Pioneers and family history

I happen to have in my possession a copy of a family history account written by my great-grandaunt (my father’s mother’s father’s sister), that just kind of blew my mind.

Duck egg omelette and instant pot apple and pear with nut butter, along with my pioneer history

First off, it amazes me what a short distance I can go back in my family tree and find someone homesteading in “Indian country” and fighting in the civil war! My great-great-grandfather moved to Kansas in 1859 when it was “sparsely settled and largely Indian country”. In Kansas he enlisted with the Home Guards for the duration of the civil war, then started a family and a homestead. His oldest child, born in 1868, would be my grandmother’s father. We seem to have had some really long generations in my family…

The part that really blew my mind though is that in 1883 this little family, including my great-grandfather and great-grandaunt writing the account, set out to emigrate to Washington Territory via train and covered wagon. They loaded everything they would need for a new homestead onto a freight train, including three disassembled wagons and three teams of horses. They then rode the passenger train for several days and met the fright train in Caldwell, Idaho, “which was the end of the railroad. The road bed was graded further, but no rails laid as yet. It was a town of tents; only the depot was finished…”

Here they set up their wagons, trading a barrel of apple cider vinegar brought from Kansas for a horse to replace one lost on the train journey. Then one day, just after noon, their little wagon train left the furthest completed point of the railroad and set off “over a dirt road through the sage brush. Father and Mother had wisely provided food to use for the wagon journey and had brought from the Kansas home flour, meat (several hams), beans, potatoes, dried apples, etc., so we were supplied with staple articles, which was well for there was very little chance to get things by the way.” After weeks driving the three covered wagons through sun, rain, and snow, over valleys and mountains, the family reached Walla Walla in Washington Territory. This is the father of my grandmother we are talking about, my grandmother being someone I actually met. How trippy is that?

Some sixty plus years later the writer of the account, aged thirteen at the time of the wagon journey, would fly with her sister in an airplane up the west coast from Southern California to Seattle. Could there be a more a more contrasting change in technology over one lifetime? Somehow even comparing pre-computers and internet to having smart phones doesn’t seem as startling. I can’t help wondering if my great-grandnieces would find an account of my pre-answering machine, pre-online shopping memories as mind-bending as I find it to read about my great-grandfather driving a covered wagon through mountain snow storms, or riding the railway to the end of the constructed line and watching for Indians out the windows of the train.

Reading this account of pioneer ancestors makes me wish I had as detailed stories of my other three grandparents’ immediate families. It would be fascinating to see where they all came from and how they all got to the West Coast and who fought whom in the civil war. Reading this account written in 1958 so that “the younger generation of our Philips family may know of their ancestry” reminds me of the feeling of old photographs,  like spying on people in the past: the people in the photographs and in the written account have no idea what kind of strange progeny is looking back on them sixty years later. It makes me want to write something similar to leave to future generations, wondering what ordinary things in the account might appear mind-bendingly archaic in just four generations, what crazy undreamed of technologies might make airplane travel sound incredibly exotic.

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