Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Crossing the Plains

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve”, I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family is really a classic, all-American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in along with some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career many years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together.


This is a continuation of Crossing the Plains, a fascinating tale of a covered wagon trip from Missouri to the Washington Territory in the post-Civil War period when the U.S. population poured to the West. It was written by a distant great great aunt, Barbara Jane Matlock McRae in 1939, when she was 81. This story will occupy this space for the next several weeks, as it is a fascinating peek into what we often consider the pioneer days.

Part 9


After leaving Walla Walla on our last lap of our journey, we campted a fiew miles for the night. We couldnet travel very fast though we had good stought mule teams. The next day we traveled on to ward our destination. We got near what was called central ferry that crossed the Snake River and campted again. There was a little old fashioned ferry there. A man was running it that was new at the buisness. He almost swamped the boat with all of us all on board it had not been for the assistance of my father. We would have broke loose and we would have drowned.

It took us too days from central ferry to the Palouse River. We traveled along through that rattle snake flat country, and we dident see a single person or any thing but bunch grass and cattle and horses feeding on it, just as fat as could be. The bunch grass was waist high in those days, and waved in the wind like a wheat field.

There was not a single settler through there, just a trail through the grass wtih an ocational sound of a whistle or a curlew that sounded very lonesom. There are no curlews left any more. We managed without any direction to strike the right trail to cross Union Flat and on to Rebble Flat. Of course we dident know the names of those flats but learned them afterwards. Now there is a fine highway on the same old trail that my father and familiy traveled in 1875 with mule teams. Finely after we left Rebble Flat we came in sight of the rocky cliffs of the Palouse River. We followed a canion down a couple of Indian trails until we came to the Palouse River. We were terably surpised. We expected to see a much larger stream. We stoped and debated wheather to cross the river and climb a steap hill on the other side but we finely decided to cross the river on the old rickty bridge that was there and follow the trail down the crooked stream, which was low at this time of year so we could forge it. We went about six miles and came to my uncles place. They were very much surpised to see us. They had heard from us four months before that we were starting across theplains, but as mail traveled slow in those days, they had heard no farther from us. We staid about a week at my uncles then we went back up the river where we furst came to that old bridge.

My mother decided it was just the place she wanted. There was a large log house. A man had taken a homestead and built the house. He lived there for a time and got tired of it, and threw it up and left it. My father took it, and filed a homestead onnit. This man that built the log house and lived there had put in a large garden with all kinds of vegetables and a large potato patch. It was a nice place. It had a little spring branch runing down the canion in front of the house with green trees and the Palouse River below the house.


I remeber the day we moved in to the house. It was August the 25th, 1875. We moved in the log house with our camping outfit. The sun shown bright and clear with the shadows on top of teh high cliffts back of the house, with the green trees on the cliffs and along the river as it wound its crooked way through the hase down under the high cliffs of red and brown and black rocks, it made a picture for an artist.

It has been 70 years since that day. The picture is still clear in my memory. Just above the house was a cold spring of water. My father built us a cellar house over this spring. It was alwaise a cool place to keep our milk and butter and the water was ice cold for drinking. In the log house there happend to be a big cook stove and a home made large dineing table that had been left there. There was a large fire place, and my daddy made us some home-made bed stands out of some scrap lumber that was their. He made us some stools to sit on, and with the too ole hicory chairs we brought across the plains, we got along very well. The first too years we were their, for lights we used pitch pine splinters stuck in the fire and slush lamps and tallow candles. My mother molded the candles in an old fashion candle mold. Our father and mother had to make too trips a year down to Walla Walla to get supplies for the family. All the rest of the settlers did the same. We bought in large quantities, enough for six months. Walla Walla was the nearest place we could get supplies.

Their wasent much work to do in that country at that time, onley herding sheep or riding on the range after cattle and horses.

We were pretty lonesom. The first winter their we got home sick. There wasent many young people their at that time. There was a good many dances around the sparcely settled country. That was all the place we had to go to. We generally went on horse back or in a four horse wagon with plenty of hay in it for the mules to eat during the night. As we danced all night we dident think anything of going ten or twelve miles to a dance, and we would dance till daylight. There seemed to be plenty of violins in the country and a good many old fashioned players. One old fellow I remember would play for nearly all the dances and would play all night long and never seemed to tire. For several years after we went their, dances was all the amusement we had.

As the country began to settle up, more young people came in. I remember the third year, one time in the spring my oldest brother John started to work on his homesetead. He had a long cabin, and I went out to cook for him while he was at work. One fore noon a young man came by and told us of a dance at Pine City it was, 18 or 20 miles from the homestead. Of course we wanted to go, we dident have any horses but large work mules. Down in the valley three or four miles away were a bunch of stray horses, we could tell some of them had been road by sadle marks on them. So my brother took one of the work mules and a laso rope and caught up too of the Indian ponys. We saddled them by putting blinds on them till we could get in the saddle. Women and girls road side saddles in those days, we had a good one we had brought across the plains with us. I was a good rider in those days. We road those too wild poneys that 18 miles to the dance, and danced all night. And believe me, our poneys were some what tamer the next morning on our return. We had a finetime!

The year 1876 that will be remembered by all was the year of the General Custer masicer by the Indians in the Big Horn bacin in Montana, and in our country, the year Chief Josph was making war on setlers just to the south of us.


My father rented a farm on Union Flat that belonged to an old bachlor. He had about 200 acres plowed and ready for seeing. It was about 13 miles from our homestead on the Palouse River. My father and mother and the three big boys went over their to work the place. I was left at home with the five small chldren to take care of, and to care for our garden and milk 12 cows and make butter. I and the oldest boy Robert did it. He was about 12 years old and I was 18 years old. In June 1877 while the crop was growing on the rented place, the three boys got a job for a spell with some sheep men. My father and mother had to make a trip to Walla Walla as our suplies were runing low, so were we alone at home.

We had herd rumers of Indians going on the war path. All such news had to be caried through the country on horse back, and we onley got mail too or three times a year in those days. I was left at home with those five children with no near neighbors, the town of Colfax at that time had begun to build up some but was no place to go to in an Indian uprising, as it is surounded by rocky cliffs. All the Indians would have to do would be to suround it and roll rocks down in the narrow streets of the town.

One morning while I was busy around the house, an excited man dashed up to the door with no saddle, his horse all covered with sweat and yealed at me to hitch up our team, we had a pair of small pony horses and a wagon, and get to Colfax at once as the Indians were coming. I wasent very much excited. I called all the children together and I toled them that it wasent safe for us, we had to go to Colfax, but that they had no fort their and if the Indians came they would suround the town and would kill every body. We had heard by some carier that their were several cases of malignent dipthera there in Colfax, and I was afraid to take the children up their. I thought we would be just as well at home, that we could hide some food out, and take some beding and clothes out and hide it in the brush and cliffs. If the Indians came in the night we could make a break and get into the brush and if they burned our house we could do for a fiew days on what we had hiden. We thought we could live in the small caves in the rocks, we never thought of the rattle snakes that live in the rocks too. We spent one whole day hiding things out. The same man that had given us the warning that the Indians were coming had warned all the rest of the fiew settlers, and of course they got excited, and made for Colfax. Ocationally someone would go by driving his team as fast as he could with his family and would call to us that we beter get ready and go too. I would tell them I was not going. They would call back and tell me I was crazy. I will never forget how brave my little brothers and sister was, especialy the six year old twins had plans, if the Indians came, what they would do.

That first night I was a little shaky and afraid to go to bed. I put the children all to bed, with a promise that I would sit up and watch. I and the dogs would keep watch for the Indians and that as soon as I would hear a disturbance among the dogs, that I would call them and they would get up and all of us would get out the back door and git into the thick brush. It might have been done, but now when I think of it, what a time I would have had, trying to get those five sleepy children out of the house with the front yard full of blood thirsty Indians on the war path.

I sat up all night in the front door with out any lights. The big dogs were by all the time, and no Indians came that night. In that country in those days we could hear a sound so far that I imagined several times as I sat their on watch, that I could hear the hoof beat of horses. Everything was peaceful around that day, and that second night we all took chances and went to bed, though I got up several times. About noon of the next day our father and mother drove in home from Walla Walla. We were sure a pleased bunch of youngsters to see them. They brought the news to us that a troup of soldiers and been sent up to the Camas Prarie country above Lewiston where the Indians had been killing white setlers and burning their homes. A little girl and her mother and two other women had been surounded in a house by about twenty buck Indians, they abused the women till they all died, then cut the little girls tonge out and burned everything.

TO BE CONTINUED ON SUNDAY, April 3

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
This publication is the exclusive property of Stephen J. Matlock and is protected
under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Stephen J. Matlock. All rights reserved.

9 comments:

Judie said...

Steve, this is getting more exciting all the time! She was one brave woman, wasn't she??

Ames said...

I wouldn't have dared to go off and leave my daughter alone in an unsettled territory like that. But I guess a 12 year old boy was considered a young back back in those days! She was one brave young girl Steve. I would be so proud to have such history in my family!

I love the pic too. It is definitely beautiful country up there.

Her reference to the all night dances were also written about in that book I read on women homesteaders. That was absolutely the only way to socialize back then. Unless of course if they had neighbors and churches nearby. And even then, I think churches were more for the benefit of socializing than worshiping.
This was great. Can't wait 'til next Sunday's installment! ~Ames

Ames said...

Ooops! Sorry about the typo. I meant to write a young man, and not a young back.~Ames

Pondside said...

I like to imagine the waist-high grass, and the slow passage along narrow trails - what an adventure. The all-night dances were a feature up here too, and day-long socials and barn-raisings. I young woman of 18 and a boy of 12 were, in those days, certainly seasoned enough to deal with just about anything.

La Petite Gallery said...

Getting better by the minute, some
adventure. yvonne

taylorsoutback said...

This is so much better than any book of fiction could ever be. Absolutely riveting - pioneer women were the most incredible people with inner strength beyond measure.
Eagerly waiting for the next installment!

Karen said...

People were definitely made of stronger stuff back in those days. What a brave young girl. I love the story about riding the horses to the barn dance!

This story keeps getting better and better.

H said...

What an incredibly brave lass! This is fascinating stuff :)

Mumsy, Chancy and Co. said...

Here to catch up on this wonderful story Steve. With all this family have been through they truly deserved that homestead. I am still enjoying reading this. Hugs