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"I have not told half we suffered": Overland Trail women's narratives and the genre of suppressed textual mourning.

Many literary critics have noted a distinct genre of ritualized texts about mourning in Victorian America. Authors such as Lydia Sigourney, Fanny Longfellow, and Frances Osgood, for example, inscribe an image of mourning that is excessive, sentimentalized, and embedded within an aspiration toward middle-class, genteel society. Yet, as this essay will show, this excessive, textualized, ritualized grief was but one of a number of strategies that women used to write about loss. Nineteenth-century diaries and letters written by women bound for the West on the Overland Trail represent grief in an equally ritualized fashion. These writers repeatedly suppress and minimize grief over the deaths of husbands, children, and friends in order to construct an image of westering women as tough, durable, and forever moving forward. However, this alternative, but equally ritualized, pattern of textual mourning becomes apparent only when we read the gaps and silences of these women's narratives.


What might account for these different textual representations of bereavement? The specific details of textual production--when and how a text is produced and for whom--impact the way genres evolve. So the actual circumstances of slowly composing a poem at home, as time and leisure allow, versus quickly inscribing the day's events in a diary or letter along the Overland Trail may produce significant differences in the category and type of text that results. (1) Women in settled communities would have different outlets for grief than women who penned narratives in environments where they often lacked the time, materials, and rituals that mark--and mitigate--grief in more settled communities.

Questions of audience play an important role in any text's production. For example, as Sandra Zagarell notes, Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney wrote for a large audience and for "popular consumption" (2681). Her writings, as did those of many other middle-class writers in the antebellum period, helped contribute to the popular phenomenon of the sentimental cult of mourning--or, as Ann Douglas calls it, "the domestication of death" (200). Their texts, like Victorian practices of keeping locks of hair, daguerreotypes of deceased infants, death masks, and other mementos, arguably helped preserve, even immortalize, the departed. As Gary Laderman points out, these mourning rituals also were part of the bourgeois ideologies of grieving families (39-41). Likewise, Elizabeth A. Petrino maintains that sentimental writers tailored their poems of motherhood, death, and Heaven (often portrayed as a domestic, "actual place") to readers with "middle-class aspirations to [gentility]"; thus the texts, for both writers and readers, "reaffirmed social position" and "[reflected] the coalescence of Victorian sentimentalism with bourgeois aspirations" (320). In settled, class-based, well-to-do communities, the deceased often served as a permanent "centerpiece" of sorts, whether as the subject of a text or as the focus of photographs, a death mask, or similar mementos. The presence of the text or material artifact encouraged readers, family, and friends to gather around and to grieve openly and sometimes excessively. Thus, the grieving ritual ultimately reinforced middle-class identity and community.

In addition to contributing to the culture of sentiment and its class-based underpinnings, New England writers also created ideologically appropriate models of maternal and textual grieving for a national audience. According to Cathy Davidson, technological advancements in the printing press after the Revolution, coupled with an increasing public demand for written material, meant that by 1830 texts--especially novels--often were produced in press runs of as many as thirty thousand copies (17). Authors within this burgeoning print culture reached a much larger readership than did women on the Overland Trail. Sarah Robbins reports that domestic poetry and prose by authors such as Sigourney, Lydia Maria Child, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick helped "support American mothers' astute management of domestic literacy and, hence, of national civic values" (572). In fact, these New England writers attempted to train mothers as educators of their children and as "national" mothers, but their sentimental elegies for dead children also taught "national" mothers how to grieve. As Petrino acknowledges, Sigourney was "known as ... the premier infant elegist of nineteenth-century America." Her poems, Petrino explains, "serve as an index of [middle-class] popular taste and reflect the ideology of motherhood in nineteenth-century America" (318).

Writings by women on the Overland Trail, however, present a subtler approach to grief, much less vocally mournful and less overtly geared toward creating or representing a national identity for a broad audience. As are their New England counterparts, these narratives are written with the sense of a larger audience beyond immediate family and friends; often the writer, like Sedgwick or Child, adopts an instructional mode in her rhetoric. Yet although numerous scholars have argued that these emigrant women maintained a conscious awareness of themselves as making history, their writing usually only indirectly addresses the self's duty to the nation. (2)

While the readership for these texts may not, then, be as broadly conceived as that of New England women's textual elegies, these texts do demonstrate a significant awareness of audience. Although today we might consider diaries and letters as texts written only to the self or to a single individual, Susan K. Harris notes that many nineteenth-century letters, as well as diaries, were written with the awareness that others would see them (51-52). The diarist's audience, then, Margo Culley argues, dictates how and what he or she describes (11-12). The sense of audience, according to Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff, should increase the readers' awareness of the context behind the writer's textual persona and behind what she or he writes or leaves unsaid (1-11). When it comes to Overland Trail diaries and letters (the latter of which often crossed genres to serve as diaries), scholars describe a relationship among writer, textual inclusion or omission, and audience. Of course, the audience is smaller than is a New England writer's, yet it is, nonetheless, one that the westering author wishes to reach. Both men and women on the Overland Trail often sent their diaries and letters to anxious family and friends remaining in the Midwest or East. (3) In addition, these texts circulated regularly to fellow community members. Harris argues that by the seventeenth century, the narrator of the diary acts as an "authorizing cognito, that is, an authorial self" who serves, for the audience, as recorder, organizer, and commentator (28). Frequently, the writer as "authorizing cognito" in Overland Trail narratives provides tips regarding clothing, medicine, points of interest, supplies, routes, possible dangers, and other useful information. Local newspapers even reprinted diaries and letters for those considering making the journey themselves. (4)

With active awareness, then, of an audience who would read the diary or letter, women on the Overland Trail often construct themselves as strong and forever moving forward, even while surrounded by the deaths of children, husbands, and fellow travelers. These writers treat death briefly and momentarily, and their loss and mourning rarely serve as focal points in their narratives, as such events do in New England elegiac writings. Rather, writers distract their audiences (and most likely themselves) by providing a whirlwind of other information. The Overland Trail writers' failure to explicitly record details of death and grief aids in the creation of personae that are hardy, resilient, and unfazed by great trauma and hardship.


New England women's texts of ritual mourning frequently focus on stasis and are informed by practices of mourning that are excessive and outward. In a diary entry dated September 1848, for example, New Englander Fanny Longfellow, wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, sadly muses upon the death of her infant daughter: "Struggled almost in vain with the terrible hunger of the heart to hold her once more. Every room, every object recalls her, and the house is desolation" (qtd. in Hoffert 604). The absence of Longfellow's daughter clearly hangs over the house and haunts this textual moment. At the same time, the home of the well-to-do Longfellows contains memories and objects that Fanny associates with the infant. In this settled, domestic space, the physical objects reflect and encourage her emotional grief, which she represents as a "terrible hunger." "Terrible" is an extreme, perhaps excessive adjective, and her sadness is the defining characteristic of her persona and of the entire narrative.

Similarly, Sigourney's 1827 poem "Death of an Infant" preserves and immobilizes its infant subject in textual mementos. The speaker informs us, "There had been a murmuring sound, / With which the babe would claim its mother's ear, / Charming her even to tears. The spoiler [Death] set / The seal of silence" (11-14). In the poem, personified Death robs the dying infant of its physical attributes, save for its "holy" smile (16), referred to as "The signet-ring of Heaven" (18). The smile (an indicator, apparently, of heaven's acceptance) remains on earth, preserved in the poem, where it might console the grieving parents. The poetic smile works like antebellum photographs of dead children in which family members pose deceased children as if comfortably asleep in bed, little smiles breaking across their cherub faces. In these photographs, the smile encourages grief from the family and friends and indicates the child's passing into a better place. While Sigourney's speaker does not share Fanny Longfellow's explicit sadness, the poem nevertheless speaks to a ritualized, outward display of communal (or audience) mourning, something the texts written by women on the way west often lack.

Finally, in Frances Sargent Locke Osgood's 1838 poem "The Little Hand," the speaker walks through an empty house, lamenting a dead child: "We wandered sadly round the room,--/ We missed the voice's play, / That warbled through our hours of gloom, / And charmed the cloud away--" (1-4). Osgood's speaker eventually finds a remaining signifier of the child: a faint, smudged handprint left on the mirror. Like Longfellow's own and Sigourney's narrator's, Osgood's speaker's grief is overt: in the space created by the actual departed child, the speaker's melancholy persona takes center stage, and the representation of mourning serves as a single, dominant poetic subject. These three texts quite explicitly overflow with emotion and sadness. They privilege mourning and grief within and for a larger Victorian culture that likewise understands, values, and practices the ritualized, outward display of death.


Writings by women traversing the Overland Trail do not highlight grief and death, although it was ever-present. The journey to Oregon and California often proved difficult, and, as Paul Rosenblatt notes, most travelers who did not mention death in their entries more than likely experienced it (12). The travelers also had to contend with disease, sickness, drowning, starvation, heat stroke, and Indians who could be dangerous. The daily routine of rising early, preparing food and packing wagons, walking or riding all day in often unfavorable weather conditions, stopping, setting up camp for the night, preparing dinner, and constantly attending to family needs took an immense toll and left little time for writing.

The settled environment (and often class status) of New England women writers provided them with favorable conditions for writing, such as time, leisure, servants for housework, and materials (a desk, ink, and sufficient amounts of paper). On the Trail, Margaret Walker counters, there were no servants, little free time for leisure and relaxation, and very few comfortable, adequate spots for writing (9). Some women, such as Elizabeth Dixon Smith, decided "to rise in the night when [her] babe and all hands was [sic] a sleep [sic] light a candle and write" (qtd. in Walker 8). These travelers carried very limited amounts of paper and ink and few instruments for writing. According to Walker, "Madison Berryman Moorman complained that a Mr. Shaw had lost his pencil and detained the company for almost an hour while he looked for it.... When seventeen-year-old Eliza Ann McAuley ran out of ink, she concocted a dye made from plants she gathered along the way" (8).

Besides lack of time and tools for writing, the emigrants did not have permanent homes in which they could surround themselves with daguerreotypes, death masks, and other mementos of the departed. We might view the emigrants on the Overland Trail as members of a temporary, transitory community, one that changed as travelers joined or fell behind various wagon parties. This group probably proved very different from the community left behind or the forthcoming, anticipated one. When people died, families buried them in shallow, unmarked graves not far from the Trail, and then the survivors moved forward. To the ephemeral traveling community, the permanent, domestic signifiers of death and collective displays of grief seemed to serve little purpose. In crucial ways, then, the Overland Trail served as the antithesis to the nineteenth-century home and the cult of mourning it supported.

The daily hardships of journeying (which would distract the writer) and, more important, the lack of ritual, materials, and domestic space may explain why women's diaries and letters say so little about loss and grief on the Trail. At the same time, the silences and omissions perform a crucial textual function: they keep the narratives moving forward. These writers do not construct themselves as overcome or consumed by grief and they do very little to elegize or memorialize the dead in their texts. Instead, these emigrant women, in the midst of actual mourning and physical and emotional hardship, construct themselves (for themselves and for their audience) as stoic, determined, tough, and continually looking toward the West. The tendency of these writers to suppress and minimize grief thus results in another ritualized, generic form of textual mourning.


Elizabeth Dixon Smith traveled from Indiana to Oregon in 1847 with her husband, Cornelius, and their seven children. Lillian Schlissel calls Smith's diary "[o]ne of the starkest stories among the overland dairies" (54), and Kenneth Holmes praises it as "one of the classics of western history" ("Diary" 111). Smith's diary, however, becomes a letter when Smith transcribes its contents in messages sent to two friends in Indiana. The first diary entry begins on 21 April 1847; the last falls on 24 February 1848. Most of her entries are very brief, consisting of one, two, or three lines; occasionally, Smith will record the day's events in a short paragraph. For much of the journal, she writes in a sparse, stripped manner: "April 28 made 18 miles encamped on the bank of the Ill River beautiful place" or "June 17 made 12 miles fel in with 18 waggons broke an exeltree layed by and made a new one stood guard all night in the rain" (117, 120). Usually she logs how many miles they have traveled; often a comment such as "August 2 made 15 miles" is the extent of the day's entry (127). Smith records geographic locations: "August 1 [Sunday] passed over the Rocky mountain the back bone of America" (127). She notes the weather: "May 10 fine weather layed by to wash" (118). Animals often serve as subjects: "[June] 24 ... saw hundreds of prairie dogs barking a bout" (121). And finally, natural monuments catch her eye: "July 8 made 12 miles saw chimney Rock it is a curiosity in deed" (123).

Harris sees nineteenth-century diaries as predicated on the movement of time:
 Entries in most nineteenth-century women's diaries begin with
  statistics: at the very least, diarists record the day of the week,
  the date, and their geographical location. Most record the weather; a
  few record the hour. The free flow of time is thus punctuated by these
  markers, and their repetition--the cyclical patterning of calendar
  time and weather--creates a tension between time's onward thrust and
  the fetters of time divided and categorized. Human beings live in the
  interstices of that tension, their imaginations thrusting them
  forward, into the future, and their daily routines retarding their
  advance. (27-28)

In Smith's various entries we feel time passing, while simultaneously, as Harris argues, the dates serve as interruptive markers signifying pauses, as temporary halts. Of course, Smith records stopping for the night or setting aside a day for laundry rather than traveling. She pens physical moments of stasis and immobility; at the same time, the text, with Smith as the authorizing persona, always pushes onward to the next day, the next page, and the next town. While the dates reflect a day's literal beginning and end, they also contribute to the overall sensation of a continual movement within time, as days rapidly blend into each other. Smith's clipped, bare-bones inscriptions allow June 16 to give way quickly to June 17, and so on. If her text is marred by gaps and stops (represented in dates), her rapid-fire phrases flow concurrently without the burden of punctuation (another marker reflective of stopping or pausing). Her sentences elicit a continual sense of movement, of progression from town, plain, mountain, and valley. (5)

As they reached Oregon in November 1847, Cornelius Smith fell ill. The entry for November 15 simply states, "rainy day" (142). Entries for November 16 and 17 are similar two- to three-word statements regarding the weather. On November 18, Smith writes, "My husband is sick it rains and snows" (142). Here she begins to address the unhappy reality of her husband's condition, but rapidly suppresses it by recording the unpleasant weather. She then launches into details about waiting on the banks of the Columbia River for a boat to take them to Portland. More than anywhere else in her diary, we see Smith in her most explicit outpouring of emotion. Yet she closes this entry, "I have not told half we suffered. I am inadiquate to the task" (143). This admission serves a double function. She hints that much more hardship has occurred than she admits in the text, but her inadequacy proves a rhetorical tool that ultimately works in her favor: it mutes the hardship and allows Smith and her narrative to continue moving--through what remains unsaid. These hints of suffering surface periodically throughout the rest of the diary, and Smith's persona always contains them by employing similar rhetoric.

A few months later, Cornelius died in Portland. On 1 February, she writes, "[Tuesday] rain all day this day my Dear husband my last remaining friend died" (146), summing up her grief in one brief sentence. The next day: "Feb 2 to day we buried my earthly companion, now I know what none but widows know that is how comfortless is that of a widows life ... espesily when left in a strange land without money or friends and the care of seven children--cloudy" (146). In this passage, much of her language suddenly seems borrowed, sentimental, the rhetoric of Longfellow, Sigourney, or Osgood. This shift into sentimentality operates in two ways: on the one hand it allows her to accept reality, but because of the textual distance from her own usually unemotional persona, she is also able to move beyond the situation. After this, she returns to the subject of weather. There is something normal, familiar--possibly even comforting--in observing the cloudiness. Throughout the narrative Smith records the weather, but upon Cornelius's death, her writing seems to take on a more significant function. Perhaps the weather serves as an "objective correlative," what T. S. Eliot describes as a "set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked" (48). The objective correlative (rain, gray, clouds=death and sadness) provides a manner in which Smith may grieve without actually giving voice (and presence) to grief in her narrative.

In her study of Agnes and Helen Stewart's Oregon Trail diaries, Theresa Gaul notes that the two sisters often describe their experiences poetically and thus differently from the terse and "practical" travel writings of men in the 1840s. Yet, says Gaul, when it comes to penning death, the two sisters fall silent. For the Stewarts, death "happens in a manner unscripted by cultural narratives and thus remains unspoken in their writings" (206). It seems the reverse with Smith. While also perhaps reluctant to write too much about death, what she does offer appears as the language of sentimental poets, a subject position outside her immediate one. As readers, we must imagine the immensity of her misery and helplessness as she sits by her husband's body in Portland--her realization that she has finally reached the end of the Trail, only to find herself alone with her children. In the text, however, she expresses (and contains) this grief in two dates, two brief entries.

Furthermore, Smith describes herself as a mourning widow only briefly; at least on the exterior of her narrative, she refuses to let this identity categorize and contain her. Unlike the New England writers, she also will not allow grief or mourning to serve as the explicit subject of her text. Instead, she returns to describing the Pacific Northwest's weather. In each of the seven days following Cornelius's death, she documents the rainy, blustery conditions. As we have seen, weather works as a normalizing, familiarizing, and perhaps psychologically expressive tool throughout her diary; here, it allows Smith's textual persona to move forward. From the moment of Cornelius's passing to the end of the diary, Smith relays the weather, the geography, and the move from Portland into the Willamette Valley. She makes no further mention of her husband.

Smith eventually married Joseph Geer, and the two, along with their children, settled outside of Salem, Oregon. A few years later, she wrote another letter to Paulina Foster and Cintha Ames, her friends in Indiana. This second letter, with "September 2 1850 oregon Ty [Territory] yam hill county" boldly emblazoned across the top, symbolically represents the Western end of her journey, her arrival in the "Land of Promise," as Walker calls it (4), and her triumph over the journey's hardship. She proudly states, "I promised when I saw you last to write to you when I got to Oregon and I done it faithfully" (149). Smith then briefly recounts her misfortunes and the death of Cornelius. But she spends very little time on these subjects, instead writing, "I will only indever to hold up the bright side of the picture" (149). The "bright side" clearly indicates that she and her family have experienced trouble, but she pushes her difficulties and grief to the margins so that her readers will remember her standing in the light, in the promised land of Oregon. She then discusses her new routine, affirming that she has made a life for herself in the West. As if to further her point, Geer, who refers to himself as "her old Yanky husband," closes off the letter, attesting to Smith's good health and to "how fat she has become" (151). After boasting of "ten thousand apple trees, & about 200 pear trees on hand," Geer calls Oregon the "best country in the world" (152). Overall, Smith's suppression and downplaying of mourning, at times, and her refusal to inscribe it, at others, work to represent her as tough and determined; most important, her minimalism, silences, and exclusions keep her narrative and her persona moving forward.


Keturah Belknap, her husband George, their children, and George's parents all made the trip from Iowa to Oregon in 1847. Rather than a traditional diary, Kenneth Holmes observes, Belknap kept what she called a memorandum, a running commentary in which she relayed events since the last entry ("Commentaries" 189). From 1839 to 1848, she provided a detailed narrative of her life in Iowa as well as her subsequent journey west. Unlike Smith, Belknap structures her narrative in long but organized paragraphs. She spells words correctly and at times uses punctuation. When one places this narrative next to Smith's diary, Belknap's work appears to shift from diary, to letter, to sketch; in fact, Belknap seemingly crosses literary genres. Despite the two texts' different visual appearances, however, Belknap's writing employs similar modes of self-construction. Although her particular audience is unclear, the mixing of genres perhaps suggests that Belknap envisioned a wider range of people reading her work than simply family, friends, or community members. (6)

Belknap's text is also different from the other women's in that roughly half describes her life at home on the Iowa frontier; the other half documents the family's journey from Iowa to Oregon. Because of her settled home and surrounding Methodist community, the conditions of textual production for Belknap are closer to the above-discussed New England women writers. Even so, there is little room for an excessive presentation of mourning. In Iowa, despite the presence of home and community, Belknap's writing exhibits many of the same textual characteristics as that of other emigrant women; unlike Longfellow, Sigourney, or Osgood, she does not explicitly write of grief and mourning. On the move west, she suffers from the same shortage of supplies as do the other travelers, which limits her presentation of grief and even of important events. She later states, "For want of space I must cut these notes down; will pass over some interesting things" (228).

A consistent topic of Belknap's diary is labor. From household chores to feeding animals to helping plan the erection of a church, every page reveals an incredible amount of work. In Smith's diary, the day-to-day inscriptions of miles traveled, sights seen, and weather conditions lull the reader into a sense of repetition, a repetition that helps create movement and progression forward. Belknap's commentary also evokes a cadence of repetition with its page-after-page representation of tasks started and completed. At one point, she writes, "[I]n the morning the first thing I did was to mix the dough and put it in the oven and by the time we had breakfast it would be ready to bake; then we had nice coals and by the time I got things washed up and packed up and the horses were ready the bread would be done and we would go on our way rejoicing" (195). Later she mentions, "The work of this year will be about the same. I have been spinning flax all my spare time thru the winter, made a piece of linen to sell, got me a new calico dress for Sunday and a pair of fine shoes and made me one homemade dress for everyday" (199). We see many similar passages describing tasks and chores.

Culley argues that repetition serves another crucial function in diaries. The repetition of actions, large or small, reflects their importance to the writer and simultaneously builds the "plot" (19). Harris similarly sees repetition as an indicator of what the writer values, thereby giving us a larger sense of the culture as well as the diarist (29). In Belknap's text, sentence after sentence recounts something about the labor involved in maintaining the family's Iowa farmhouse and community. It is obvious that she sees herself as an able and hard worker, willing to engage wholeheartedly in various types of labor--both within the home and within the community. If Belknap has an audience in mind, this is how she would like them to view her. When she sets forth on the Trail, she creates the same industrious persona. Belknap's particular, repetitive construction of herself stays in the minds of her readers, and it will serve as a crucial rhetorical supplement for her (and her audience) when she eventually comes up against death.

In November of 1843, she writes,
 I have experienced the first real trial of my life. After a few days
  of suffering our little Hannah died of lung fever so we are left with
  one baby. I expect to spend this winter mostly in the house but as we
  have meeting here at our house I can see all the neighbors twice a
  week for we have prayer meeting Thursday evenings.
    Have commenced to build a church on our land; it will be brick. We
  are going to have Quarterly Meeting here about Christmas; if it gets
  very interesting will protract it thru the holidays. (207)

As we do in reading Smith's text, we hear the grief in the silence of Belknap's text that she and her husband feel over the death of a child. Like Smith, however, Belknap pens only two sentences on Hannah's death. With the exception of her mention of "the first real trial of my life," which sounds curiously like a throwback to the theological reasoning of seventeenth-century Calvinism, her tone remains very calm, matter-of-fact, and distanced.

Of course, as Rosenblatt points out, loss was common in the lives of nineteenth-century Americans, who dealt with high infant and child death rates, terrible medical care, unsanitary water, cholera, typhoid, and smallpox epidemics (12). Yet, as Sylvia Hoffert asserts, "No matter how resigned parents were to the possibility that their babies might die, they were seldom able to defend themselves adequately against the emotional pain" (601). Unlike Northeastern (and New England) texts that explicitly express grief, Belknap's diary suppresses all "the emotional pain." Immediately following the two sentences recounting Hannah's death come the inscriptions in which Belknap looks ahead to winter and Christmas, when the house will serve as the community center for prayer meetings. The grieving persona is present, but the hard-working persona follows immediately, crowding into the spotlight; the latter pushes Belknap's narrative forward beyond the slight, textual admission of sadness over her child's death.

A similar pattern occurs in June of 1845 when she writes, "I have had to pass thru another season of sorrow. Death has again entered our home; this time it claimed our dear little John for its victim. It was hard for me to give him up but dropsy on the brain ended its work in four short days. When our pastor was here a week before he said he thot that child was too good for this wicked world" (209). Belknap reveals more emotion and grief than she has done previously. As with Smith, however, the elevated, poetic language ("pass thru," "season of sorrow") and the personification of death ("entered our home," "it claimed," and "its victim") essentially allow Belknap to accept and finalize the situation but also to defer it, passing it off as something not her own. The pastor's comments regarding "this wicked world" and Belknap's need to "give [her son] up" also strongly imply that God willed the death, that He demanded the child. If it is God's desire to take John to Paradise, then to mourn their earthly loss essentially places his grieving parents in opposition to God. There are higher laws for Belknap, laws that may explain the lack of mourning in her narrative. Finally, the verb "pass" is emblematic of textual, physical, and spiritual movement beyond the death; on the same page, she mentions in November 1845 that they have a new baby girl. In this moment, Belknap minimizes the joy of a new child and instead writes of herself as busily at work on the church and house meetings. Her narrative moves quickly from June to October to November. This allows Belknap's audience to see her as less confined to motherhood and its sorrows and joys and more as an ever-moving, industrious worker.

Two years later, in 1847, she writes of "a strange fever raging here (it is the Oregon fever)" (209), and soon after, she reflects on her own family's decision to follow the other westbound wagons. Before setting out, the family must endure yet another death. Belknap writes, "My dear little girl, Martha, was sick all summer and the 30th of October she died, one year and one month old. Now we have one little baby boy left. So now I will spend what little strength I have left getting ready to cross the Rockies" (213). The repeated encounters with death have taken their toll on her. At this point, she sounds the most fragile. Again, only two sentences actually record Martha's death; immediately following them comes her description of more work: preparing to set forth on the Overland Trail. The next few entries portray her busily preparing for the journey.

For the remainder of her memorandum Belknap writes, in detail, of the move west. Her audience reads of no more experiences of death along the way and sees few, if any, indications of overwhelming adversity. Instead, she describes herself as being as busy and industrious as she was in her Iowa home. Smith's diary reveals her as the center of activity; Belknap's text employs a similar mode of representation. Her narrative concludes with the statement, "Some of the men went thru to Fort Hall on horse back and returned to meet us and say we can make it by noon" (229). These lines serve as an appropriate, teleological ending. Even more appropriate is Holmes's editorial comment, "[The record ends here ... Keturah was too busy to continue to record the concluding days of their cross-country journey]" (229). Her audience can fill in what she has left unfinished and unsaid with the mental picture of Belknap hard at work, busily helping her family and herself on the latest project of moving west. As with Smith, Belknap pushes mourning and despair out of her text in favor of constructing a determined, hard-working self, one capable of making it to Oregon.


Virginia E. B. Reed, a girl of thirteen, traveled from Illinois to California and was a member of the infamous Donner-Reed Party. Upon having taken a route believed to be a shortcut, the travelers found themselves stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains during a brutal winter. Many perished; others survived by eating the bodies of the deceased. Virginia Reed was one of the survivors. From Napa Valley, on 16 May 1847, she wrote a letter to her cousin Mary in Illinois; in it she describes the horrifying winter in the mountains. As a writer, Reed proves different from either Smith or Belknap in that she reveals much more explicitly the death and trauma she witnessed. She voices more grief than the others do, yet at the same time she employs rhetorical strategies of silencing and omission that align her with Smith and Belknap.

Reed's narrative is that of a young, uneducated writer. Her letter appears as one long, flowing statement. She rarely structures it in paragraph format; she capitalizes various words; she frequently misspells; she jumps from event to event rather randomly and disjointedly; she seldom uses punctuation. In a gigantic, stream-of-conscious gasp, her writing pours forth, spilling out observations of events, situations, landmarks, and people. As a letter, it proves both exhausting and intriguing to read; her audience can almost hear the excited, breathless voice of the young girl telling her story.

In the visual chaos of her narrative lie simultaneous order and movement. As in Smith's diary, an overall lack of punctuation prevents Reed's narrative from slowing or stopping; rather, readers internalize a quick, continual sense of motion. The fact that her text largely appears as one statement also contributes to its continuity and speed. Written after the journey, her letter still focuses mostly on the Donner-Reed Party's winter in the mountains. In actuality, it describes a period of stasis and immobility, but readers never feel this as they read. As with Smith's and Belknap's texts, Reed's writing ultimately moves toward an endpoint beyond the death and hardship she has witnessed.

At the letter's opening, she constructs herself and her family as composed and in good spirits. She writes, "My Dear Cousan May the 16th 1847 I take this oppertunity to write to you to let you now that we are all Well at presant" (74). This greeting immediately signals a vital accomplishment: the family's journey beyond the horrible winter. She then states, "My dear Cousan I am a going to Write to you about our trubels geting to Callifornia" (74). Finally, stepping backward in time, Reed describes the nightmare in the mountains:
 we stoped thare the 4th of November & staid till March and what we had
  to eat i cant hardley tell you & we had that man & Indians to feed
  well thay started over a foot and had to come back so thay made snow
  shoes and started again & it come on a storme & thay had to come back
  it would snow 10 days before it would stop ... it come a storme and
  thay lost the road & got out of provisions & the ones that got throwe
  had to eat them that Died not long after thay started we got out of
  provisions. (77)

In this passage, we see a familiar rhetorical tool--"i cant hardley tell you." This admission sounds similar to Smith's statement--"I have not told half we suffered." Reed's reluctance to reveal more about the cannibalism forces her audience to fill in the eerie gaps and silences. The reader can easily imagine her shock, horror, and consequent desire to voice what she has witnessed; at the same time, Reed's narrative pulls its readers away from these gaps and silences toward other subjects and in other directions; in fact, the impact of the cannibalism dramatically lessens because of Reed's rapid-fire, stream-of-conscious writing. Her persistent use of "they" (or "thay") also helps differentiate herself from those resorting to cannibalism. Ultimately, Reed's avoidance and narrative distancing allows her persona to move beyond the spectacle.

Like Smith and Belknap, whenever Reed reveals something in her text, she also pulls away from it. Terrible in its own degree, her description of the family pet's fate is more precisely detailed than that of the family's fellow travelers: "we had to kill littel cash the dog & eat him we ate his head and feet & hide & evry thing about him o my Dear Cousin you dont now what trubel is" (78). In having to delineate degrees of hardship and horror, Reed's closer focus on consuming the dog rather than humans allows her written persona to maintain its civilized dignity.

Toward the end of her letter, Reed writes,
 O Mary I have not wrote you half of the truble we have had but I hav
  Wrote you anuf to let you now that you dont now what truble is but
  thank the Good god we have all got throw and the onely family that did
  not eat human flesh we have left every thing but i dont cair for that
  we have got through but Dont let this letter dishaten anybody and
  never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can[.] (80-81)

This passage reveals a much deeper, darker, understanding of "what truble is." But like Smith, who acknowledges, "I have not told half we suffered," Reed has not explicitly confessed to Mary "half of the truble we have had." Much more has occurred in the mountains than would be included in this narrative. This motif serves a double function of affirmation and deferment. Reed then begins to move beyond the horror by articulating what she and her family are not: ultimately, consumers of "human flesh." William Merrill Decker argues, "The burden of the letter ... is to identify this moment as the furthest point in Reed's experience from any affirmable normality, and to assert a measure of normality regained that encompasses both Reed and her Cousin Mary" (89-90). "[T]ruble" lingers in the darkness; this place is not where Reed--nor Smith nor Belknap--desires her audience to envision her. To reclaim this "normality," the young girl continues to inscribe physical movement beyond the horror: "we have all got throw," she writes, and "we have left every thing." Then she repeats, "we have got through." Culley's and Harris's arguments regarding the importance of repetition for the diarist are applicable here. Yet the triple mention of escape is not only for Reed herself. Through stressing physical motion, Reed wishes for her audience to understand the distance that she and her family have traveled to escape the horror.

She includes a postscript, a sort of afterthought that helps strengthen this sense of "normality." It portrays Reed and her family in the light of sunny California, away from the frozen, dark horror of the mountains: "We are all very well pleased with Callifornia partucularly with the climate let it be ever so hot ... it is a beautiful Country" (81). She later writes, "we are all verry fleshey Ma waies 10040 [140] pon and still a gaing I weigh 80" (81). Smith's diary and Reed's letter both refer to weight gain as a marker of emigrant success; Reed's text, however, contrasts the abundance of food and weight gain in the "beautiful country" to the starvation and lack of culturally acceptable food in the mountains. Finally, Reed closes by asking her cousin to pass the letter to others: "Mary take this letter to uncle Gurshon and to all tha i know to all of our neighbors and tell Dochter Meniel and every girl i know and let them read it" (82). It is her last textual chance to assert to as many people as possible her position as survivor in California.

Although written after her experiences, Reed's letter inscribes two forms of motion: that of the physical journey along the Overland Trail and that of the mental journey away from darkness and horror. As Decker sees it, "Reed meant for this letter to present her as one unclaimed by the moral darkness of this experience, and to clear her of any imputations of barbarity that should render her perhaps more [culturally] absent than death itself could render her" (90). Reed has peered into the darkest corners of death and hardship, so it seems appropriate that she pulls herself away from the shadows to write herself back into presence and "normality" and simultaneously construct herself and her family as survivors. As they must with Smith and Belknap, readers must attend to the overall silences and exclusions of Reed's narrative and understand how the experiences in the mountains have scarred her. However, this is not the image or persona she desires to create in the text. Rather, she puts forward the tough front that we have seen the other writers construct.


Ultimately, what unites these three different women are the rhetorical tactics they use when, surrounded by death and misfortune, they still present themselves as strong and composed. This small sampling of texts is representative of other women's narratives on the Trail. For example, in two 1847 and 1848 letters to her parents, Rachel Fisher Mills speaks of her dead husband and daughter and admits experiencing "anguish and bitter mourning" and "being deprived of one of the two objects which I held more dear then any other earthly object" (99, 103). Yet these candid passages are very brief; the majority of her letter describes her arrival in Portland, the people of Oregon City, the price of bacon, wheat, and sugar, and the variety of trout, deer, bear, berries, apples, and trees in western Oregon. Like many others, Mills shows herself making a new life in the new land. Similarly, after arriving in Oregon in 1845, Anna Maria King wrote a letter to her family: "But listen to the deaths: Sally Chambers, John King and his wife, their little daughter Electa and their babe, a son 9 months old, and Dulancy C. Norton's sister are gone" (42). She knows these people, yet the list of the dead is quick and matter-of-fact. Then, she closes the list: "and as for myself I was never heartier in my life since I left Missouri. I have not had even one sick day" (42-43).

Tabitha Brown also experienced hardship on the Overland Trail, including Indian attacks and lack of food. Yet, in an 1854 letter to her brother and sister, she writes, "Through all my sufferings in crossing the Plains, I had not once sought relief by the shedding of tears.... The same Faith and hope that I had ever in the blessings of kind Providence strengthened in proportion to the trials I had to encounter" (56). Brown does not question or lament the suffering and hardship--it is God's plan. The trials through which believers must pass position Brown alongside the other pioneer women who inscribe themselves as tough and composed. Finally, in an 1849 letter to her family, Louisiana Strentzel writes,
 I at last have an opportunity of writing to let you know that we are
  alive and have reached in safety the borders of the promised land. We
  have made our way through a wilderness of eighteen hundred miles;
  underwent many hardships and privations; passed through many dangers
  and difficulties; crossed garden and desert; landed safely in
  California and are enjoying very best health at present. (250)

In this passage, the hardships are minimized textually and the focus is on the strong, healthy, resilient westering woman.

If, as scholars have maintained, these emigrant women were aware of themselves as making and writing history, then we might wonder if they considered the types of images or personae they created as also emblematic of a new kind of history. What seems evident, at the least, is that they saw no room for an abundance of grief and mourning in their texts. In this way, these women differ from New England women in settled communities. Perhaps if the journeying women indeed had had sufficient time, leisure, comfortable spaces for writing, and ample supplies, they would have expressed grief and mourning in ways similar to their New England counterparts. However, not all of the Overland Trail women discussed here wrote their narratives while traveling; many wrote after the journey, at a time when one would assume that their environmental and material conditions would have been closer to those of Longfellow, Sigourney, and Osgood. Nevertheless, their texts usually leave out the overt, sentimental characteristics of their contemporaries.

Elegies and other mourning texts are ritualized, generic responses to grief, but so, too, are the westering women's minimalist accounts of death and mourning. It might be possible to study how (or if) these writers knowingly created "rules" for emigrant epistolary and diary genres. The main difference, however, between the two types of writing lies in how some writers, their texts, and their sentimental culture privilege death, grief, and mourning, while other writers, their texts, and their (at least temporary) lack of sentimental culture decenter death in favor of other subject matter. Of course, there are exceptions to any situation, and my intent has not been to assert a strict division between "sentimental New England women writers" and "stoic Overland Trail women writers." Depending on the writer, we may just as easily read a tight-lipped Northeastern account of death and mourning and an explicit, grief-stricken Overland Trail response. In the end, however, as these emigrant women set forth on a new life and described their adventures for those back home, it would appear from the works presented here that they glossed over, minimized, and sometimes entirely left out a huge part of the reality--and the finality--that many of them directly experienced in order to create a new type of persona, one who persevered over grief and loss.


I would like to thank the editors and readers of Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers for their helpful comments. I would also like to thank Susan K. Harris, whose interest in diaries and letters first sparked my own and who has repeatedly devoted time and energy to assist me in fine-tuning this paper.

1. Although diaries and letters are separate genres, they bear enough similarity in the context of my discussion of the writings of some of the women who traveled the Overland Trail women to fall under a broader category of autobiography or life-writing.

2. See Butler 5; Schlissel 9; Tompkins 84; and Walker 4.

3. See Gaul 200; Schlissel 10; and Walker 4.

4. See Schlissel 10; and Walker 4.

5. In her original two letter-diaries (shelved under "Geer," Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland, Oregon, Mss. 1512), Smith conserves space on the page, writing tightly and neatly. In all likelihood, she probably brought little paper with her on the move west. Her handwriting is very small. She does not use paragraphs or divide her days into separate sections. She fills both sides of the page. What is particularly interesting, visually, in the original documents, is Smith's "forward-flowing, elongated script," which, according to Walker, is common in both Overland Trail men's and women's diaries and letters (6). Smith's "forward-flowing" lines symbolically suggest a self leaning forward, toward the future.

6. Holmes mentions that other "running commentary" versions of Belknap's narrative exist ("Commentaries" 192). One, located at Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, Washington, is entitled "History of the Life of My Grandmother, Kitturah Penton Belknap. Copied from the Original Loaned Me by My Cousin, Walter Belknap, son of Jessie Spoken of in This Manuscript." (Holmes points out that the grandchild misspells Belknap's first and middle name.) Another commentary, "Ketturah Belknap's Chronicle of the Bellfountain Settlement," discusses the later life of the Belknap family and was published in the September 1937 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly, twenty-four years after Belknap's death in 1913. These other versions are interesting to consider in light of the mixed-genre of the version I discuss, especially when we consider her possible intended audience(s).


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Author:Voeller, Carey R.
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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