The Homestead Act Of 1862
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The Homestead Act of 1862 was the match that ignited the westward migration of hundreds of thousands of people across the plains to California, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. While the lure of striking it rich prospecting for gold, or silver was a driving force, the chance of having 160 acres of land where a family could put down roots, work the land, and better themselves was an equal driving force.
But setting out in a covered wagon alone, or as part of a wagon train wasn’t without peril or loss of life. This was true for those heading along the Mormon Trail. Whether it was wildfires, dust storms, tornados, illness, rattlesnake bites, drowning’s during river crossings, highwaymen, a covered wagon tumbling over the side of a steep mountain or an Indian attack, death seemed just a breath away.
As if those dangers weren’t enough discouragement to make families turn back and return to town’s like Nauvoo, Illinois or Independence, Mississippi, children sometimes wandered away from camp. Fearing their parents would spank them with a belt, they wouldn’t come back to camp. Other children might get lost chasing after a rabbit.
Wagon masters could only stay in one spot a short time before everyone had to continue onward. Parents had two choices, neither of which they liked. First, they could leave with the wagon train, and leave their children behind, knowing they’d starve to death or be killed by animals. Second, they could leave the safety of the wagon train and stay behind to look for their children.
If they stayed behind several days, the likelihood of them catching up to the wagon train was slim to none. If they got lost, they’d most likely run out of food or water. It was a traumatic decision that some parents had to make. But despite all of the dangers awaiting them along the Mormon Trail, the desire to own 160 acres of land was overpowering.
The U. S. government promised men, or married couples, 160 acres of free land under the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children left everything they owned behind, setting out on various trails used by wagon trains headed west in the hopes of a new future.
To earn the deed to the 160-acre parcel, a man or married couple over the age of 21 had to:
- File an $18 fee for the 160-acre parcel they staked out.
- Build a cabin on the land.
- Build outbuildings such as a barn, corral, outhouse, dig a well.
- Plant a garden and fruit trees.
- Live on the land for five years.
- Sign an affidavit they had lived on the land for that five-year period and describe the improvements they’d made.
- Then file for the deed.
A second option was available. Men or women could buy land outright, for $1.25 per acre and immediately file for the deed.
The opportunity to own land outright for those with little money was perfect for someone content to own ten acres for less than $13. Plus, they didn’t have to wait five years to own their farm. Not everyone had the dream of owning 160 acres, nor did they want to have to worry about taking care of that much land. Many families didn’t want to work from dawn to dusk, breaking their back’s working the land and having little to show for it.
They were happy instead to build or buy a house in town, and have all of the conveniences of buying what they couldn’t grow themselves at the general store. Many families raised chickens, a hog, kept a dairy cow, and had a horse or two. A horse was the only means of transportation. Stealing a horse was a hanging offense, as was cattle rustling. Some people headed west with the clear idea of starting a business.
It might be a livery stable, general store, café, hotel, barbershop or saloon. Whatever the reason was that made someone sell everything they owned, and leave all of their friends behind, a covered wagon was an absolute necessity. There were several sizes of covered wagon’s a family could buy, based on what they could afford and how many possession’s they were bringing with them.
The largest covered wagon was called the Conestoga. It was 15 feet long and was covered by a canvas cover called a bonnet. The six 1/2” hardwood oak bows were steam-bent for added strength. Each end was secured to the wood sideboards by a clip. The canvas bonnets bowed outward on both sides, so rain water would run off and not get inside the covered wagon. The bottom edges had grommets, secured to the wooden sideboards by a cord.
To protect the contents settlers brought along, the bonnet had to be soaked in cottonseed oil to make it waterproof. Settler’s either used horses, oxen or mules to pull their covered wagon. Some couples brought everything they owned with them and there was no room for them to sleep inside. So, they had to sleep on ground on a blanket or in a tent.
In rainy weather, if they didn’t have a tent to sleep in, they took cover under their covered wagon for shelter. The medium-sized covered wagon had five bows. The smallest covered wagon had four bows holding the bonnet. Some men came up with an ingenious way to travel up to 1,200 miles and sleep comfortably. They built a second floor where the wood sideboards met the oak bows.
A mattress sat on top of the floor. Their clothing and provisions were stored in boxes slid under the bedframe. The back gate dropped down and served as a tabletop for preparing meals. Not all people could afford a spare wagon wheel. A spare wagon wheel was usually tied to one side of the covered wagon or to the back gate. If one of their wagon wheels broke and they weren’t near a town, they were in trouble.
Someone in the wagon train might sell the family their spare wagon wheel, but then they didn’t have a spare wheel. If they were near a town, a scout would ride ahead and bring back a replacement wheel. But replacing a wagon wheel was no easy task. First, the family had to unload all of their possessions from the covered wagon. They also had to drain their water barrel, leaving them without water.
It was a huge investment to buy and equip a covered wagon. Many families couldn’t afford a second, eighty-gallon water barrel. But if they had a second barrel, it too had to be emptied. When the covered wagon was as light as it could be made, a wrench was used to loosen the nut holding the wheel on the axle. But it had to be put somewhere safe, so it could be put back on and tightened.
Without the nut, the new wagon wheel wouldn’t be able to stay on. Once the nut was removed, two men had to lift up the end of the wagon. Then someone else tugged and jerked back and forth, until the wheel loosened up and was slid off of the axle. But before the new wheel could be slid on, someone had to have already crawled under the covered wagon. Hanging on a hook on the axle was a grease bucket with a brush in it. The grease bucket contained a mixture of tar and animal fat.
A brush in the bucket was used to re-grease the axle. Then the new wheel could be slid onto the axle. Care had to be used not to get the tar on their hands, coats, jeans or shirt sleeves. As soon as the wheel was on the axle, the men straining to hold up the end of the wagon could lower it and catch their breath. After the axle nut was tightened tight, all of the family’s possessions could be reloaded.
Then the grease bucket was hung back on the rear axle hook and they could continue on. Other people usually donated some of their water to the couple, so they’d have water for them and their livestock. But a broken wagon wheel was just one thing that could go wrong on the long journey. If the axle was damaged when the wheel broke off the family was stranded.
They could travel with another family to the next town, but all of their possessions were left behind. Covered wagons were pulled by two to four oxen, or two to four horses, depending on how much weight they had to pull. A horse could throw a horseshoe or worse, get a stone bruised hoof. If that happened, the horse would begin to limp and the wagon would slow down and eventually come to a stop.
It could take as long as two weeks for a horse’s hoof to heal. That’s if it didn’t become infected. If a horse became unable to do its job, a man riding a horse could lend the couple his horse. But this meant they had to feed him in return. When they reached the next town, a new horse could be bought. Sitting on a hardwood wagon seat for hours was truly a ‘pain in the ass.’
So, the husband, wife and children took turns sitting or walking beside their covered wagon. The dust kicked up by the livestock and wagon wheels choked every man, woman and child. A pioneer family typically included five people, relatives or friends. A large family might have two or three wagons. Everyone helped each other.
To give some comfort to the person holding the horse’s reins, a wife sometimes sewed a padded canvas cushion for them both to sit on. The canvas material had to be soaked in cottonseed oil to make it waterproof just like the bonnet. Strips of rawhide and an awl were needed to repair a harness, saddles, stirrups and hackamore’s if they broke or wore out. A wagon train usually traveled 8-10 hours a day, minus rest stops (15 miles a day) at most.
The Conestoga covered wagon when empty weighed 1,300 lbs. The most weight the oxen or horses could pull was 3,000 pounds. That allowed families to load 1,700 pounds of provisions, clothing and food. Bringing up to 1,700 pounds of belongings took a heavy toll on the oxen or horses pulling the covered wagon. As the livestock became exhausted, families had no choice but to toss out items like cookstoves or furniture that were heavy to lighten the load.
Families also needed tools. They needed a shovel, ax, hatchet, a good length of rope, buckets to fill their water barrels with and to let their livestock drink. They also needed a dipper, which was usually tied to a hook near the water barrel, so people could get water from the water barrel. Water barrels came in fifty and eighty-gallon sizes. The eighty-gallon barrel was the preferred size.
On each side of the sideboards was a ledge where the barrel sat on. It was secured by two leather straps. If a family brought along a dairy cow, it was tied to a length of rope and followed behind the wagon. Before anyone joined a wagon train, they had to purchase or can enough food to help get them to town’s they passed through, so they could stock up on the food they were low on.
Most couples brought along canned fruit, vegetables and meat to eat along the way. But that alone wasn’t enough. So general stores handed out a list of provisions to help couples be prepared. The amounts of food listed were adjusted to fit the preferences of the family. For example, a family might buy less of one thing and twenty pounds more of something else.
Here is the typical list of provisions a store clerk gave someone wanting to join a wagon train:
155 pounds of flour
52 pounds of sugar
28 pounds of dried beef
6 pounds of different herbs and spices
50 pounds of potatoes
30 pounds of onions
18 pounds of vegetables
110 pounds of split peas
60 pounds of pickles
20 gallons of vinegar
15 pounds of cornmeal
108 pounds of dried beans
45 pounds of bacon and ham stored in barrels of bran to keep the meat from spoiling
108 pounds of coffee
45 pounds of salt
10 pounds of vegetables
20 pounds of oatmeal
15 pounds of dried fruit
This was in addition to the canned meat, fruit, vegetables, plus, fresh vegetables and fruit families brought with them. Several kinds of rattlesnakes posed a danger to both people and livestock after they left Nauvoo, Illinois. The Cottonmouth and Massasauga rattlesnakes were common to Illinois. The Prairie rattlesnake was the most likely poisonous snake encountered passing through Kansas and Nebraska.
This meant, from the time a wagon train left Nauvoo, everyone had to be careful where they stepped. Not all rattlesnakes gave the rattle warning before they bit someone. On most journey’s, a doctor wasn’t traveling with a wagon train. If there was an injury or birth, everyone relied on those people with some medical knowledge for help. Most times women, who’d given birth before helped a new mother deliver her baby.
One thing that families, especially women had to quickly adjust to, was there were no outhouses out on the plains. Most times there weren’t any trees or brush tall enough for them to squat behind to do their business either. Once they made camp for the night though, men dug a trench for the men and a trench for the women on opposite sides of camp.
Then they tied a rope between two covered wagons and hung two bedsheets with clothespins for privacy. The bedsheets had a large black painted M or W on them. Bathing was a rare luxury reserved for when they came to a river, lake or spring. Water sources were also a time when everyone refilled their water barrels.
They also let their livestock graze on the nearby grass after the area was cleared of snakes. Making camp for the night was a huge endeavor. After the wagon master had all the wagon’s circled for their protection and to protect their livestock. The women and children stayed in their covered wagons for their safety. The men grabbed shovels and searched the inner circle for snakes and snake holes.
It didn’t matter if the snake discovered was poisonous or one that ate mice and rats. it was killed. Snake holes or prairie dog holes were filled in and stomped on with the heel of a man’s boot. Once the inner circle was free of snakes, the women and children got down. Wives’ dropped the back gate and prepared supper.
Meanwhile, the men unhitched their oxen or horses. They were brought to a livestock rope run from one side of camp to the other side. After a lead rope was tied to the main rope, each animal had their front legs hobbled with a length of rope. When that was done, men brought them a bucket of water to drink. Then they used a wet washcloth to wipe off their eyes. Then the men walked outside camp for 100 yards in every direction, looking for and killing any snakes they found.
This was a job men did seven days a week until they got to their destination. Even for the families who’d brought a tent to sleep in, it didn’t mean a rattlesnake didn’t make its way into camp during the night and scare the daylights out of some woman or child. Circling the wagon’s at night wasn’t only to protect everyone from attacks by Indians. Horse or cattle thieves might try to stampede their livestock off during the night.
Anyone who lost their horses or oxen during the night was stranded. They might accompany another family to the next town, but their covered wagon and all of their possessions would be left behind. It wasn’t unusual for a wagon train to pass by a group of abandoned covered wagons or find people dead. Often their deaths were due to their horses dying of thirst. Unable to go any further, once they ran out of water they perished.
It wasn’t uncommon either to see the sides of the trail ahead littered with discarded furniture and stoves because the extra weight was tiring their horses. Unmarried women weren’t allowed to join a covered wagon for obvious reasons. Fights over a woman led to gunfights or murder. Since there were no lawmen out on the plains the wagon master was the law. His word was final because everyone’s lives’ rest in his hands.
In any dispute or crime, the wagon master had several options. First, he could kick the man and his family out of the wagon train. If it was murder, that man might find himself hung if a tree was nearby or shot. A third option was to turn him over to the sheriff in the next town they came to. With unknown illnesses, sometimes a family would be forced to travel at least a hundred yards behind the wagon train, not knowing if what they came down with was contagious.
Cholera and smallpox were what people were afraid of. In every town along their journey, men were waiting to take advantage of a man wanting to drink whiskey, beer or gamble. The wagon master would warn everyone to stay out of the saloons, get to the livery stable if needed, get a bath at a bathhouse if they wanted, buy the provisions they were low on and refill their water barrels.
They camped the night outside a town and people could get a room for the night in a hotel. Sadly, some men didn’t listen and a drunken man would put the title to his covered wagon down on the poker table and lose. In anger or desperation, the man would draw his gun and he was killed. If men accompanied by the town’s sheriff showed up at the camp to take possession of the covered wagon, the dead man’s wife would be penniless in a town she had no kin.
The wagon master usually specified how long they’d camp outside a town before they continued on. If anyone wasn’t back at their wagon at the agreed time, the wagon master would wait a little longer before leaving the family behind. It was a plain fact, not all families that left Illinois to reach Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado or Utah made it there. Often the journey was too hard on the couple, their livestock or they hadn’t brought enough money.
In such a case, if they couldn’t turn back, they put roots down in whatever town they found themselves stranded in. The one thing all families feared more than rattlesnakes was a tornado, wildfire or a dust storm. Because the covered wagons were loaded with a ton and a half of weight, their oxen or horses couldn’t outrun the danger. If they encountered a heavy rainstorm, because their covered wagons weighed so much, they got bogged down in the mud.
If that was the case, the entire wagon train was stranded until the sun came back out and stayed hot enough to dry out the road. Indian attacks were a common fear for everyone on a wagon train. Each wagon master usually had one to four scouts who took turns riding ahead of the wagon train. Not only did they stay alert for signs of Indians, but their primary goal was to find water, and places to camp and graze everyone’s livestock.
Sometimes a known spring or river on a map was found dried up. This was terrible news for a scout to bring back to families low on water, which their livestock needed to stay alive. The one thing that aggravated families more than their wagon seats, fear of rattlers or a broken wagon wheel was the damned dust. There was nothing they could do to get away from the dust the wagon wheels and horses kicked up.
But once a couple reached their destination, be it just a few hundred miles or 1,200 miles, they hugged, kissed, cried and rejoiced they’d finally made it. They’d gone through hell to get to where they’d call home. They usually boarded their covered wagon and horses with a livery stable, got themselves a hotel room for a few days and couldn’t wait to take a bath.
After they’d rested, their first stop usually was at the Land claim office to find out what land was available, if it had a cabin already on it and if the roof was good. They also wanted to know if the land had a spring or well already on it. Because settlers headed for Colorado arrived in September or early October, it was too late in the year to build a cabin.
They usually stayed at a hotel or boarding house until spring arrived, if they couldn’t find a parcel with a cabin on it. Then they set to work cutting down trees on their land to build a cabin with the help of neighbors. They might also build their cabin or house with lumber. An outhouse hole had to be dug and an outhouse built. Most had one seat but some men built a two-seater.
A garden plow had to be bought or borrowed from a nearby neighbor so a garden could be plowed and planted. Most families built a barn for their livestock to protect them from coyotes, wolves, cougar, black bear and the ever-dangerous grizzly bear. A corral also was needed. A hitching post was usually built in front of the cabin porch. A water trough sat there so horses could drink.
A well had to be dug if they had no creek, lake or spring nearby to fetch water from. Water barrels were usually placed near a garden. That way precious time wasn’t wasted trying to carry water to the garden one bucket at a time. Fruit trees and berries were also planted. Everything possible was canned and nothing was wasted. Most families raised pigs or hogs.
A pen for them had to be built and a chicken coop for chickens. Some people planned to live in the town they moved to. If a man was single, he might seek work at one town’s businesses, nearby mines, cattle or horse ranches. Cattle rancher’s usually had a bunkhouse where ranch hands lived as part of their wages. The average wage for a ranch hand was $20 a month, plus, room and board.
Those men worked from sunup to dusk, seven days a week. As important as a couple’s garden was to their survival, so was having enough firewood. Colorado winters were bitter cold, and if a family ran out of firewood they froze to death. So, time was spent chopping or sawing trees down and letting them season. Then they were split up into small enough pieces to fit into a wood cookstove, potbellied stove or fireplace and tarped.
Only the most determined, hardworking families survived living in Colorado, Wyoming or Utah. Everyone in a family had chores to do and no one sat around doing nothing. Chores began at sunup and didn’t end until dusk. Hunting and fishing were also necessary to put food on the table and to ensure they’d have enough meat to see them through the long winter.
Sunday service was a time for the Lord if a town had a church. It was also a time for greeting their neighbors. Those of the Mormon faith who headed west refused to own a gun. Carrying a revolver or rifle was the only way to protect yourself, your family and what you owned. The fear of being attacked by Indians was a concern on everyone’s minds but they had other fears too.
They had to worry about highwaymen. In Colorado, there were cougars, wolves, coyotes, black bear and grizzly bear to deal with. Whether they were headed out to the outhouse, leaving the barn or walking back to the cabin with a basket of eggs, predators could attack a man, woman or child.
But there was another thing men had to worry about. That was cattle rustlers and horse thieves. Without a gun or rifle, thieves could steal their livestock. Though there were many makes and models of revolvers to choose from, the Colt 45 Peacemaker was the standard revolver men bought.
Unlike a single-action revolver, the Peacemaker was double-action, which allowed it to be fired rapidly. The 255-grain lead bullet could knock down any man, a cougar, wolf, coyote or even a black bear, though it might have to be shot more than once. The standard barrel length was 5 and 1/2” which made it a compact weapon. It had a spur hammer which made it easy for a man’s thumb to cock the revolver if he wanted.
For anyone thinking of crossing the plains to put down roots in California, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah or Montana, the rifle of choice was the Winchester 30-30 rifle. The Winchester Model 1894 model repeating rifle fired a 150-grain bullet, suitable for small game hunting. It also provided protection against Indian attacks and highwaymen who sought to rob everyone on a wagon train.
The rifle also reduced the risks of rustlers stealing their cattle and horses. The rifle had an effective shooting range of 100-200 yards. The recoil was light and even a woman could use the Winchester rifle if she kept it snug against her shoulder. It was a lightweight rifle, weighing just over seven pounds. The magazine held nine cartridges, plus, one in the chamber. The rifle was just over three feet long.
Men on horseback carried the rifle in a leather scabbard. For settlers wanting to make their home in states such as Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, they had to share the land with the grizzly bear. Neither a Colt 45 or Winchester 30-30 cartridge was powerful enough to kill it. The only rifle powerful enough to kill a grizzly, if the bullet hit it in the right spot was the Marlin 45-70 or a similar large caliber rifle.
A grizzly was fearless, powerful and at the top of the food chain. Usually, he had no fear of man. A cow or horse was definitely on his menu. Compared to the Winchester 30-30 rifle, the Marlin 45-70 rifle held only four shells, plus, one in the chamber. It also was a heavier rifle.
If a rancher was confronted by a grizzly, he had five chances to save his life. Unlike the Winchester rifle’s 150-grain cartridge, the Marlin 45-70’s cartridge packed a walloping 300-grain. That meant, whether it was an elk, moose or grizzly a rancher was shooting at, the animal would be knocked down, giving the hunter a chance to shoot again.
The Wagon Master’s Rules
“Folks, tomorrow morning, after an early breakfast, we’ll be leaving Nauvoo and be ferried across the Mississippi River. The fare to cross the river is two bits for horse and rider and four bits for covered wagons. Today, I’ll sound long winded I know but everything I have to say is important. First things first. The four men standing up on this deck wearing a white armband just like me are my scouts.
Once we leave Nauvoo, if any of you have a problem or concern, come see me or one of them. They’ll pass your concerns on to me. When we’re on the Mormon Trail, we’re like a family. We all have to pull together and help each other. Now I want to take a few minutes to go over the rules everyone will abide by on this journey or you’ll pull your covered wagon off to the side and go on alone.
Chances are, you’ll be jumped by Indians, highwaymen or get lost and die. So, following my rules is the best way for me to get you from Nauvoo to wherever it is you’re going. You might not know the names of the family in front of or behind your covered wagon today. But I promise you, over the next four or five months, you’ll know their names and everything about them.
Before I go over the rules, I want to clarify something. I don’t want any of you coming up to me later, telling me I didn’t tell you how dangerous a journey this will be. According to the list of names I’m holding in my hand, some of you have children and some don’t. I can tell you from experience, not all of you will reach the town you’re headed for.
Some of you will decide the journey is too hard on you or your horses, or that you didn’t bring enough money and you’ll turn back. If you didn’t bring enough money and don’t turn back, you’ll wind up in a town where you tell yourself you can’t go further. You’ll put down roots there. If you run out of money, I doubt if the family in the next wagon can spare you any money. Chances are, they’re headed further than you are and need every dime they have.
There’s no shame in turning back or deciding that the town you’re in at that moment is where you want to get land, build a cabin and raise a family. For the rest of you who don’t give up, well, I’m sad to say, some of you may not reach where you’re going. Between Illinois and Utah are many dangers. Some are just a possibility such as an Indian attack.
River crossings are dangerous if your horses panic and your covered wagon turns over on its side. Those of you who can’t swim and can’t grab onto something that floats will drown. Getting each of your wagons over steep mountains claim the lives of those who fate decides will die. My scouts, and I will do our best to help you folks cross each river and get over each mountain.
I’m hoping to get this wagon train to Salt Lake City, Utah in exactly four months. But it’ll likely be more like five months. Swollen rivers from rains upstream will hold us up until water levels go back down. We also have to worry about dust storms, wildfires, tornadoes and rains that turn the trail into a mud hole, stranding us until the sun comes back out and the road dries out.
There’s the chance that someone’s wagon wheel or axle will break. If it’s just a wagon wheel and you didn’t bring a spare along, I hope someone will sell you the spare wheel they brought along. But they don’t have to sell that wheel to you if they don’t want to. By helping you continue on, they’re now without a spare wheel. If they break a wheel later, they’re the ones now stranded.
If any of you break an axle, you’re not going anywhere. There isn’t a thing anyone can do for you. Most times, another family will take you in and see you reach the next town we come to. But all of your possessions will be left behind. If one of your horses gets a stoned bruised hoof, that horse is done for. You might as well shoot it. If you can find a rider willing to give up his horse to help you, you’ll be expected to feed him.
A horse with a stone bruised hoof needs a good week or more to heal. And that’s if it doesn’t get infected. I don’t think any of you want to stay behind ten days in a town and try to catch up to us. These unexpected delays will use up the food you’ve got in your wagons and your water, too. Towns will be far and between, folks.
The fact is we’ll only pass through fifteen towns between here and Utah. Sure, we’ll pass by some ranches, a few small settlements and trading posts, now and then but not many. Now let me go over the rules, so I can let you folks get ready to leave Nauvoo in the morning.
If there’s a dispute between people, I’ll settle it or one of you will leave the wagon train. If I didn’t tell you when you signed on to accompany me west, no alcohol is allowed, I’m telling you now. If you have beer, wine or whiskey in your wagon, after this meeting is over pour it out. There’s no place on the trail for someone drunk. Someone arguing with a drunk fella will end up with one or both men being killed.
If we encounter Indians or highwaymen along the way, I don’t want you to shoot unless we’re under attack. With Indians, most times they only want a cow to feed their people or some blankets. A dairy cow is a small price to pay for safe passage through Indian Territory. But if one of you men panic and shoot at them unprovoked, they’re likely to attack us day and night, and burn our wagons in the middle of the night.
You’ve all paid me good money to get you from Nauvoo, to wherever it is you’re going, safely. To do that, means obeying this rule. If you see Indians or a group of men following the wagon train from a distance, pass the word up the wagon train to one of my scouts. I want to avoid a confrontation as much as you folks.
With highwaymen, they want every dime you have and they’re willing to kill for that money. So, if it comes to that, I’m sure you men will fight for what money you have and for your families. Those of you carrying firearms, keep them close to you. Some of you men, especially those of you that are Mormon aren’t carrying firearms. So, you must depend on the rest of us to help protect you.
Speaking of dangers, out on the plains we’ll pass through rattlesnake country and our horses may get snake bit. Not only that, but if your horse gets spooked and rears, the rider is likely to be thrown off his horse and hit the ground hard. You could get off lucky with just a backache. But you could also break your neck or back. Worse yet, your horse could run off.
Those of you riding horse’s need to be watchful for a horse without a rider. Your neighbor sure would be obliged to you if you fetched back his horse. Those of you who didn’t bring along a mattress to sleep on will sleep on the ground on a blanket or in a tent. When we’re in camp walking around, cooking meals and children are playing, one of you might get bit by a rattlesnake.
Whatever you do, don’t panic. Stay calm. If you panic and run, your heart will beat faster and spread the poison right to your heart. Also, if you see a rattlesnake, don’t pull out your pistol to shoot at it. You’re likely to miss and hit a rock. The bullet might ricochet and hit someone nearby. If you see a snake, it might not even be a rattlesnake. My best advice is for you to yell out to warn everyone else. Get your shovels out, chase that snake down and cut off its head.
The bigger the rattlesnake, the less you have to worry about dying. It’s the baby rattlers you have to stay clear of. Rattlesnake meat tastes just like chicken, after it’s skinned and cooked in a frying pan. I know you women won’t want to eat a piece of rattlesnake meat. But I assure you, it really tastes a lot like chicken. When we get ready to camp for the night, we’ll form the wagons into a circle.
Once that’s been done, all you men will search the inner circle for snakes and snake holes. Kill any snakes you find, fill in any holes and pack them down hard with the heel of your boots. Then everyone can unhitch their livestock and bring them into the middle of camp. My scouts will run a rope from one side of camp to the other side. Use a lead rope and tie each horse or oxen to the livestock rope.
Then hobble their front legs. This will keep them from being stampeded off during a storm or stolen during the night by Indians or horse thieves. Then bring each horse, oxen, or cow a bucket of water. Bring back a wet washcloth and wipe their eyes. Then all of you men will search the outside of the camp for at least 100 feet in all directions for snakes and snake holes.
This way, when everyone beds down for the night, there’s less of a chance that a rattlesnake slithers into camp. While the men are searching for snakes, you women and children can get down to the ground and make supper. You can cook for yourselves or some of you families can cook supper together. Most of you have packed your wagons to the brim with food and possessions.
So, there’s no room inside to sleep. Sleeping on the ground on a mattress, wrapped in a blanket or in a tent for those who brought one, is how it’ll be for everyone after we leave Nauvoo. Believe me, the ground you sleep on will be hard. If you’re sleeping on the ground, after you wake up, be careful when getting to your feet on the off chance a rattlesnake’s nearby.
On most of the wagon trains I’ve guided across the plains, we haven’t had a doctor with us. That’s true for this trip, too. My wife standing next to me knows how to deliver a baby and I think we all know something about doctoring. I’d like any women who are pregnant to stay after this meeting a few minutes, so my wife can meet you and know how far along you are.
Once we’re on the trail, you’ll be surprised to realize how much you’ll be depending on each other. As for the weather we’re likely to run into along the way, you can expect cool mornings, blistering afternoon heat, lightning storms, hailstorms, tornadoes or calm breezy days. We’re also likely to run into dust storms so bad you can’t see your hand in front of you.
If we see a dust storm coming, we’ll stop the wagon train. Put a large empty flour sack over your livestock’s heads and tie it off so it can’t blow off to protect their lungs and eyesight. Then cover up with a piece of canvas, get inside your tent or wagon with a wet towel over your face and breathe through it. If you don’t, you’ll choke to death on the dust.
Speaking of dust, you’ll use cuss words you’ve never used before during this trip. You can’t get away from the dust your livestock and wagon wheels make. You women will want to take a bath every day but you can’t. Your water must last you and your horses until we come to the next place that has water to refill our water barrels.
When we come to a town, lake, spring or river, fill your buckets with water and let your horses drink first. They need to drink more than any of us need to bathe. We’ll stop long enough to let everyone bathe when possible before we refill our water barrels and move on. Make sure you refill your canteens, too. Speaking of water, can I see a show of hands of those of you who have brought two water barrels with them?” the wagon master asked.
Nearly half of the families raised their hands. “The best advice I can give you folks who only have one water barrel is to buy another one from me or in the next town we pass through. You and your livestock are going to need every drop of water you bring along. Between here and Utah, we’re sure to pass covered wagons whose horses collapsed from dying of thirst.
The canvas bonnets you see fluttering in the breeze as we pass them will be a reminder to you to conserve your water. Even if your barrel is only a few gallons low, refill it every chance you can. You may save your life or your horse’s life. Those of you who can afford to buy a spare wagon wheel or a second water barrel before we leave will be grateful you bought it.
For those who can afford them, I have a few wagon wheels and water barrels for sale. I advise you to buy one. When we run low on water, the difference between life and death for your horse’s might be that extra 80 gallons of water you’re carrying. If you’d like to buy one from me, one of my scouts will sell you one and bring it to your wagon.
It never fails folks, no matter how often I preach up here, asking you to keep an eye on your children, that someone’s child wanders away after we’ve stopped to rest or make camp. It’s a family’s worst nightmare to lose their child. If that happens, we’ll help search for your child. But we can’t search for more than a few hours unless we’re camped. I know this sounds cold-hearted but it’s a cold hard fact.
I have the entire wagon train to think about and we have to make so many miles a day. If we haven’t found your child by the time I give the word to move out, that family only has two options to choose from. First, you can get your wagon out of line, stay behind and look longer for your child. We all pray and hope you’ll find your child but most times, they’re lost for good.
You probably won’t be able to catch up to us and you’ll have go on alone, whether you got your child back or not. Your other option as cruel as it might sound, is to wipe your eyes, get back up in your wagon and keep traveling with the rest of us. I know it sounds cold and heartless to leave your child behind to starve to death or be eaten by a pack of coyotes.
That’s why I’m urging you folks with children to keep them close to you. If they wander off, sometimes they come back on their own but don’t count on it. Sometimes they’ll stay hidden because they’re worried they’ll get a whipping for wandering away from camp. We have to make 10-15 miles a day to reach the next town or watering hole, before everyone’s water runs out. Please, folks, don’t let your children wander off. You may never see them again.
Folks, as much as we don’t want anyone to come down with a sickness, some of you may come down with something. Sometimes we know what you got isn’t serious or contagious and you can stay with the wagon train. But if we don’t know what ails you, for safety reasons, you’ll have to follow behind the wagon train 100 yards and make camp by yourself until the sickness has passed for the protection of the rest of us.
Once your illness passes and I feel it’s safe for you to rejoin the wagon train, I’ll be glad to welcome you back. Are there any folks here that have doctoring experience? If anyone raises their hands, I’ll hand you a red armband for your left arm. If anyone gets hurt, injured or sick, look around and find someone wearing that red armband. If they can’t help you, look for one of my scouts with a white armband. I want to make it as easy as I can for you to find someone who might save your life.
This rule is pretty much plain old-fashioned common sense, folks. Between Illinois and Salt Lake City, Utah are 15 towns. In each of those towns, you can be sure to run into men or women waiting to swindle you out of your money or the title to your covered wagon. They know you’re carrying money and have a covered wagon full of provisions. If we camp the night outside a town and you go into town, you could be jumped, robbed and maybe even killed. So, try to go into town as a group.
If you go into one of the saloons, you’re likely to get drunk and be tricked into putting up the title to your covered wagon at a crooked card table and lose your possessions. Chances are, they’re faster with a gun then you are too. You’ll be dead and your wife will be a widow with no money, or roof over her head, stranded all by herself in that town. What I’m trying to tell you, is if we’re leaving at seven that morning and you’re not back at your wagon by then, you’ll be left behind.
We don’t have any time to spare to go looking you. Your wife can’t continue on with us alone, so she’ll have to pull her wagon out of line, stay behind and look for you. I can’t make you stay out of those towns because we’ll all need water, a chance to stock up on provisions or see the blacksmith. What I’m asking of each of you is to get into town, get what you need and get back to camp.
That brings me to my last rule, folks and it’s simple. I won’t tolerate anyone stealing anyone else’s belongings, water, provisions or messing with another man’s wife. It’s each of your responsibilities to start out this journey with enough money and provisions to see you through, to wherever it is you’re headed. If any of you know you don’t have what it takes to get you to the town you’re trying to get to, don’t leave with us.
See me after this meeting and I’ll return your money. Whoever you steal from is likely to take justice into their own hands and we’ll be burying you or them. At worst, I’ll leave you and your family behind to fend for yourselves. Now before you head back to your wagons and get ready to make supper, I want to say one thing to all of the women traveling with us. You’ll have no privacy once we’re on the trail when you need to go to the bathroom.
Some areas afford a few trees and brush. Chances are, a rattlesnake’s probably hiding nearby, resting in the shade. Kansas will have mostly green grass plains. Nebraska will have mostly barren, dry grassland. That means, when you have to go, you’ll be squatting in plain sight of everyone else unless we’re camped. My scouts will run a rope between two wagons on both sides of camp and hang two bedsheets with clothespins for privacy.
They’ll also dig a ditch. The bedsheets will have a large W or M painted in black, so you’ll know what side of camp to go to. Another option is for two women to hold up the ends of a bedsheet and take turns squatting. If we’re near water, I’ll give you women a chance to bathe in private. Otherwise, traveling on the Mormon Trail means you’ll be leaving your modesty back here in Nauvoo.
We men will have the same problem but I figure it won’t bother us as much as you women. I almost forgot. Crossing the plains means we’ll cross areas where hot and cold air collide and causes thunderstorms. If a thunderstorm breaks out, there’s a chance lightning could strike your wagon. If that happens, you’ll be killed and your wagon could catch fire.
I’ve seen it happen, so I know what I’m talking about. If that happens, some of you men must push or pull the burning wagon away from other wagons near it or other wagons will catch fire, too. The other problem that we’ll all face is if one of those bolts of lightning hits dry grass and causes a wildfire. If it’s far enough away we can try to outrun the fire.
But it’s a sad but simple fact, if a wildfire erupts close by, with everyone’s wagons weighted down with a ton of food and provisions, none of us will outrun the fire. What’ll happen is you’ll run your team of horses at a gallop until they collapse. Then you’ll die. The same danger exists if we encounter a tornado. I’m telling you this, not to make you change your mind on accompanying me to Utah, folks.
I’m telling you all this, so each of you is fully aware of the dangers we can face and know what to do if something bad happens. This is your last chance to stay behind in Nauvoo or head out for the Mississippi River after breakfast in the morning with the rest of us. Does anyone want to change their mind about leaving? Well, there you go folks. Those are my rules. If you can abide by them, we’ll be headed for the Mississippi River after an early breakfast in the morning, so be ready to go,” the wagon master would say.