A letter, written by Lydia Jones Simmons to her mother in 1852, recounts the unimaginable suffering and deprivation her family suffered on the trail from Indiana to Oregon.
The letter, passed down to genealogist Marian Fahr, details the events that occurred after Lydia, her husband Andrew, and their children, set out from her parents’ home for their new life, despite Lydia being heavily pregnant:
“Dear Mother, I embrace the first opportunity with such pleasure to give you some information in relation to our long and tedious journey … to this far distant country. We crossed the Missouri River on the 29th of May last in company with several families who had been travelling with us through Iowa. After having passed over near 1,000 miles, with blessings of Providence and health, and retaining a true faith in the Power which brought us thus far, to take us still farther, we were strengthened and borne up under all the fatigues of travelling, and why should we be discouraged at the prospects before us?”
Lydia tells her mother how their progress was halted at the banks of the Elk River for 2 days, unable “to cook food for ourselves or feed the cattle. But we drove out in the evening, and found plenty of water, wood, and grass, and with grateful hearts made some mush and ate it with milk for supper. The children appeared to be well-satisfied and we were all refreshed.” She casually adds that “during this encampment another son was added to our family.” Luckily, she was assisted in the delivery of her baby, as she says, “We fortunately fell in with a skilful physician, belonging to a company going to California which was as unexpected as it was fortunate.
They did not appear to have any hostile encounters with Native Americans on the journey, but she does write, “We were troubled some with Shawnee tribe of Indians. They would come to our camp and beg for food, clothes and everything else they could see.”
Their biggest threats were, in fact, illness and disease. Both Lydia and her baby became ill and were confined to the wagon for 7 weeks. They also suffered from taking unsafe water and food, “We found cool sulphur springs that we supposed to be good, and used it until the sickness commenced with us and the physician ahead sent back word that it was unhealthy.” They also became ill through eating infected beef and one man in their party died.
They were exposed to whooping cough, measles and small pox, but Lydia said that none of her family caught the diseases, until, that is, deadly cholera took hold. Lydia described it as a “scene of sorrow and sickness,” and she herself became dangerously ill with the disease. They sent for the doctor who was now travelling ahead with another party, but all he could rely on to treat her were ingredients hastily mustered from her party, such as “lobelia, alcohol, brandy, cayenne pepper, camphor, number six loaf sugar and everything he could think of.” Lydia took the concoction “constantly until daylight, but continued to grow weaker,” and they all believed that she was doomed. Miraculously however, she began to revive, driven by a faith that she would reach Oregon.
The doctor left to return to his own party, charging only what Lydia’s husband Andrew could afford, which was $4.85. However, less than 4 days later the doctor himself was dead, “called to surrender up his spirit to the God who gave it …”
To add to their woes, their son John fell ill “and it was all they could do to save him.” Andrew also became sick and “had to sit in the wagon to drive.” Another son, Charles, suffered a head injury caused by the wheel of the wagon and they thought he been killed, but he too made a miraculous recovery. Their daughter Elizabeth suffered “a violent spell of colic.”
A number of their party died through drinking unsafe water, the sources of which extended further than they thought, as well as to the cholera epidemic, so they split up to travel in smaller companies.
With their cattle now dying and their strength ebbing away, they finally reached their destination. However, it was far from being the Promised Land,
“We located a claim on timbered land and Andrew cut the logs for a house, when he was taken down with a fever and had to stay there two weeks. [Brother] Samuel and his sons and son-in-law raised the cabin and covered it for us. We are now living in it. We shall be hard run for provisions as the price of everything is very high and scarce.”
Lydia closes her letter by saying, “I suppose you will expect to hear something of the beauties of this great paradise called Oregon, but you must wait awhile before you can hear much flattering news from me …”
Read the full story by Harriet Gustason, writing for the Journal Standard