Elizabeth Markham: One Woman’s Perspective on the Oregon Trail and on Matrimony

I am surprised that in five years of writing this blog I have never written a post focused on women’s perspectives on leaving their homes and journeying west on the Oregon Trail. I’ve written about specific women—Narcissa Whitman, Jessie Benton Fremont, Elizabeth Dixon Smith, Keturah Belknap, and others—and quoted some of their words, but I’ve never focused on how they felt about making the trek in the first place.

I’ve thought about this theme a lot, first as I researched and wrote Lead Me Home, and now as I’m writing another novel about other characters in that same wagon company. For the most part, the women did not want to leave home. They only went because their husbands or fathers insisted.

In my current work-in-progress, one woman is pregnant with her ninth child. She left her family’s farm in Missouri to follow her husband’s wanderlust. This woman’s teenage daughter mourns the loss of the friends she left behind. Another woman in the wagon company is accompanying her bully of a husband, who believes he’ll have a better life—while her life is likely to be harder in Oregon. Another character who lost all her children in Illinois left their graves behind her forever.

On and on the women’s stories go. Each mourns people and places they will never see again.

Abert Beirstadt, Oregon Trail

And on the journey, they cooked over campfires instead of in brick ovens. Their meals were made with limited provisions and what they could glean along the trail. They washed with river water almost as muddy as the clothes, unless it was left to sit and settle. Their family members suffered illnesses such as cholera or yellow fever or pneumonia. Or they were injured in wagon or gun accidents. Or they drowned or were snakebit or suffered some other calamity.

No wonder the women viewed the land so harshly. No wonder some of them went mad.

Elizabeth Markham was one such woman. On September 15, 1847, as they traveled along the Snake River (see the photo of Shoshone Falls on the Snake at the top of this post), Elizabeth told her husband Samuel she would not go on any farther. After some argument, Samuel took their five children and their wagons and left her behind. Later in the day, he sent their son John back to get his mother. Hours later, Elizabeth caught up to the wagon—alone. She said she had beaten John to death with a rock. Her husband went back for the boy. Stories vary as to whether John had been injured or not, but he lived. Samuel brought his son back to the rest of the family, only to find that Elizabeth had burned one of the wagons.

The rest of the story is that the Markhams’ traveling companions put out the fire, and the family did reach Oregon. They later had two more children. Their youngest child, Edwin Markham, became an acclaimed poet. The Markhams ran a store in Oregon City, but Samuel and Elizabeth later divorced, and Samuel set out for California alone. Elizabeth also later moved to California, remarried, and was divorced again.

Like her youngest son, Elizabeth was also a poet—the first published woman poet in Oregon. She had a poem published in the Oregon Spectator on June 15, 1948, less than a year after her episode on the Snake River. It reads:

A Contrast in Matrimony

The man must lead a happy life,
Free from matrimonial chains,
Who is directed by a wife
Is sure to suffer for his pains.

Adam could find no solid peace,
When Eve was given for a mate,
Until he saw a woman’s face
Adam was in a happy state.

In all the female face, appear
Hypocrisy, deceit, and pride;
Truth, darling of a heart sincere,
Ne’er known in woman to reside.

What tongue is able to unfold
The falsehoods that in woman dwell;
The worth in woman we behold,
Is almost imperceptible.

Cursed be the foolish man, I say,
Who changes from his singleness;
Who will not yield to woman’s sway,
Is sure of perfect blessedness.

Her note at the bottom of this poem in the newspaper read: “To advocate the ladies’ cause, you will read the first and third, second and fourth lines together.”

[Try it . . . The first stanza then reads:

The man must lead a happy life,
Who is directed by a wife
Free from matrimonial chains,
Is sure to suffer for his pains.]

This isn’t great poetry, but I have to marvel at the way she crafted two poems in one. And I have to wonder what Elizabeth was thinking as she wrote this multi-faceted poem—to which view of marriage did she subscribe? After her experiences on the Oregon Trail, did she think man better off with a wife or not? Given that both her marriages ended in divorce—still uncommon during her lifetime—I conclude she was fairly sour on the institution of matrimony.

What do you think of Elizabeth Markham’s poem?

Posted in History, Writing and tagged , , , , , , .

6 Comments

  1. The strength she had is astonishing, given the circumstances. It made me think of Mary Rowlandson, a minister’s wife who was captured by Indians and traveled with them as a captive for a number of weeks (as I recall, it was about a three or four month ordeal). The colonization of the settlers on Indian land put many of them at risk, and of course there are similar stories from the Indian tribes due to the clash of cultures. I have often pondered what the wives and children felt as they ventured away from home into unknown territories. On the other side, one wonders what the Indian wives endured at the hands of the settlers.

  2. Elizabeth Markham (Winchell), known as “Betsy” is my Great Great Great Grandmother.
    John Bird Markham is the son that she hit with the rock. ** Yes. John lived.

    Samuel Brazillai Markham + Elizabeth Winchell
    John Bird Markham ** + Susan Armilda Board
    Samuel Elmore Markham + Elizabeth Frances Williams
    Albert Kenneth Markham + Julia Irene A. Cannon
    My mother + Richard Harve Baer
    Myself

    And, yes Elizabeth’s poems were “sour” as indicated by another person. She was known to be a stubborn
    woman. Very strict. You should see what she wrote in in will. She must have been mad at everyone except
    for Charles (Edwin Markham) at the time that she wrote it. She made it sound like her children were always mean to her.

    Elizabeth’s sister Otilia Polk was also on this wagon train. Her husband was Adam Polk. Elizabeth had 11 brothers and sisters. I am researching her family (siblings) to where they settled.

    Does anyone have a picture of her?

    • Linda, thank you so much for telling us more about Elizabeth. What an Individual!
      I didn’t see any pictures as I researched this post, but I hope you find one.
      Theresa

Leave a Reply