risked their own lives for youngsters and guides whose erroneous advice led to detours and desolation. The children endured excessive heat and cold and often suffered from cholera, dysentery, fever, and scurvy. They also faced thirst and starvation, cannibalism among famished members of their own parties, kidnappings, and the deaths of family members and friends. From the teenaged Nancy Kelsey, who carried her infant daughter across the Sierra Nevada, to the survivors of the ill-fated Donner party in 1846- 1847, Gold Rush orphans of 1849, and the youngsters who crossed Death Valley and the southwestern deserts in the 1850s, the eyewitness accounts of these pioneer children speak of fortitude, faith, and invincibility in the face of great odds.


Not far from the White House, in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hangs a painting of an emigrant train bedding down for the night. Among the weary travellers is a group of children, ranging in age from an infant in her mother's arms to a teenage boy driving the oxen within the enclosure of the covered wagons.

Other youngsters are busily engaged in chores: a boy is drawing water in a bucket from a nearby stream; a small girl is comforting the baby. a teenage girl is putting a large kettle over the open campfire to start the evening meal; another girl kneels beside her on the ground, unpacking plates and pitchers wrapped in cloth to shield them from the dust of the prairie.

Around forty thousand children, like the youngsters depicted on Benjamin Franklin Reinhart's canvas, participated in the great overland journeys between 1841 and 1865 from the banks of the Missouri to the Pacific shores. Others joined them on the Gila Trail, travelling north from Texas and Arizona to southern California. Except for the Gold Rush years, one of every five emigrants on the way West was a child. Their young voices are seldom heard among the tales of the trail.

The familiar accounts of the overland journeys that have captured the nation's imagination came from adults. However, children's diaries, letters to relatives "back in the States," and reminiscences of the young emigrants have survived, and so have the narratives of adults who accompanied them on the journey or met them on the trail. Only a few have been published and are still in print; most can be found in the manuscript collections of the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, at the California State Library in Sacramento, and at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

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