Great-Grandma Lillie: A Midwestern Pioneer

I was thinking recently about my great-grandmothers. It dawned on me that they all probably had very interesting lives—or at least interesting from the perspective of the 21st Century.

I never met any of the four women, and only one was alive during my childhood. That great-grandmother was Lillie Evelena Smith Claudson. She’s the great-grandmother I heard the most stories about, and yet I don’t feel I know much about her.

Lillie was born in Assumption, Illinois, on January 22, 1884. Her parents were Andrew Jackson Smith (an Ohio-born man who was the son of German immigrants, Jacob and Mary Schmidt) and Elizabeth Gertrude Ernst Smith (whose parents were George Jacob & Eva Elizabeth Ernst, probably also of German extraction).

This might be a picture of Lillie’s family when she was a child. But I have no idea which child might be her.

When Lillie was very young, her family moved to Nebraska. Other family obituaries state that the Smiths moved in June 1884, when Lillie would have been just a few months old. That’s consistent with the family stories I was told. The Smiths were one of the first families to settle on the Garfield Table in Nebraska. They farmed there for many years.

On October 3, 1901, Lillie married Luther Monroe Claudson, the son of a Danish immigrant Charles N. Claudson and his wife Elvira Sophronia Vaught Claudson (I know nothing about her background). My father always told me that Lillie and Luther were married in 1900 when Lillie was fifteen, but if the dates I found online are correct, the marriage was in 1901, and she was seventeen at the time.

Family lore also has it that Lillie and Luther moved into a sod hut when they started their married life on their farm and that the first two of her four children were born in that hut. (My grandfather Laverne Ernst Claudson was her second child.) But I can’t substantiate how long she lived in the sod hut, so I can’t verify where they lived when my grandfather was born.

As a child, when I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I thought of Grandma Claudson’s life story. Wilder wrote about covered wagon trips from one Midwestern locale to another, and I pictured Lillie and her family traveling from Illinois to Nebraska. When I read Wilder’s accounts of moving into a sod hut on the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota, I imagined Lillie as a new bride moving into a similar soddie on the Garfield Plain.

Lille and Luther moved into “town”—the tiny community of Arnold, Nebraska—in 1923. She would have been thirty-nine at the time—still young.

My father talked about his childhood trips to visit his grandparents in Arnold. He played with cousins and helped Grandma Claudson—as Lillie was known by then—in the kitchen, including watching her wring a chicken’s neck for Sunday supper. I got the clear sense from him that she took no nonsense from anyone—including a young grandson—but that he loved her and knew she loved him. I think he needed some discipline in his early life, and she provided it in healthy doses.

Luther died in 1947, and Grandma Claudson lived alone in her little house in Arnold until her death on November 21, 1973, at age 89. I’m told she mowed her own lawn until she died.

My father rarely visited Arnold after my parents were married, and my mother never met Grandma Claudson. Not meeting my dad’s grandmother was one of my mother’s regrets, since she hadn’t known her own grandmothers. Some of my father’s cousins told me that Grandma Claudson always appreciated my mother’s letters. My mother did write numerous newsy letters to relatives and friends. I was glad to learn Grandma Claudson was one of her correspondents.

My father and several of his cousins were Grandma Claudson’s pallbearers at her funeral in 1973. I remember my father going to her funeral, though no one else in our family went with him. At the time, I had just started college, and I didn’t think twice about missing the funeral of a great-grandmother I had never met. But now, like my mother, I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet her at some point while she was alive.

Lillie and Luther Claudson’s tombstone, Arnold, Nebraska

I couldn’t even find a picture of Lille to post, though I bet there’s one somewhere in my father’s papers. My siblings and I kept some older photos with no identification of who is depicted—perhaps one of them is of Lillie.

The reason I find Lillie’s story so compelling now is that she was a pioneer. She connects me to settlers in the Midwest. I consider myself a Westerner, though I have now lived in the Midwest for two-thirds of my life. Remembering Lillie—Grandma Claudson, as I think of her, even if I never knew her—reminds me that I have roots in this part of the country as well.

And I can picture her as I write about pioneers to the West in my novels about the settlement of Oregon almost forty years before Lillie and her family moved to Nebraska. It’s still a surprise that the West Coast was settled before some of the Midwest.

What connections does your family have to pioneer days?

Seeking My Roots in Copenhagen

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2007, my daughter and I went to Copenhagen to visit my niece who was studying there. I can trace one branch of my ancestry back to Denmark, so the prospect of visiting that nation appealed to me. I wondered if I would feel a connection there, as I did when I visited Ireland a few years earlier.

My niece and her roommate were busy most of the time, so my daughter and I toured Copenhagen on our own. We took a boat tour of the city. I loved the brightly colored buildings that lined the canals. They reminded me of the row house doors in Dublin.

From the boat tour

We saw The Little Mermaid statue, which was beautiful albeit underwhelming (I’d been warned it was quite small). I remembered reading Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story as a child. I’d never liked Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which seemed dark and horrific to me. I preferred the Grimms Brothers—as if those were a whole lot merrier.

The Little Mermaid

We climbed a church steeple for a panoramic view of the city. Gorgeous, though we then faced a long walk back to the apartment on tired legs. The view reminded me of Florence, Italy.

Copenhagen from the steeple

We went to museums, where all the signs were in English and German as well as Danish. I learned Danish history, including the very early Viking Danes who were the first Europeans to reach North America (unless the Irish Saint Brendan beat them by a few centuries).

And on one cloudy day, my niece took us to tour Kronberg Castle, supposedly the model for Shakespeare’s Elsinore in Hamlet. I’ve always had a thing for castles—probably because I grew up in a decidedly unromantic town built in the 1940s, which contained nothing remotely resembling a castle.

Kronberg Castle

We ate well. The Scandinavian penchant for fish at breakfast did not appeal to me, but everything else tasted great.

It was a wonderful trip. I loved Copenhagen and felt very comfortable there. What I saw brought to mind many memories, though none of them ancestral. I guess my Danish genes are too diluted (it was my great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Denmark to the United States). My other ancestors were mostly English, Irish, and Scotch, with a little German thrown in.

Still, I’m glad I went to Copenhagen, and I would happily go back. I may not have found my roots, but I enjoyed the trip.

Where are your roots, and when have you sought them out?

Postage Costs in the 1840s

I wrote a post last year about the difficulties of mail service during the California Gold Rush years. I was thinking about this issue again recently when I bought first-class stamps at our local Post Office. I typically wait until I’m almost out of stamps (which I was last week), then I buy 100 stamps. I paid $49.00 for my five sheets of twenty stamps, or 49 cents per stamp. These stamps will last me until Christmas time, when I’ll have to stock up again with Christmas stamps.

1850s letter showing 40 cents paid for postage

In 1847, it cost five cents to send a letter less than 300 miles within the United States, ten cents to mail it over 300 miles (but still within the States), and 40 cents to mail it from Oregon or California to the States.

So in the past 170 years, the cost of mailing a letter from the West Coast to the East Coast has increased nine cents. Just think about that the next time you complain about postage costs.

Of course, because of inflation, one dollar in 1847 would be worth $28.14 in 2017. So the forty-cent cost of mailing the letter in 1847 would be equivalent to $11.26 today. In other words, our forty-nine cent price of a first-class stamp is a real bargain.

The fact that we can transport letters in mere days—using airplanes and automated sorting machines—at a price far below the cost our ancestors paid shows the miracle of technology.

Another 1850s letter showing postage paid

And the fact that our pioneer ancestors could transport letters at any cost from a frontier that didn’t even have roads shows the miracle of human tenacity and desire to maintain relationships and communications.

In my novel Lead Me Home, I had one character send a letter from a campsite in what is now Nebraska (Ash Hollow) to his parents in Boston. According to David Dary, author of The Oregon Trail: An American Saga (2004), in 1846 someone constructed small log cabin at the Ash Hollow spring, and the cabin served as an informal post office until 1850. So I had my character leave his letter in this cabin for someone headed back East to pick up and carry back to the States.

But as I wrote the scene, I was curious about how the emigrants paid postage on the letters. I didn’t think they would leave their letters with coins for postage attached, so I wondered how their correspondence actually reached their loved ones back home.

Then I learned that letters could be mailed “collect,” meaning that postage was due from the recipient when delivered. In some years during our nation’s history, collect letters cost more than those with prepaid postage, but a letter could be mailed with postage due. Prepayment of postage did not become mandatory until 1855.

So now I picture some kind-hearted mountain man on his way back East picking up a packet of letters at Ash Hollow and dropping them at the Post Office in Independence or St. Louis. From an official Post Office, the letters would make their way—just as ours do today—to the appropriate location. But the postman would only deliver the letter to my character’s parents in Boston if they paid the ten cents for delivery from Missouri. Of course, my character came from a wealthy family, so the ten cent cost would not have been a problem for them to pay.

What technological advances in the last 200 years do you think are the most important?

Amelia Earhart Day: Memories of Atchison, Kansas

July 24 is Amelia Earhart Day. The news recently has been full of speculation about her disappearance, because of a History Channel show suggesting that a photo might have shown her and her navigator Frank Noonan with the Japanese in the Marshall Islands after her disappearance on July 2, 1937. However, Japanese archivists found the photo in a book published in 1935, long before Earhart and Noonan left on their ill-fated flight. It seems her last days are still a mystery.

Amelia Earhart is a big deal in her hometown of Atchison, Kansas, about an hour’s drive from Kansas City. The town sponsors an Amelia Earhart Festival in July each year. For the past two years, my husband’s Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla has provided security on the Missouri River for the air show that is part of the festival. This year, tragedy struck the day after the air show, when one of the stunt pilots who had performed was killed (along with his passenger) in a post-festival flight.

My father was always fascinated by Amelia Earhart’s story. I think he thought of her as a neighbor because he had been born in Pratt, Kansas—a mere 300 miles from Atchison. He remembered her disappearance from his childhood. In addition, he was always interested in flying and took flying lessons when he was in his fifties.

Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum

On one visit to Kansas City, he and my mother decided to drive to Atchison to see the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in her former home. My daughter was three or four at the time. She skipped preschool that day to go with her grandparents to Atchison.

My parents had planned to have lunch at a tea room in Atchison after seeing the museum. But my daughter had her own plans. She’d been bored in the museum, even though she enjoyed being with her grandparents. When they got back in the car and drove toward the tea room, she started pointing at something and began talking excitedly about “meat libbers.”

Now, my parents had no idea what meat libbers were. But after several attempts to communicate, they finally realized their granddaughter was pointing at the nearby Pizza Hut.

My daughter made it clear that nothing would do but that they eat at Pizza Hut.

Of course, grandchildren generally win these arguments, so my parents took her to Pizza Hut. They sat and received their menus. Finally, my parents realized that my daughter wanted a Meat Lovers pizza. That was our standard order at Pizza Hut and both our children’s favorite restaurant meal.

My parents were disappointed to miss the tea room, but they recognized that their priority as grandparents had to be to keep their grandkids happy. They accomplished that goal on that day so many years ago.

Did your family have any favorite restaurant meals?

Did the Oregon Trail Emigrants Really Circle Their Wagons?

Although pioneer journals often mention “circling the wagons,” it is not at all certain that all wagon trains pulled their wagons into a circle for the night, nor which of their possessions they protected inside those circles if they used them.

One commentator has pointed out the logistical difficulties with placing everything within a wagon circle at night:

“A wagon train of say one hundred wagons would have at least four-to-six hundred oxen or more, milk cows, draft horses, and saddle horses. A hundred wagons could not make a circle big enough to hold this many animals. Another question is what did the animals eat? The grass inside any circle would be tramped down and covered with several inches of manure in a matter of hours.”

Another commentator wrote that the pioneers circled their wagons at night but would never have circled them to defend against an Indian attack.

Yet the History Channel says:

“To be on the safe side, the pioneers drew their wagons into a circle at night to create a makeshift stockade. If they feared Indians might raid their livestock—the Plains tribes valued the horses, though generally ignored the oxen—they would drive the animals into the enclosure.”

And Oregon.com says:

“Why did the wagon trains form a circle overnight or during rest periods? Was it for protection from Indian attacks? NO! It was simply to make a corral for their animals, making them less likely to stray away.”

Circled wagons near Independence Rock

Moreover, there are believable first-hand stories of life on the Oregon Trail that do describe wagon circles, so the emigrants must have used them often enough to provoke these accounts. In his article “A Day with the Cow Column in 1843,” published in the Quarterly of Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 1-2, p. 371, available online, Jesse Applegate described in detail what happened at the end of a day on the trail:

“. . . for the sun is now getting low in the west and at length the painstaking pilot is standing ready to conduct the train in the circle which he has previously measured and marked out, which is to form the invariable fortification for the night. The leading wagons follow him so nearly around the circle that but a wagon length separates them. Each wagon follows in its track, the rear closing on the front, until its tongue and ox-chains will perfectly reach from one to the other, and so accurate the measure and perfect the practice, that the hindmost wagon of the train always precisely closes the gateway, as each wagon is brought into position. It is dropped from its team (the teams being inside the circle), the team unyoked and the yokes and chains are used to connect the wagon strongly with that in its front. Within ten minutes from the time the leading wagon halted, the barricade is formed the teams unyoked, and driven out to pasture.”

Narcissa Whitman also described how their missionary party camped in the middle of a circle during their journey west in 1836, though they had only a few small wagons. And note that they slept outside the circle and only their horses (not the cows) were inside:

“We encamp in a large ring, baggage and men, tents and wagons on the outside, and all the animals except the cows, which are fastened to pickets, within the circle. This arrangement is to accommodate the guard, who stand regularly every night and day, also when we are in motion, to protect our animals from the approach of Indians, who would steal them.”

The wagon company I wrote about in Lead Me Home (and am writing about again in my current work-in-progress) consisted of 22 wagons. They had oxen and mules pulling these wagons—from four to eight oxen or four to six mules, depending on the family’s resources. Let’s say on average six animals per wagon, or 226 draft animals, plus saddle horses. I don’t identify everyone who had a horse, so I’ll assume here that each wagon came with one saddle horse, though several families had two or three—let’s say another 22 animals.

Many of the families slept in a tent or two, though some slept in or under their wagons. Let’s assume 22 canvas tents, each roughly 6 to 8 feet square.

A prairie schooner (the type of wagon most emigrants used), was about 23 feet long from the front tongue of the yoke to the rear of the wagon. That gives a wagon circle circumference of about 500 feet. If I remember my geometry correctly, the circle’s diameter would be about 160 feet, and the area of the circle would be approximately 20,000 square feet.

If the circle contained only the 226 draft animals and 22 horses, then each grazing beast would get 80 square feet to graze through the night—a plot 8 by 10 feet, which isn’t very big.

But add in the 20 tents, each taking about 50 square feet, and the space for grazing diminishes by at least 1000 square feet (and who pitches a tent so it abuts their neighbor’s?). The emigrants would also have needed ground for several campfires (though some families might have cooked together), as well as space to prepare a meal and to wash up afterward, and places to sit to eat.

Suddenly, the animals probably can barely turn around in the portion of the wagon circle allotted to them, if all those beasts are occupying the circle as well.

Oregon Trail, oil painting by Albert Bierstadt. No evidence of circled wagons here.

Moreover, once the emigrants reached the mountains, the terrain didn’t always permit a wide enough space to circle the wagons. Sometimes they camped strung out along a creek or a relatively flat ridge of land. The protection of a wagon circle often became a luxury.

For all these reasons, it seems unlikely that all the emigrants’ animals and belongings were corralled in the wagon circle each night. They might have put their tents and horses in the circle—as the History Channel and Narcissa Whitman recognized, horses were a temptation to the Native Americans, though they didn’t pursue oxen very often. Alternatively, the emigrants might have let their horses graze outside the circle on hobbles or pickets under heavy guard.

I do have a scene in Lead Me Home in which Indians steal some of the emigrants’ horses. The emigrants are also sleeping inside their wagon circle. The scene is realistic if the oxen and mules aren’t also in the circle. And some type of confrontation like this is expected in Western novels and movies, so I included it.

But remember the logistics when you read or watch Westerns.

When have you read a book or seen a movie and wondered whether a scene is factual, or even logistically possible? (Leave out sci-fi and fantasy, where the author determines the physical parameters.)

Schools in Oregon in the 1840s

The first log cabin in Portland, built in 1844. This is how I imagine Jenny’s cabin outside Oregon City.

In my novel Now I’m Found, Jenny, one of the lead characters in the book, opens a school for some of the children on surrounding farms. She holds the school in her cabin. It’s a one-room cabin, and she has benches built for the children to sit on. Her only resources are two primers, three Bibles, a book of Greek mythology, three issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and four slates. Most emigrants did not bring many books from home.

I did some research on early schools in Oregon, and I was able to determine the dates some schools opened in Oregon City. One article said the first school opened in 1844 in town in someone’s home. According to the January 20, 1848, edition of the Oregon Spectator, a female seminary opened in Oregon City sometime that month.

But I didn’t find many resources describing how children living on the farms outside of town learned their three Rs. Most of what I wrote in Now I’m Found about how Jenny taught school came from my imagination and from what I’ve read in the past about other frontier communities, such as in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.

Recently, I came across the following description of school days in the 1840s in Oregon:

I learned my a-b-c’s from Captain Waters the first winter we were here. He took a smooth board and printed the letters on it for me. A little later Mrs. Eugene Skinner came to Oregon and gave me a primer, which I prized most highly and that book was passed around among children until it was completely worn out.

On our claim, which we located on what is now known as Isaac Levens donation land claim, was built a little log cabin, . . . In this little cabin was held the first school in Polk county. It was built during the fall of 1845 or the spring of 1846. I went to school there. It was my first school and the teacher’s name was Mr. Green. [A neighbor’s little boy] walked to this school house . . . . The grass grew so tall on the prairie, that [the boy’s father] took his yoke of oxen and plowed a furrow from their cabin to the school house for his little son to follow so that he might not lose his way and become lost in the tall grass.

So my description of Jenny’s school being held in her cabin was not too far-fetched. I only wish I had read the story about plowing a furrow to the schoolhouse before I wrote Now I’m Found. That anecdote would definitely have made it into the book.

What stories do you know about your ancestors’ school days?

Musings on Time in the Twenty-First Century . . . and Before

As of the end of May, we’ve spent 209 months in the 21st Century (I started my count in January 2000). So at the end of this month, we will be 17.4% into our new century. If time were the plot to a novel, we’d be almost finished with the first act and moving into the middle of the story.

Are we ready to declare we are in Act 2 of the 21st Century? I don’t think I am. When I quit working at the end of 2006, I felt like we were still on the cusp of the new century. I’ve continued to feel that way, despite my calculation that we are a sixth of the way through the 21st Century.

Maybe it’s because I write historical fiction that takes place in the 1840s. Maybe because my family stories seem so rooted in another time. Maybe because I’m a conservative at heart and don’t like change. Whatever the reason, I still feel like a 20th-century inhabitant, though I’m living firmly in the 21st Century. I find myself reflecting on 20th-century events. And sometimes I’m even pulled back into the 19th.

I remember figuring out as a child that I would be almost forty-four when the year 2000 arrived. Forty-four seemed so old. At the time, my parents were still in their thirties. And then it dawned on me that I might spend half of my lifetime in the century yet to come—that shocked me.

I recently calculated that my life expectancy isn’t quite that long. While it is possible I will live to be eight-eight—and I certainly hope to—the odds are that I will die before 2044. Still, it’s possible. And I will most likely spend many more years at least in the 21st Century. When will my perspective shift to seeing myself as a post-2000 being more than one of the 1900s?

Maybe I never will. Maybe I will continue to reflect on the past.

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

Because of the recent anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the nation and my family were one-hundred years ago.

  • The one great-grandparent I knew, Thomas Hooker, was born in 1879, so he was an adult when the 20th Century began. By 1917, he worked in the Polk County Courthouse, where he served as Sheriff for decades.
  • My other great-grandparent alive during my childhood (I never met her), Lillie Smith Claudson, was born in 1885 and married in 1900. By 1917, she had four children. Act 1 of her 20th Century was certainly productive.
  • James Parks, my husband’s grandfather whom I knew, was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Army infantry at the tail end of World War I in 1917. His entire childhood passed in the first 17 years of the last century.

So that’s one perspective on what happens in one-sixth of a century. If I look at the last seventeen years of the 1900s, I see the passage of a sixth of a century from another angle.

  • My son, who began walking in May 1983, graduated from high school in May 2000, a time I remember well, but a time that feels long ago.
  • I hadn’t even used a personal computer as of 1983, though I was starting to teach myself how to operate a Wang word processor. When PCs first came to my company a year or so later, I knew as much about them as the IT department did. But by 2000, my knowledge had failed to keep up with the experts.
  • In 1983, Bill Clinton started his second stint as Governor of Arkansas. He was not yet a national figure. By 2000, he’d been President for two terms.

And then there are all the events that have happened since the start of this century, showing that time flows on whether we embrace it or not. Act 1 of this century has changed the world.

  • The job I took in 2000 has been held in a variety of iterations by several individuals in the last seventeen years. It is a changed role in a company that also has experienced great change.
  • As the last century ended, we worried about whether computers would survive the switch in dates to Y2K. People filled their bathtubs with water in case public utilities shut down, but those fears did not come to pass.
  • The tragedy of September 11 hadn’t yet occurred seventeen years ago. Remember the ease of traveling before long security lines? Some fears we had not expected did come to pass.

Time rolls on, whether we are keeping up with it or not. History happens.

Now I ponder what Act 2 in the 21st Century will bring. And I wonder what I will make of it. Whether coming events will strike me as odd as airplanes must have seemed to Great-Granddad Hooker in 1917. Whether I will ever seem as old to my descendants as he seemed to me.

What do you think the greatest surprises of the 21st Century will be?