My concern that Durham, North Carolina, where I live is losing valuable artifacts and records every day that passes without erection of a full-fledged Museum of Durham History is personal.
One of my great (x2) grandfathers and a great-great-great-grandfather selected in 1846 as part of a small vanguard to blaze a largely new pathway into the Rocky Mountains kept a diary.
He wasn’t the official diarist for the company, but his notes shatter some stereotypes of what it was like as they marked and created infrastructure along the 1,100 route that others would follow through territory of the United States yet to be organized.
Before I touch on some of his revelations, I must note that when I was growing up, both sides of my family were pretty mum about my ancestral involvement on that wagon train.
I’m sure they were aware, but even as we passed through from Idaho to see family, my parents neglected to mention that the names of these ancestors were inscribed on a monument that was then centered at the Salt Lake intersection at Main Street and South Temple.
After memorial copies were made and distributed to descendants, the small little leather pocket book was placed for safekeeping in the Mormon Church Historical Department where then one of my professors was an assistant.
His prominence in the vanguard group was only as chief wheelwright due to being a carriage-maker back as a sixth-generation Quaker-American in his native Upper Providence, east of the Schuylkill.
In his diary, he describes being chosen as one of ten people to hunt buffalo along the trail when provisions were needed and standing as guard during stops.
But he was also one of the head cooks chosen by his group of ten men (they organized into 14 groups but there were only three women and two children.)
Meals included a hot breakfast and dinner with a cold lunch prepared in advance for a midday stop to feed, hydrate and rest the livestock.
The wagons weren’t all uniform and they didn’t travel single file like they do in the movies unless required by the terrain. They traveled five vehicles abreast, some buggies and smaller wagons, some covered wagons, but not the big Conestoga wagons.
The diary covers several years including this four month journey, and a trip back to visit his mother prior to departure. It includes a journal of services provided, detailing the date, for whom, the repair and payment if any.
These tended to be primarily converted farm wagons. Usually people walked or rode alongside. Mostly they used huge teams of oxen as draft animals to pull the wagons.
Oxen are mature, castrated male cattle, as compared to milk or breeding cows and bulls or beef cattle which are steers. But at the time, a steer who reached four years old was considered an ox.
American oxen were generally 1,800 to 2,000 pounds of pure muscle, standing about six feet tall, about that long and eight feet around. Oxen were preferred to draft horses because they were better in muddy conditions including when teams doubled up to cross rivers.
They could also survive on little food of poor quality which was common as they crossed the Great Plains of Nebraska and the High Plains of Wyoming, especially where overgrazed by huge herds of Buffalo that would stretch for a day at a time.
This vanguard unit circled their 73 wagons when possible at night with the livestock inside the loop, including 66 oxen, 52 mules, 93 horses (mostly saddle,) 19 cows, 17 dogs and some chicken.
A bugle sounded wake-up at 6 a.m. and when it was time to retire each night at 8:30 p.m. Often they danced, played cards and sang at night, sometimes according to my great-grandfather, a little too loudly.
His dry sense of humor comes through when he mentions speeches that were sometimes “rather long” or “ not very edifying.”
He also describes in a passport application soon after this journey that he stood 5’8”, a little bald with grey eyes, a Roman nose, full mouth, ruddy complexion and oval face.
This ancestor’s favorite song was “leather breeches,” a jig danced with “controlled abandon” across America at that time. But it would have been without musical instruments which were deemed too heavy to bring along.
Although these wagons could carry up to a ton and a half, the uncertainty of this vanguard journey would have meant they were kept as light as possible.
If they sang about their final destination, they would have used California, the term at the time for anything over the Rockies.
I’m sure an a cappella version of Come, Come Ye Saints, a hymn penned a year earlier and put to the music of an older camp revival melody earlier by a member along for that journey, was already as popular as it is still today.
Another was probably Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.
The diary records that the party stopped to help others traveling across the Platt River on the California Trail and that some were fellow Missourians who had some members of the group out of that state less than a decade earlier.
Each member of the vanguard was required to have a rifle primed and ready to fire (flintlock) at a moment’s notice, with a piece of leather to keep the firing mechanism dry.
They often encountered Nation Americans including Otoe, Sioux and Pawnee, the former at war with the latter, as well as Arapaho, Cheyenne and Shoshone.
The diary records a visit to a burned out Pawnee village and the huge size and construction of lodges. Sioux visited and stayed overnight inside the circle of wagons one night.
But others bands often attempted to extort food and other supplies.
We are blessed to have this account, written in the hand of an ancestor, but I wonder how and when it slipped away for so long? As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, this makes me concerned that families with deep Durham connections may be losing sight of the importance of artifacts and records so important to preserve.
Hopefully, officials in my adopted hometown will soon realize the same sense of urgency for a Museum of Durham History long shown among residents in public opinion polls.
Heritage is perishable.