A Woman’s Trip across the Plains Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“High teas were not popular but tatting, knitting, crocheting, exchanging recipes for cooking beans or dried apples or swapping food for the sake of variety kept us in practice of feminine occupations and diversions.”

Summary Overview

Like countless other Americans, Catherine Haun heard the stories of ordinary people who struck it rich in California following the discovery of gold there in 1848. Compared by many to El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, California was viewed as a place where anyone capable of hard work could earn his or her rightful due. As part of a group of travelers, Haun and her husband journeyed west in 1849 in the hope of “‘pick[ing] up’ gold enough” to settle their debts. Despite the many hardships she faced, including rough travel, fear of attack by American Indians, and rampant disease, Haun persevered, ultimately arriving safely in California late in 1849. Her chronicle of her journey, “A Woman’s Trip across the Plains,” provides a detailed contemporary account of a pivotal time in the history of both California and the United States as a whole. Haun records even the smallest details, such as the foods the pioneers ate, the clothing they wore, and the geological formations they encountered, thus providing later readers with an in-depth understanding of the pioneer experience.

Defining Moment

On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered several small pieces of gold while supervising the construction of a sawmill in what is now Coloma, California. News of his discovery spread quickly, and so-called gold fever soon affected countless Americans who saw in California the promise of lucrative rewards in exchange for difficult but profitable labor. Thousands traveled to California, seeking to start new lives on the West Coast or to return home after becoming wealthy. Of these travelers, only a few wrote accounts of their journeys, and memoirs such as Haun’s provide crucial details about the lives of those who traveled west in search of gold.

Those traveling along the trails to California faced many difficulties. Diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and typhoid were prevalent, and many travelers feared that they would be robbed, attacked, or killed by American Indians. Despite these hardships and the exhausting travel, many of those bound for California sought to take elements of their old lives with them. As Haun documents, the women of the trails held fast to their customs of socializing, swapping recipes and foods, knitting, and mending clothes. Such practices, Haun notes, “kept [the women] in practice of feminine occupations and diversions.” The women adapted to the use of dried buffalo dung (“buffalo chips”) as fuel in their cooking and cleaning and adjusted to the noise and openness all around them at night, but they would not part with the activities that nineteenth-century society expected of them as ladies. Performing these tasks—seemingly mundane chores—kept home traditions alive and ensured the survival of the travelers’ way of life despite the sweeping wind and dust along the plains.

Author Biography

Little is known about Catherine Haun’s life prior to her journey to California. She and her husband, a lawyer, lived near the town of Clinton, in eastern Iowa. Part of the French territory transferred to the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Iowa achieved statehood only three years before the Hauns’ departure for California and was renowned for its agriculture. Despite the state’s fertile fields, at least some residents of the Iowa were struggling financially by the time of the gold rush. Haun refers to “a period of National hard times” and notes that she and her husband, “being financially involved in . . . business interests near Clinton,” hoped to travel to California and find “gold enough with which to return and pay off [their] debts.” It is possible that the “period of National hard times” to which she refers was the aftermath of the Panic of 1837, which set off a depression that enveloped the United States for nearly a decade. Although Haun does not specify the nature of her family’s financial difficulties, it is possible that the Hauns’ “business interests” were affected by the economic upheaval of the period, prompting their move west in search of gold.

In early 1849, Haun and her husband began to plan their journey to California. They departed in April, accompanied by about twenty-five fellow Iowans. After enduring the many hardships and setbacks detailed in Haun’s memoir, the majority of the travelers arrived safely in Sacramento, California, in early November. In January, the Hauns settled in the small town of Marysville, where Haun’s husband established a law practice. Little is known about Haun’s life after this point, and whether she and her husband ever searched for gold themselves or returned to Iowa remains unknown.

Document Analysis

It is impossible to ascertain the thoughts that ran through Haun’s mind as she and her husband set off for California in 1849. However, it is safe to presume that worries about the weather and disease and the rumors of American Indian attacks on wagon trains were at the forefront of her mind throughout the journey. In this, Haun was similar to the many other women traveling across the plains. But the journey was also an adventure that took her out of the home, away from the limited domestic sphere, and plunged her into a relatively unknown realm. Along with the other women in her group, Haun adapted to cooking, mending, cleaning, and living out in the open. Although she witnessed death and accidents en route, she also worked to preserve elements of her life in Iowa, balancing the unpredictability of life on the trails with the customs and practices then considered essential to civilized society. As a detailed chronicle of Haun’s journey, “A Woman’s Trip across the Plains” can teach twenty-first-century readers much about the long and arduous trek made by those seeking wealth and new opportunities in California.

In her memoir, Haun states that she and her husband began seriously thinking of making the long journey in January of 1849. They must have decided to move forward with their plan quickly, for Haun notes that their party, which was made up of “some half dozen families,” was “thoroughly equipped” within a matter of months. “On April 24th, 1849,” she writes, “we left our comparatively comfortable homes.” Three months was a relatively short time in which to plan and prepare for such a journey, and the speed with which the travelers did so indicates that their area of Iowa was likely well stocked with the necessary provisions for the journey westward.

Careful preparation was crucial to the success of any such journey. In his work Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails, historian Frank McLynn notes that in 1843, each family migrating to the West Coast was recommended to bring “no less than two hundred pounds of flour and one hundred pounds of bacon for every family member, as well as other provisions—beans, rice, ship’s biscuits and dried fruit being particularly recommended” (130). A wagon, which Haun calls a “schooner,” was also required, as were spare parts and animals to pull the loaded vehicle. As trees were not always plentiful along the plains, lumber for repairs was also a necessity. McLynn estimates that fitting out a wagon and team cost between three hundred and six hundred dollars, a significant sum in the mid-nineteenth century.

The question of which animals were best suited to pulling the wagons was subject to debate. Although horses were used at times, the main choice was between oxen and mules, and there were arguments in favor of each. Mules, writes McLynn, “were tough and durable, moved faster, did not get sore feet as oxen did and could subsist on cottonwood bark and alkaline water” (56). Oxen, on the other hand, “were less likely to be stolen than mules . . . were better able to withstand fatigue, could exist on a wider variety of sparse vegetation, were less likely to stray from camp, were safer, more reliable and almost as fast” (56). Cost was also an important consideration, with a mule at times costing three times as much as a single ox. Haun touches on this debate in her memoir, writing, “It was very essential that the animals be sturdy, whether oxen, mules or horses. Oxen were preferred as they were less liable to stampede . . . and for long hauls held out better and though slower they were steady and in the long run performed the journey in an equally brief time.” Ever practical, Haun additionally notes that “in an emergency [the oxen] could be used as beef.”

Like a great number of those setting off for brighter futures on the West Coast, the members of the Hauns’ wagon train began their journey with far more possessions than they needed, and many of these items, both practical and impractical, did not make it to California. In this, they were not alone. For those crossing the plains, trying to fit as many items as possible within the wagons was understandable, though certainly not practical. These small touches of home, or convenience, allowed families to feel connected with their old lives and the communities they left behind. As they moved west, however, the travelers were often forced to leave possessions behind to lighten the wagons’ loads or make space for sick or injured individuals. The journey of Haun and the others in her wagon train was no different. She notes that after reaching Council Bluffs, a popular starting point for California-bound travelers located in western Iowa, she and her fellow travelers “made ready for the final plunge into the wilderness by looking over [their] wagons and disposing of whatever [they] could spare.” Later, Haun’s party was forced to leave behind more supplies in order to travel safely across mountainous terrain. Possessions left behind by earlier travelers became a common sight for those en route to California, and Haun adds that her party at times built campfires using wood from abandoned wagons.

Graves were another inevitable part of the scenery across the plains, as many travelers died along the way. Cholera, a commonly fatal disease caused by bacteria in contaminated water, took a number of lives along the trail. The disease was known to strike quickly and could kill a person in a day. Haun’s wagon train was lucky, as none of the members fell ill, but Haun and her companions were all too aware of the disease’s toll on their fellow travelers, seeing clusters of graves that “stood as silent proof of . . . cholera epidemic.” Accidents were also firmly a part of the westward experience, one to which Haun was a witness. One man in her party was bitten by a poisonous snake, and although the wagons carried various medicines, both commercial and homemade, these remedies were ineffective. The man’s leg was therefore amputated “with the aid of a common handsaw.” Despite the dangers of performing such an operation in unsanitary conditions, however, Haun reports that the man survived and remained a productive member of the group.

The survival of wagon trains such as Haun’s depended on a number of factors, perhaps most importantly food. The travelers had to be sure that they obtained supplies that would last the journey, and the women who went westward, Haun notes, tried their hardest to prepare good, though at times monotonous, meals. Haun even suggests that women were brought on the trails because their food was better than that made by men and therefore “prevent[ed] much sickness and . . . waste of food.” Cooking on the trail was not an easy feat, and even the act of making coffee could be difficult for one not acquainted to cooking in the open. However, the travelers soon adapted to their surroundings, and in addition to the supplies they carried with them, they found another food source on the plains. Widely known as the buffalo, the American bison served as a source of fresh meat for travelers bound for the West Coast. Haun notes that after killing two buffalo, her group enjoyed a meal of meat and roasted bone marrow. In addition to the meat and marrow, Haun mentions that the party made use of the buffalo’s hide; tallow, or fat; and chips, or dried dung.

After more than six months of grueling labor and unimaginably uncomfortable travel by wagon, foot, and horse, Haun’s journey across the plains came to an end in November of 1849, when her wagon train arrived in Sacramento. She and her husband settled in nearby Marysville in January. Although the journey was difficult, Haun and her companions were lucky; they arrived in California safely, with only two fatalities. Given the prevalence of disease among other groups of travelers, this in itself was a remarkable feat. Although neither Haun’s memoir nor the available historical sources reveal whether she and her husband achieved their goal of finding gold and settling their debts, they were successful in their journey, and Haun further succeeded in documenting it. By recording the details of her long voyage west, Haun provided a key resource for those interested in the lives of the many Americans who hoped to make their fortunes during the gold rush.

Essential Themes

Haun’s memoir reflects the concerns of her time, particularly the fear the wagon trains traveling to California would be robbed or attacked by groups of American Indians. This fear was common, though the frequency with which such attacks actually occurred during the period of westward expansion is unknown. The amount of contact, friendly or otherwise, that California-bound travelers had with American Indians is also unclear. In the memoir Across the Plains, Sarah Royce, who similarly traveled to California in 1849, recalls encountering American Indians at Council Bluffs—the same spot at which Haun’s party disposed of extra cargo. Royce writes, “From our first arrival at Council Bluffs we had been annoyed by begging and pilfering Indians” (34). Haun’s description of Council Bluffs, however, includes no such mention of American Indians.

It is difficult to determine the extent to which Haun, or her wagon train in general, engaged with American Indians during the journey, as her comments are vague. Her train held a drill in which the men, at the prompting of the party’s leader, gathered their weapons and stood in readiness, but this event seems to have been more a preparedness measure than a response to an expected threat. Haun did at one point come into visual contact with American Indians, as indicated by her statement that the party “saw nothing living but Indians, lizards and snakes.” By mentioning American Indians alongside lizards and snakes, Haun suggests that she viewed them more as hazards of the western environment than as fellow human beings. She also notes that they were “a source of anxiety” throughout the journey, although she does not discuss the rumors she may have heard in depth. In her discussion of the diseases prevalent among travelers, Haun mentions that American Indians contracted cholera and smallpox as a result of grave robbing and that many Indians were greatly pockmarked. This would suggest that her wagon train had more contact with American Indians than Haun indicates, but Haun keeps the details of these interactions to herself.

Bibliography
  • McLynn, Frank. Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails. London: Cape, 2002. Print.
  • Robinson, Forrest G. “Introduction: Rethinking California.” Rethinking History 11.1 (2007): 1–9. Print.
  • Royce, Sarah. Across the Plains: Sarah Royce’s Western Narrative. Ed. Jennifer Dawes Adkison. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2009. Print.
  • Shetler, Douglas. “Monetary Aggregates Prior to the Civil War: A Closer Look.” Journal of Money, Credit & Banking 5.4 (1973): 1000–1006. Print.
  • Vehik, Susan C. “Conflict, Trade, and Political Development on the Southern Plains.” American Antiquity 67.1 (2002): 37–64. Print.
  • Wadsworth, Ginger. Words West: Voices of Young Pioneers. New York: Clarion, 2003. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Brown, Sharon. “Women on the Overland Trails—A Historical Perspective.” Overland Journal 2.1 (1984): 35–39. Print.
  • Fryer, Judith. “The Anti-Mythical Journey: Westering Women’s Diaries and Letters.” Old Northwest 9.1 (1983): 77–90. Print.
  • Schlissel, Lillian. “Mothers and Daughters on the Western Frontier.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 3.2 (1978): 29–33. Print.
  • ---. Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken, 1992. Print.
  • Unruh, John David. The Plains Across: Emigrants, Wagon Trains, and the American West. London Pimlico, 1992. Print.

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