How Polly Elliott Came Across the Plains

by Ella M. Sexton

This is the story of a little girl who in 1849 rode all the way from Ohio to California in an emigrant wagon. Polly Elliott has grandchildren of her own now, but she remembers very well the spring morning when her father came home and said to her mother, "Lizzie, can you get ready to start for the land of gold next week?" She hears again her mother saying, "Oh, John, with all these little children?" She says her father answered by swinging her, the eleven-year-old Polly, up to his shoulder and calling out, "Here's papa's little woman; she'll help you take care of them," as he carried her round the room, laughing.

This was "back East," as Polly Elliott, now Mrs. Davis, says,—in Ohio, where they had a pretty white house set round with apple and peach orchards all white and pink that May day. Her mother cried because they must leave the house, and because they had to sell all their furniture and the stock except Daisy, the pet cow, and Buck and Bright, the oxen, who were to draw the wagon. A round-topped cover of white cloth was fixed on the big farm-wagon. Then they piled into it their bedding in calico covers, a chest or two holding clothes and household goods, a few dishes and cooking things, and plenty of flour, corn meal, beans, bacon, dried apples and peaches, tied up in sacks.

Polly says she supposed the trip would just be one long picnic, while the four children thought it fine fun to "sit on mother's featherbed and go riding," as they said. So they started off for California. A long, long ride these emigrants had before them; a weary trip, plodding along day after day with the patient oxen walking slowly and the burning sun or pelting rain beating down on the wagon cover. There was a train of other wagons with them, some pulled by horses but more by yoked oxen, and the men walked beside the animals and cracked long whips. A few men were on horseback, but all kept together, for Indians were plenty and were often hiding near the road, watching for a chance to cut off and capture any wagons lagging behind the party.

Day after day, Polly told me, they travelled westward to the setting sun. They left the orchards and shady woods of Ohio and Indiana far behind them, and crossed the wide prairies of Illinois and Missouri also. When they came to rivers they drove through shallow fording-places, where Polly and the children used to laugh to see the little fishes swimming round the wagon wheels. Sometimes the rivers were deep, and the wagons were ferried over on a flatboat that was fastened to a wire rope, while oxen and horses swam through the water behind them. If it did not rain, the children and all were happy, and it did seem like a picnic. But Polly says she never hears the rain pouring nowadays as it did then, and that there were many times when they were wet and cold and miserable, and because the wood and ground were wet they could not even have a fire.

At night the teams were unhitched and the wagons left in a circle round a big camp-fire, where supper was cooked. Polly says her mother used to bake biscuits in an iron spider with red-hot coals heaped on its iron cover, and these biscuits with fried bacon and tea made their meal. They always cooked a big potful of corn-meal mush for the children, and this, with Daisy's milk and a little maple sugar or molasses, was supper and breakfast too. Then the women and children cuddled up in the wagons for the night, while men slept, wrapped in blankets, around the camp-fire or under the wagons, with one always on guard against danger from prowling Indians or wolves.

Every man or boy carried a rifle or shotgun, and killed plenty of game. Deer and antelope were always in sight after they crossed the Missouri River, and the meat was broiled or roasted over the coals of their campfire. Wild turkeys and prairie-chicken tasted much better than bacon, Polly said, and she learned to cook them herself.

When the emigrants reached Nebraska, they were in the "buffalo country," and great herds of big, shaggy, brown or black buffaloes were feeding on the grassy plains. The animals were larger than oxen, and the Indians depended upon the flesh for food and the thick, warm skins for robes or blankets. The emigrants shot thousands of buffalo cows and calves, and what meat could not be eaten at once was cut into long strips and hung in the sun or over the fire to dry. This was called "jerking" the meat. On jerked buffalo or venison and flour pancakes many emigrants lived all the way across. Game was so plenty and so easy to shoot, that by stopping a few days, a good stock of meat could be laid in while the oxen were resting. So they travelled through Nebraska, and for weeks and weeks saw nothing but long grass waving in the summer winds, and yellow sunflowers—miles and miles of sunflowers. Polly grew very tired of the hot sun blazing down on the close-covered wagon, and of the dust raised by the long wagon-train.

About this time she remembers that her father bought her a little Indian pony, and from that happy day the child rode beside the wagon, and could keep out of the dusty trail, or ride a little way off on the prairie, if she liked. The pony carried double very well, so a small sister or brother was often lifted on behind for a ride. One night the Indians, who were always prowling round and coming as near the wagon-train as they dared, frightened the horses and got away with ten of them. All the women and children cried, Polly says, for they were afraid the redskins would come back and kill them. In the morning Polly's father and some of the men found the Indians' trail and tracked them to a wooded cañon. The hungry thieves had killed one horse and were so busy feasting on it that the white men surprised them and shot all the Indians but two or three. The lost horses and Polly's pony whinnied to their masters from a thicket, where they were tied, and were taken back to camp.

On and on over the great plains of Wyoming the wagons carried these emigrants. Many found the trip grow tiresome, while the oxen and mules would often lie down in their traces and refuse to go any farther. A few days' rest, and the rich bunch-grass to crop soon set the stock all right, and the white-topped wagons crawled ahead again. Soon the emigrants saw blue, hazy mountains, far off at first, then nearer and nearer, till at last their road led through a pass between the peaks.

Then Polly remembers riding through Utah, with its queer red cliffs and high rocks carved in strange shapes by winds and weather; the stretches of sandy desert; and beyond those, grassy meadows and streams fringed with green willows. After a while Great Salt Lake lay sparkling in the sun and looking cool and blue. All around it were alkali deserts or wide plains, hot and dusty and white with salt or soda. The "prairie schooners," with their covers faded and burnt by the sun, went very slowly over these desert wastes, Polly thought, and Nevada, with its dusty gray sage-brush land on either side of the road, seemed not much better.

"Papa's little woman" had her hands full now; for her mother was so ill she seldom left the wagon. All the cooking fell to Polly's share, and then she would ride along for hours with a little sister on her lap and fat brother "Bub" behind her on the saddle-blanket, so that her mother might rest and be quiet.

But soon the clear green Truckee River ran foaming and fretting beside the road, and off in the west rose the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Then the people began to laugh and to sing, for they knew that California, the land of gold, was almost in sight and that their weary journey was nearly ended.

  UPPER SACRAMENTO RIVER.
UPPER SACRAMENTO RIVER.

And one day they said joyfully to each other, "We are in California at last;" and it was a happy company that travelled down through the pines of the mountain sides and the oak trees of the foot-hills. Many emigrants left the train when they got to the great Sacramento River valley, and settled here and there to farming. Polly's father with others kept on to the gold-diggings and camped there. He built a log-cabin soon, for it was almost winter and time for the rains, and Polly says she was glad to have a house at last. They finally took up farming land near what is now Stockton, as gold-mining did not pay.

Mrs. Davis, who is straight and strong, and still a hard worker, says her five months' trip across the plains was almost like a long picnic after all, for she has forgotten many of the trying and disagreeable things.