Best of Covered Wagon Women
edited by Kenneth L. Holmes


University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8061-3914-2.
Reviewed by Stephanie Barko
Posted on 05/12/2008

Anthologies/Collections; Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

This richly-detailed anthology is derived from the original eleven volume series published in 1983 by Arthur H. Clark. The original volumes were compiled by the late Professor Kenneth Holmes of Western Oregon University. This anthology of eight unedited firsthand accounts was selected by Professor Michael Tate of the University of Nebraska.

The diarists are pioneer women traveling with their husbands from Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Missouri, bound for Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado. It took about five months to get across the country between 1848 and 1862 using northern routes with oxen pulling a covered wagon.

Why did they go? They went to pan for gold, for richer farmland, to expand their mercantile, and to join family in the West, among other reasons.

Amelia Hadley made it from Illinois to Oregon in only four months because her party used horses. She writes that the "Soo" Indians passed her on horseback pointing their long spears ahead, saying "me for Pawnee." She speaks of the Indians as being "filthy" horse thieves, but doesn't seem to fear much for her own safety. She chronicles the fact that pioneers didn't rest in peace when she says "the wolves made a den down in his grave. They dig up everyone that is buried on the plains as soon as they are left."

Margaret Frink traveled from Indiana to California, and whose husband published her memoir posthumously in 1897. Margaret is known for her accounts of how scurvy was circumvented on the Trail. Her account taught me that many pioneers started out in very small groups and were overwhelmed at Trail forks when they witnessed "all manner of vehicles and conveyances...I thought that if one-tenth of these teams got ahead of us, there would be nothing left for us in California worth picking up."

Some things never change, as when Ellen Tootle's husband decides that Mrs. Tootle "cannot do anything but talk" on their way from Nebraska to Colorado. "He decided to make it [the coffee] himself, but came to ask me how much coffee to take...I told him the quantity of coffee to 1 qt [of water]. He took that, filled the coffee pot with water, then set it near, but not on the fire. I noticed it did not boil, but said nothing...I inquired how the coffee tasted. He acknowledged that it was flat and weak, but insisted I did not give him proper directions and consented to let me try it at supper time."

The book includes a map of the U.S. west of the Mississippi with the states, cities, Trails, Rivers, Forts, and Lakes along the way. This map is immensely helpful and would be even more helpful if it included a few more states to the east. The map includes a southerly Trail, but no diarist in this book went that way. This was a disappointment as I was quite eager to learn how a woman made her way from my home state of Texas to San Diego, California.


This anthology is derived from the original eleven volume series published in 1983 by Arthur H. Clark. The original volumes were compiled by the late Professor Kenneth Holmes of Western Oregon University. This anthology of eight unedited firsthand accounts was selected by Professor Michael Tate of the University of Nebraska.

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