Thursday, July 11, 2013
The Inspiration Behind Raveled Ends of Sky
The Westward movement of the 1800s has seldom been portrayed in books and films from the viewpoint of the unmarried woman. Even those stories written about married women tend to lean toward the notion that women, in general, undertook the overland journey because they had no choice, and that every step of the way was a torturous affront to their delicate sensibilities.
In writing Raveled Ends of Sky, I wanted to dispel that myth. I wanted to show that although there were women who did not want to go West, there were just as many who took an active part in the decision to do so.
In 1849, Catherine Haun wrote of her journey west with her husband: "It was a period of National hard times and we being financially involved in our business ... longed to go to the new El Dorado and ‘pick up’ gold enough with which to return and pay off our debts.... Full of energy and enthusiasm of youth, the prospects of so hazardous an undertaking had no terror for us, indeed, as we had been married but a few months, it appealed to us as a romantic wedding tour."
In 1852, Lydia Allen Rudd traveled to Oregon with her husband. In her words, "We were leaving all signs of civilised life for the present. But with good courage and not one sigh of regret I mounted my pony and rode slowly on."
Raveled Ends of Sky hinged, to a large degree, on the motivations that drove my lead protagonist, Nancy Maguire, and her widowed friend, Lottie England, to join the Joseph Ballinger Chiles company in 1843. Chiles's company was only the second wagon train ever to undertake the overland journey to the Mexican province of California. The first wagon train to attempt the perilous journey had been in 1841 and was unsuccessful. No wagon road existed across the Great Basin or the mighty barrier of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The pioneers on that first journey were forced to abandon their wagons at the Sierras and walk the remaining distance, weak with starvation, to the California settlements on the coast.
In those early days, maps still did not exist, save those drawn on scraps of paper, or etched into the soil by some trapper's stick as he squatted near a fire before an anxious audience and tried to relate landmarks, water holes, and possible mountain passes. Chiles, and a few of the men who would be with him on his 1843 expedition to California, had made the journey in 1841. They had returned by horseback to Missouri in 1842. Although they still had not discovered the wagon road over the Sierras during that first expedition, they at least had a better idea of the best route south from Fort Hall and across the Great Basin. Finding a wagon road was the one thing Chiles wanted to accomplish more than anything.
Historical records are not consistent, but there appear to have been approximately six women and five children traveling with the Chiles company, including two unmarried women. One would automatically ask why those women agreed, or chose, to leave the relative comfort and safety of their homes to undertake a perilous journey to a foreign land where no wagon road had yet been discovered, and where rumors of revolutions and wars passed over the land with the regularity of the sun.
It has been said that people went West for three reasons: to get something, to get away from something, and just to get there. A study of the Westward movement reveals that men, at least, were usually motivated by financial difficulties, health problems of a family member, free land, business opportunities, or the call to be missionaries to the Indians. The discovery of gold in California and other areas lured thousands.
The women's characterizations in this book were crucial to the story's plausibility. "Gentle tamers" would not embark upon such a treacherous journey without men to protect them. Instead, the story called for highly independent women. Women who were driven by the desire for adventure and freedom from the restrictions placed on them by Eastern society.
For a while I entertained the notion that a single woman would have to be forced to embark upon such a dangerous journey alone. She would have to be running from something–a disastrous love affair, family problems, poverty, or scandal. But after numerous excerpts from women's diaries of the overland journey, I seldom found those things to be motivators for the women who journeyed westward, at least in the beginning.
Recently married nineteen-year-old Miriam A. Thompson Tuller set out for Oregon in 1845. "I was possessed with a spirit of adventure," she wrote, "and a desire to see what was new and strange."
Single woman Elizabeth Wood, traveling to Oregon in 1851 said, "I have a great desire to see Oregon ... the beautiful scenery of plain and mountains, and ... the wild animals and the Indians, and natural curiosities in abundance."
Many books about the overland journey end when that distant shore is reached, but the journey itself was only the beginning for the emigrants. For those in this book, who journey to California, getting settled in a foreign land where "gringos" were not welcome was as much of a challenge as the journey itself. As Eliza Gregson wrote of those difficult years before California became a possession of the United States, "We few women were very uneasy about this time for we did not [know] whether we were widows or not."
The reasons women went West were many and varied. But those unmarried women who set out alone–possibly more so than those who went with the protection of husbands and families–were possessed of the spirit of adventure that was fundamental in opening and taming new lands. They were stubborn and defiant, strong-willed and resourceful. They stepped out bravely into the unknown, risking their lives for a dream they could have no other way but by their own doing.
In Nancy Maguire and Lottie England I have tried to portray two single women who exemplified the courageous indomitability of the whole. Women who had nothing to lose by going West, and everything to gain. Women who possessed the tenacity and the fortitude to blaze the trails upon which an entire nation would follow.