Travelers on the Santa Fe, Oregon, California and other historic trails rarely harbored delusions about the precariousness of their migratory existence. So many things could go wrong that would either strand them (broken axles, shattered wheels, overturned wagons, lame horses or mules) maim them or kill them (cholera, infection, snakebite, gunshots, fractured bones, bad water, floods, runaway animals, Indians), that the list was virtually endless. But what terrified many travelers the most was the weather. Thunder stampeded livestock, gale-force winds upended wagons and hail battered people and animals. However horrific the weather, extremes were matched only by their rarity; of bigger concern was precipitation.
“Thunder and lightning, hail, hurricane, or tornado were more spectacular,” Merrill J. Mattes wrote in The Great Platte River Road, “but the most demoralizing and all-pervading enemy was rain.”
Canvas canopies or tents were, in the words of Oregon-bound Amos Bachelder, “but spider’s webs before these storms.” Once rain breached the outer defenses everything received a thorough soaking: food, clothing, bedding, books, matches, tools, people. It would often take days to dry out, leaving travelers sodden and miserable, and, depending on the time of year, dangerously chilled.
Until the evening of October 10, 1912, Sadie and crew had had a fairly easy journey. Rain had created a few boggy sections that slowed them down but thus far they’d escaped any form of violent weather. Their luck ran out in a small grove of timber somewhere east of Pomona.
“We had an awful storm last night, the wind blew the rain terrible,” Sadie wrote the following day. “Our wagons trembled in the storm. Fred was so scared got up and sat on one corner of the jet to hold it down. I would have slept through it all but the rain beat through the canvas in my face and I could not sleep with my face in water. Our bed got wet along the sides where it beat in. We are by a patch of tall timber or I guess we would all have blew away.”
Morning dawned soggy and cooler and the skies darkly brooding. Nevertheless they had no recourse but to spread out their bedding and clothing in the hopes of drying out before the next deluge. Around the campsite every available shrub, wagon tree, wheel or tree limb was put into use as a clothesline. To an outsider braving the road it would have appeared as if the storm had emptied the bulk of their possessions from the wagons and strewn them willynilly across the immediate landscape with all parties equally affected except for Sadie who had no coat but bundled herself as best she could in layers of clothing and blankets.
And so they waited, warily scanning the low clouds while huddled around a campfire trying to get warm. Fretting about the delay was useless for the roads were slick and boggy and would be for some time. Uppermost in their minds was the realization that autumn was intensifying followed by questions of whether they were prepared for it. The storm caught them not quite halfway to their mark which meant anything was possible in the weeks ahead. The last thing they needed was to get caught in a snowstorm on the open prairie.
Between chores and visits to the fire Sadie jotted down a few notes. “We have been going through the drying process this morning,” she wrote. “We may get out of here today but I don't know how far. It has not rained yet.”
The sun never appeared nor did the rain. By early afternoon they were anxious to get on the road and so threw everything into the wagons and started out, their wheels deeply scoring the road’s surface, clots of mud slinging across the canvas like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Within a few miles they crossed the Marais Des Cygnes River. It was high due to the storm but the bridge was still passable. The river was known for its temperamental nature and often flooded the city of Ottawa a few miles to the east. The last such flood was in 1909 when it rose to a flood stage of 36.3 feet, almost a record-breaker. Eventually the Army Corps of Engineers would erect a series of levees around the city but not until after the flood of 1951 inundated a third of the town killing 41 people.
The city provided supplies and a touch of civilization. After the night’s experience in a storm-tossed covered wagon they must have eyed the brick and limestone buildings with envy. In the dimming light of early evening lights spilling from curtained windows and storefronts invited them from the rigors of the trail but they could not stop except for once and then only for a short time. The wagons clopped down Main Street the length and breadth of the city and out the southern outliers into the countryside which opened onto the Osage cuestas. The region was dominated by low rolling hills and escarpments or uplifts characterized by steep slopes on one side and gentler slopes on the other. From here the road would rise and fall with the lay of the land and take them ever southward.
Our own pace was less eventful and far shorter yet filled with a sense that we were in the presence of something beyond our own experiences. I’m sure it was the same for Sadie and her companions as it was for the protagonist in Jim Harrison’s The English Major who wrote, “I was getting lightened up in my mind by the immensity of the landscape and the idea that moment by moment everything I saw was something I had never seen before.” In many ways I envied their leisurely pace for what it revealed of the changing land.
A few miles south they circled the wagons and called a halt. Supper was cooked on smoky fires as temperatures dropped. Their topsy stove heaters would be welcome that night, as would be the new coat Fred had bought Sadie in Ottawa—a nice one with a big collar, she wrote, and just in time.
(To be continued)