Jennie Atcheson Wriston


A Pioneer's Odyssey


It might be interesting to the modern traveler in automobile or Pullman car to know what was included in the final make-up of the traveling equipment when the last recognizable need was met, or in some way provided for, and we were ready, early in the spring of 1873, to start on the long journey toward the unknown but promised land.

First, there was the large farm wagon with its white canvas cover spread over the several bows, the ends securely fastened by iron cleats inserted in the sides of the wagon bed. Those hickory bows were high enough to enable a man to stand upright under their shelter and the canvas shielded the contents, mankind or matter, from sun and storm. This vehicle contained supplies of provisions and cooking utensils, as well as such articles of household furniture as were desirable to carry. There must be feed bags for the horses, a kit for mending harness or minor breaks in the wagons, as well as tools and axes which might be useful or necessary in emergencies. The tent poles were strapped on the side of the wagon, with the tent carefully rolled in as small a compass as possible, generally around the poles. At the back of the wagon was attached a double-floored hen coop with slats in the front. This was filled with hens, both upper and lower compartments. On top of this was the mess chest, which contained the food, cooked or otherwise, and the dishes, all made of tin which was unbreakable--a very desirable quality on a long trip.

This so-called "big wagon" was drawn by the team of large mules and was driven by my father. Then came the "light spring wagon," which was provided with extra seats for such of the children as did not ride in the big wagon or on horseback. It was loaded mostly with the clothing and bedding for the family. This wagon was drawn by a team of horses and was driven all the way by my mother.

Then followed the loose stock-several cows and horses, which latter could take the places of the team driven by my mother, and which were available for riding by William, the eldest son, and by Tom, the "hired man," and they were also used for driving the small herd behind the wagons. In itself it was quite a cavalcade and formed the nucleus for a very much larger company later on.

Among the loose horses was a small mustang, which was the exclusive property of the two little girls. Fannie was a gentle little creature, greatly beloved by everyone. Following all was the collie, Gypsy, the pet of the entire group. The family itself consisted of father, mother, big brothers, two sisters (twelve and eleven), two small brothers, and little sister (three years old). These, with the hired man, made up the party.

My father planned to leave early in the morning, but so many neighbors came in to say good-by that it was well toward noon when the final start was made. Friends on the farms for miles along the road were gathered at the gates to give the last handclasp and to wish the family "God speed" and a safe journey.

Ultimately, they were left behind and a halt was made for dinner. This consisted largely of food already cooked and contributed by neighbors who wished to so some last thing for the family to whom they had become greatly attached during their five year residence. To the children it appeared to be a huge picnic, and they were prepared to enjoy it to the full. To the older, steadier members of the family it was the beginning of a great adventure, with the end not in sight.

On leaving the more settled country behind, the party followed the Republican River through Clay Center and Concordia to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Along the bottom land of the Republican River were the homes of hardy pioneers who had either dropped out of the California Gold Rush some twenty-odd years before or had gone over the trail later; attracted by the level expanses of the grassy plains, they had homesteaded on government land and established ranches.

The houses, long distances apart in many instances, were frequently built of sod, and were called adobe. The sod was cut in regular shapes as desired and laid up as the wall of a stone house would be. The roof was usually framed with poles made of young cottonwood trees, or when available, of willow or alder. This was covered first with anything available, such as brush or coarse reeds from the river bank, and then with earth topped with sod. The sod was cut from the open prairie in the short-grass country where the roots of the buffalo grass are of such a fibrous nature that they penetrate the soil so compactly that the sod can scarcely be torn apart but must be cut. It was very durable; the buildings lasted for years, and were warm and comfortable during the long, hard winters. The inner walls of the better homes were washed with lime, when it could be obtained. This, however, necessitated a long trip to the nearest town, often taking a week to go and come with a good team of horses.

Meals on the journey were not elaborate. Biscuits could be baked in the Dutch ovens. Corn dodgers were made only of corn meal, salt, and water and fried in salt pork fat until cooked through and browned--tastier than one would imagine from the description. Of course we had that old standby of the pioneers, the pancake or flapjack. Then there was fried pork, with now and then a jack rabbit or a prairie hen, and later plenty of meat from the game found as we progressed. I must not forget that we had milk from the cows of the herd and eggs--not many, but some--from the hen coop on the back of the wagon. Fresh vegetables had been purchased as long as farms and gardens were left behind. It must be remembered that it was before the days of canned vegetables, and potatoes and turnips were all we had.

The Ranch which we were to occupy was located on Cherry Creek near the post office of Rock Ridge. Now began another great adventure for the children, all but the youngest of whom had been born in, or close to, New York City. The entire journey from Pleasant Hill had consumed six whole months.

Rock Ridge was named for a high ridge crowned with rocks which extended for a distance of several miles. The "town" consisted of one house where lived a family of father, mother, and two daughters, the post office which had one mail a week, a small general store, and a bar. There was no church or school.

As soon as possible, my father arranged with the county officials for the establishment of a school for the children. There were some ten or twelve children of various ages within a radius of eight or ten miles. An abandoned ranch house was found as near the center as possible so that the hardship on any child would not be too great. Practically every pupil rode to school on horseback. As soon as a teacher could be hired, school was opened. Soon an itinerant preacher was holding services in the schoolroom.

The ranch, which was to be our temporary home, had much of interest in itself. The house was a long, low, one-storied building with rooms on end in a row. Just behind it stood what was called the "shanty" where the men of the ranch and cowmen lived. The main house was substantially built of logs with portholes in all sides, through which many shots had been fired at Indians in other days; bullet holes produced by the guns of the enemy besiegers were to be found in the outside logs. In the floor was a trap door opening into a cellar, out of which was an underground passage to a never-failing spring of water, and also one to a very large outdoor cellar in which vegetables were stored. It had been used many times as a fortified place during Indian raids in previous years.