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Written By: Julie Farrow
Many people between the years 1849 to 1850 made the decision to travel west to where gold had been found. One source estimates the number at 85,000. As a young bride, Catherine Haun and her lawyer husband were among the number who decided to make the trip west.
In Iowa, Catherine and her husband faced old debts that overwhelmed them. The trek west, and finding gold themselves, promised them a better future.
As with most of the other women on the trail west, Catherine filled her narrative with romance as she remembered the details of the road and softened the hardships of the journey.
In early January, 1849, with news of the gold rush and the National hard times upon them, Catherine and her new husband, faced with bills they couldn’t pay, thought about El Dorado in California. They hoped to be able to “pick up enough gold to return to Iowa and resolve those debts.”
Catherine’s health was not good and she’d lost one sister to consumption. Her doctor recommended a different environment and California would certainly provide that for her. As it was, Catherine was cured long before the journey ended.
With “gold fever” catching on, California and the opportunity provided there was the topic of many conversations. It finally turned to “What should we take? Who is going? How best do we fix up’ the outfit?’ Who is going to stay home to take care of the farm and womenfolk?” Would they take wives and children along? Most of the advice handed out was free and lacked any common sense. Much would be learned on the trail.
With buoyant spirits, not knowing what the journey would entail, the adventurous started out.
The Haun party consisted of 6 men and 2 women. Eight strong oxen and four of the best horses on the Haun farm were selected to draw the four wagons. Two of the horses served as saddle horses.
Two wagons were filled with merchandise they hoped to sell at inflated prices when they reached “the land of gold.” The pretense of this was good, but the reality of it was never realized as the band lost both wagons before they crossed the first mountain. “Flour ground at our grist mill and bacon of home-curing filled the large, four oxen wagon, while another was loaded with barrels of alcohol. The third wagon was our household effects and provisions. The former consisted of cooking utensils, two boards nailed together, which was to serve as our dining table, some bedding and a small tent.”
As canned goods were not common then, meats, vegetables and fruit was dried. Some meat was salted. As luxury items, they carried a gallon each of wild plum and crabapple preserves and blackberry jam. All food was wrapped in India rubber. Some of their food provisions remained when Catherine and her wagons arrived in Sacramento.
Catherine’s and her husband’s (whom the entire train called “Major”) bedroom was a 2-horse spring wagon. Major drove this. In this wagon, the Haun’s had a trunk of wearing apparel. Catherine had several dresses, underwear and aprons along with bonnets. She included one dress of white cotton, a black silk manteaux trimmed very fetchingly with bands of velvet and fringe. A lace scuttle-shaped bonnet with a face wreath of tiny pink rosebuds and a cluster of the same flowers on the crown. With it, she hoped to “astonish the natives. She fully expected that she and Major would become rich overnight and she would need the finery. As it was, when she and Major left Iowa, she wore a dark woolen dress which served her during most of the trip. Over this, she wore aprons and was seldom without one.
Their “treasures” consisted of a bible, medicines, such as quinine, bluemass which is an opium derivative, opium, whiskey and hartshorn for snake bites and citric acid — an antidote for scurvy. Matches, stored in a large-mouthed bottle were carefully guarded.
On the inside of the canvas walls there were pockets and in them were stored everyday needs and toilet articles as well as small firearms. The shotgun, always ready, hung from hickory bows in the wagon camp. Invaluable was the twine, awl and buckskin strings they carried. These items mended harnesses, shoes, saddles and so on.
The most tiresome day of the trip, as Catherine remembers, was the first. The soil was saturated from the snow that still covered the ground and untried animals tried to pull heavily laden wagons through the mire. That day they covered only ten miles.
That night a farmer put them up in his house. Dazed with dread, Catherine woke the next morning. She feared the second day of the trip, but knew she couldn’t turn back. Staunchly, she dried her tears and faced her husband.
Council Bluffs, Iowa heralded the end of their first month on the trail. They’d covered 350 miles. It was the last real settlement on the route, so they stocked up for the remainder of the voyage.
In Council Bluffs, the travelers paid 2 « cents a dozen for eggs and 8 to 10 cents apiece for chickens. At the end of their journey, they paid $1 apiece for eggs and $10 per chicken if they were lucky enough to find them.
The Haun caravan had a good many women and children. The morning starts were made before six which meant they had to rise much earlier. Experience taught the women to let the younger children sleep several hours as they traveled so as not to delay these starts. Their presence owed to making the journey longer, but also was a good influence as the men didn’t take unnecessary risks with the Indians as they would otherwise have done.
When they camped at night, the wagons were drawn into a circle that served as a corral for the livestock. Horses were tethered to the tongues of the wagons.
While the men herded the animals, erected the tents for the night and made whatever repairs were necessary, the cooks prepared the evening meal for the travelers.
Desirable campgrounds afforded the travelers the luxury of a day off. When they had such grounds, they didn’t travel on the Sabbath. This also afforded the travelers the time to make bigger repairs and for the women to wash and mend clothing, cook bigger meals that could be warmed over on the trail and to straighten their living quarters.
On the 26th of May, the caravan reached the Missouri River. Wheels were removed from the wagons and the bodies of the wagons were loaded onto flat boats for the voyage across. Several days later, the Elkhorn River confronted them with its bed of quicksand. Wagons had to be rushed across to avoid sinking into the mire.
Indians met the travelers just west of what is now the city of Omaha, Nebraska. Other than some raiding, stealing of canvas, and just generally being a nuisance, there were no tragedies in this caravan.
Buffalo further west provided food and skins. Buffalo chips provided fuel for when they couldn’t find wood.
The “Bad Lands” brought a shudder from Catherine as she remembered it years later. Ugliness and danger lurked from every corner. Crossing it, they saw only Indians, lizards and snakes. The inferno of daylight caused suffering such as none had before endured.
The only death on the journey occurred in the Great Basin. One woman suddenly sickened and died, saving her two little girls and a grief stricken husband. The train halted just one day to bury her and the infant she’d carried.
The caravan reached Sacramento, California on November 4, 1849. It had taken the travelers six months and ten days to cover the distance from Clinton, Iowa.
Schlissel, Lillian; WOMEN’S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY; Schocken Books; New York; 1982