The Bahamas: On Slavery, Service, Dependence, and Independence

I wrote last week about the recent vacation my husband and I took to the Bahamas. That post focused on the beauty of ocean and beach and on all the things we saw and did. Today I am writing about what I learned from Bahamian history and art. Because that nation’s history and art developed through experiences of slavery and colonial dependence, it seems a fitting topic for this week in which we in the U.S. celebrate our own independence.

At the Bahamian Historical Society Museum, we learned of the slaughter of the Lucayan native tribes by Europeans, beginning with Christopher Columbus. Some exhibits taught us about the English Eleutherians, who came to the Bahamas seeking religious freedom. Other exhibits showed the trade triangle—ships carried firearms and alcohol from England to Africa, then brought African slaves to the Bahamas and elsewhere in the Americas in inhuman conditions, then shipped molasses from sugar cane and other agricultural products grown in the New World back to England. Each of the three legs of this triangle earned a profit for the shipping companies, and each was in some way dependent on the free labor of African slaves.

Bahamian Historical Society Museum building

Slavery was abolished in Great Britain in 1833, and slaves became apprentices and then free by 1840 in Britain and in most of its colonies. Nevertheless, the Bahamian Historical Society Museum, which is housed in a former meeting place of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (something like our Daughters of the American Revolution), was clear about the racial stratification that remained prevalent in Bahamian society even after the abolition of slavery, just as such stratification remained a fact of life in the United States (and we had slavery for decades longer).

Moreover, the Bahamas only became an independent commonwealth in 1973. Before that, the islands were a colony of Great Britain. The Bahamian economy remains heavily dependent on tourism. Thus, even in independence, most Bahamians perform service roles in support of tourists like my husband and me.

Fading Mind, watercolor by Thierry Lamare

When we visited the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, we saw a lovely exhibit of watercolors by artist Thierry Lamare. Mr. Lamare’s still lives, portraits, and landscapes depicted traditional aspects of Bahamian life—the local life that we as tourists did not see. He painted elderly Bahamians in their homes and at their work. The culture he painted was beautiful, but it wasn’t the clean and polished facades presented to visitors. Other works in the Art Gallery took as their theme how a modern culture that originated in slavery and colonialism can express itself and its independence through art.

These experiences in the Historical Society Museum and the Art Gallery caused me to ask myself—what impact does a history of slavery and colonialism have on people once they become independent? My interactions with the Bahamians of today—the restaurant waiters, the hotel employees, the taxi drivers and tour guides—made me reflect on how all of them were dependent on pleasing me as their customer. How did that dependence mesh with their status as an independent people?

Once I thought about this question, I saw tensions between the struggle for independence and being dependent on foreign tourism all around me, from hotel and restaurant staffs, to the boat pilots and guides, to the craftspeople hawking their wares on the street. All these people had to provide good service to be successful. I expected them to serve me well—I was paying for the privilege.

Still, I was more conscious of being served on this vacation than I typically am in hotels and restaurants in the U.S. Receiving service became uncomfortable on occasion, even when the people serving were doing their jobs well and providing me what I expected.

To add to my introspection, while we were in the Bahamas, I read an essay in the current issue of Persimmon Tree by African-American writer, Dawn Downey, entitled “The Cleaning Women.” In this essay, Ms. Downey described her efforts to find a housecleaning service in the U.S. and reflected on her feelings as an African-American daughter and granddaughter of housekeepers. I compared her feelings about service and race with what I experienced as a white tourist in the Bahamas. We both felt discomfort and being served, but for different reasons, because of our backgrounds and our expectations.

Though I believed I should receive good service, this trip caused me to think about how people in service roles feel. I believe that it is important to treat everyone with courtesy and respect (though I admit to sometimes getting peeved at poor service and failing to follow through on my beliefs). I did not intend to—and did not want to—demean them, though service roles are often seen as demeaning. I simply saw them as doing their jobs—and usually doing them well.

In particular, I thought of the tour guide on our Island World Adventures excursion, an older Afro-Bahamian gentleman whose role seemed to be to keep the tourists on the boat happy with food and drinks and gear. When the time came, he outfitted us with snorkeling masks and fins, then stayed in the hot boat while we cavorted around the reef. As an inexperienced snorkeler and a poor swimmer, I panicked and thrashed back to the boat shortly after we started. This guide handed me a life preserver and showed me how to fit the mask properly so I could breathe without inhaling water. His calm voice turned my fright into fun, and I told him later that he had the most soothing voice I’d ever heard. In no way did I view him as “just” a service person. He made my experience what it was supposed to be and deserved credit for doing so (and a large tip for exemplary service).

Moreover, I have generally viewed myself as a service-provider in the jobs I have had—whether as an attorney, a Human Resources manager, a mediator, or a writer. In all these roles, I have had customers—just as the Bahamians had me as a customer. It has been my responsibility to please my customers within the confines of my expertise and ethics. Indeed, the concept of “servant leadership” has been important in my definition of success throughout my career.

Nevertheless, this trip taught me that it is important to be sensitive to how service is viewed through different lenses. Racial and cultural lenses can impact both service providers and service receivers. (Gender is another lens that makes a difference, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) For each individual and for every nation, the experiences of our past influence our present and our future.

When have you taken a vacation that caused you to reflect on cultural and historical diversity?

Liberation and Independence

MP900227556One of the joys of blogging is finding other writers who touch your heart and soul.

My last post was about my mother’s death on July 4. That night I was unable to sleep. The Independence Day fireworks screamed and popped throughout our suburban neighborhood, their celebratory bursts incongruous to my grieving mind. I wondered if I would ever be able to watch fireworks again without thinking of my mother’s death.

Because I couldn’t sleep, I skimmed through posts from other WordPress bloggers I follow. I happened upon the July 4, 2014, post on Baby Boomers and More, by Irene, in Redmond, Washington, a town not far from where my family members have lived off and on since 1979.

The post was titled “Nancy’s Independence Day.”

Irene’s sister-in-law died of Alzheimer’s on July 4, 2012, two years to the day before my mother. They had both lived for something over four years after being diagnosed with the disease.

Irene’s post captured the feelings I had on learning of my mother’s death. She wrote of her sister-in-law’s “liberation” from the physical and mental ravages of the disease. She wrote that though her brother would have been glad to continue his caregiving, he too could celebrate his wife’s release from Alzheimer’s.

Irene’s post gave me new words for how I felt about my mother’s death. I can now think of her as being liberated from her Alzheimer’s Disease, independent once again. Perhaps thinking in these terms will give me new joy on the Fourth of July, rather than facing the holiday with grief.

We think of the Internet as anonymous, but it can bring people together in ways unimaginable just a decade or two ago. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, World English Bible)

When have you been touched by someone you know only online?

Provisioning for the Journey West

Independence Courthouse1850, from the Independence city website

Independence Courthouse1850, from the Independence city website

Emigrants preparing for the move to Oregon had plan carefully what they would take. They had to balance the amount of food and other supplies they needed for the journey, what they could afford to buy, the weight their wagon and teams could pull, and what mementoes and tools they would need to build a new life in the West.

Some of us remember the computer game Oregon Trail, where one of the first tasks in the game was to buy provisions. In the version I played, we could choose which of three income levels we wanted to be – wealthy (able to buy plenty of food and oxen), middle income (able to buy enough, but no extras), or poor (needing to live off the land when food ran out).

The game was realistic in this regard – emigrants came from all strata of society. But most of the emigrants were middle-class or poor. Most sold everything they had to supply themselves for the trip, and most did not expect to ever return to their former homes.

Of course, in the game, as in life, there was no guarantee that you wouldn’t lose everything in a flood, die of disease, or find meat when you hunted. Even the wealthy could suffer deprivation.

There were many checklists available for the pioneers to use in preparing for their journey, just as there are camping checklists today. With respect to food, an early list, from 1843, recommended that a wagon hold 1100 pounds of flour, 300 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds of sugar, 100 pounds of dried apples, 50 pounds of coffee, 50 pounds of salt, keg of syrup, keg of tar. See The Oregon Trail, by Ingvard Henry Eide, p. 53. Another list said that a family of four needed 824 lbs flour, 725 lbs bacon, 75 lbs coffee, 160 lbs sugar, 200 lbs lard and suet, 200 lbs beans, 135 lbs peaches and apples, salt, pepper, and bicarbonate of soda. See Traveling the Oregon Trail, by Julie Fanselow, p. 3. And yet another list travelers needed 200 pounds of flour per person, 100 pounds of bacon per person, corn meal, dried apples & peaches, beans, salt, pepper, rice, tea, coffee, and sugar. See Eide, p. 36.

That was just the food. In addition, the emigrants needed pots and pans; powder, lead and flint for their guns; bedding and clothing. And tools to repair the wagons. One list of tools included augers, gimlet (what is a gimlet?), ax, hammer, hoe, plow, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axles, kingbolts, linchpins, oxshoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, and chains. See Pioneers, by Huston Horn (a Time-Life book), p. 102-03.

Many emigrants bought these provisions at their homes in Illinois or Indiana, or whatever “civilized” state they came from. Others took steamships up the Missouri River, and bought their supplies at a “jumping off” point on the border in Missouri or Iowa. Merchants from St. Louis to Omaha did a booming business in the 1840s and 1850s outfitting emigrants.

Crossing Great Salt Lake 1859

Crossing Great Salt Lake Desert 1859

In addition to supplies for the journey, emigrants wanted to remind themselves of home. There are stories of armoires and tables, rocking chairs and mirrors making it across the mountains. But many of these keepsakes, which travelers had loaded into the wagons along with their hopes and dreams of a better life, were abandoned or destroyed as the trail grew steep and narrow, as oxen and mules died, and as wood from the furniture was needed for fuel or coffins.

The travelers may have started by balancing their survival needs with their financial resources and desire for reminders of home and family, but in the end, survival was all that mattered.

A Novel Blog Hop: Lead Me Home

J.G. Burdette, who blogs at Map of Time: A Trip into the Past, tagged me to participate in a Blog Hop for authors.  What’s a blog hop? This one is an interview with ten questions posed to a writer about the novel he or she is writing. The author answers the ten questions and then selects five more writers they would like to interview.

This gives all our readers an opportunity to learn what we – and our writing friends – are working on. I appreciate the opportunity J.G. has given me to write about my book. I hope you enjoy reading about my work in progress, and please go read about the writers I’m tagging at the end of this post.

1.      What is the working title of your book? 

MC900149882Lead Me Home

2.      Where did the idea come from for the book? 

I’ve had the idea of a novel about a couple traveling the Oregon Trail in my head for more than 20 years. Given the nature of the story, it had a definite beginning (Missouri) and end (Oregon), though I had to research the route they traveled mile by mile.

As I wrote, the characters shaped their path more than I anticipated.

3.      What genre does your book fall under?  

Historical fiction. It is aimed at adults, but many young adults will appreciate it also. It is history with fictional characters, it is story with historical grounding, so read it as either.

4.      Which actor would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

Wow. This is a hard question to answer. Mac and Jenny are both young characters, so by the time we are ready to film we will have to look to an unknown crop of actors for casting. Therefore, I’m not naming current young actors for the roles.

For the hero, Caleb “Mac” MacDougall, think Michael Landon as he appeared in Bonanza, but with straight hair. Mac is in his mid-20s and a proper Easterner when Lead Me Home opens, but he soon adapts to life on the trail.

My young heroine, Jenny Calhoun, is only 14 when the story begins. She looks like the young Jennifer Garner on the cover of the Rose Hill DVD, but with lighter hair. My Jenny has faced great tragedy in her short life. She comes across as docile, but has a spine of steel, and holds her own on the way West.

5.      What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

Caleb “Mac” MacDougall, a young Boston attorney, and Jenny Calhoun, a teenage girl with no friend except Mac, confront disaster, duplicity, death, and their own ignorance and fears, as they travel by wagon to Oregon in 1847.

6.      Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Uncertain. I’m leaning toward self-publishing. I self-published Family Recipe to learn how that process works.

7.      How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About a year. I’d done a lot of research before I began writing, but had to stop frequently to do more research as I wrote. What were the banking procedures in 1847 anyway? How far up the Missouri River did steamships travel? When was Fort Kearny built? Every day brought a new question.

8.      What other books would compare to this work within your genre?

Westerns such as Lonesome Dove or True Grit.  Francis Parkman’s classic account, The Oregon Trailcovers much of the same territory in the same time frame, but his book is a travelogue without the character-based plot my novel has.

9.      Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Whitman Mission

Whitman Mission

As I’ve written before, I’ve always been intrigued by the courage of the emigrants who traveled the Oregon Trail. I grew up near the Whitman Mission, and my family took several day trips to visit the museum there when I was growing up. I now live near Independence, Missouri, one of the jumping off places for Oregon Trail. Both Independence and the Whitman Mission are important settings in my novel.

Also, my own family history included settlers in Oregon in the 1840s.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There is a sequel involving Mac and Jenny, tentatively titled Now I’m Found, that deals with the California Gold Rush of 1849.

I’ve completed drafts of both books. Lead Me Home needs another edit to take out about 10,000 words. Now I’m Found has only been through one draft, so it still needs substantial work.

But because I have another project in the works ahead of these two novels, it will be into 2014 before Lead Me Home is ready to publish. I’ll keep you posted!

* * *

Here are the writers I have tagged.  All of them have blogs and/or websites, and they all have recent publications.

  • Pamela Boles Eglinski – Author of a new historical novel, Return of the French Blue, you can find out more about Pam at her website,
  • Sally Jadlow – Author of several books, including the historical novel The Late Sooner and the recent inspirational series beginning with God’s Little Miracle Book, Sally’s current blog is God’s Little Miracle Book, and her website is
  • Linda Joyce – Author of a new romance novel, Bayou Born, published by the Wild Rose Press, Linda blogs at Linda Joyce Contemplates.
  • Norm Ledgin – Norm has written several books, fiction and nonfiction. His latest is Sally of Monticello, a historical novel about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Follow Norm at Norm Ledgin, Author/Speaker

Thank you, J.G. Burdette, for tagging me to write about Lead Me Home.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, please share it! And check out the authors I’ve listed. If you have any questions about my work in progress, please comment below.

P.S. to my five “tagees”:

  • Use a format similar to this post if you want to share information about your work on your blog or website
  • Answer the ten questions about your current work
  • Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them. 

The Donner Party: Don’t Take Shortcuts and Hurry Along

Donner Lake in 1866, courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress

Donner Lake in 1866, courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress

One of the more sensational stories of the Oregon Trail is that of the Donner party, the group of emigrants to California in 1846 who were lost  in snows in the Sierra Nevada mountains from November 1846 until March 1847, and allegedly resorted to cannibalism. As soon as their story became public, their tale became infamous.

I don’t mention the Donner story in my novel about the Oregon Trail emigrants, because word of this disaster did not reach the East Coast until July 1847, and my wagon train left Missouri in April 1847. At some point along the way, they might have heard of the tragedy, but it would not have changed their decision to go West.

The Donner story did affect emigrants in later years, but by that time the trails were better marked, and later groups did not face the unblazed path through the Sierras that the Donners took. Moreover, the gold fever that hit most travelers after mid-1848 overshadowed anything they might have heard about the Donners.

The Donner party left Independence, Missouri, in mid-May 1846, later than advisable for the long journey West. In fact, this group was near the end of the 1846 exodus from Independence.

Hastings bookBut their real problems began in July 1846, when they took a shortcut to California advocated by Lansford Hastings. Hastings had published a guide in 1845 entitled “The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California,” which described the most direct route for emigrants to California. He advised readers to leave the Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger, go west southwest to Salt Lake, and then rejoin the old California Trail near what is now Elko, Nevada.

Hastings himself did not travel this route until early 1846, when he first led a group east from California. Even then, he didn’t have wagons with him. The emigrants of 1846 found that Hastings’s cutoff was not ready for wagons.

Hastings had promised to lead the travelers back to California, but the Donner party missed Hastings by about a week, and so followed behind his group. They had to build a road for their wagons through the Wasatch Mountains, which involved felling trees, moving huge boulders, and creating a narrrow path along canyon edges to get their wagons through.

Then they encountered more difficulties in the Great Salt Desert, where their wagon wheels sunk to the hubs in a gummy mix of sand and salt. It took six days to cross the 80 mile desert, with no water for their animals. They fell further and further behind Hastings.

By the time the travelers reached the Sierra Nevada and rejoined the California Trail, they were about a month behind schedule.

Then in early November the first blizzard of the terrible winter of 1846-47 trapped them near what is now Truckee, California. Most of the party holed up in cabins built by earlier pioneers at Lake Truckee (now called Donner Lake), where they were snowed in for five months. They ran out of anything to eat, including the meat and hides of their oxen, and suffered malnutrition, starvation, and other deprivations.

Sutters Fort in 1847, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Sutters Fort in 1847, courtesy of the Library of Congress

In December 1846 a small group of 15 from the Donner party set out on snowshoes to reach civilization. Due to cold, starvation, and disorientation, only seven survived to reach Sutter’s Fort (near what is now Sacramento, California).

Californians then knew that the emigrants were trapped in the mountains, but the winter weather and the Mexican-American War delayed rescue attempts. The war kept roads and communications blocked and made supplies unavailable.

In February 1847, the first group of rescuers reached the surviving members of the Donner party in the Sierras. Due to the weather and their weakened condition, it took several rescue groups to bring in supplies and lead the survivors to California. The last survivor arrived at Sutter’s Fort in late April 1847.

Of the 87 people in the Donner party, only 46 survived.

Patrick Breen (public domain)

Patrick Breen (public domain)

Far more has been written about the Donner party’s experience than I can recount here. If you are interested, read the diary kept by Patrick Breen (available on the Internet) or Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West, by Ethan Rarick (Oxford University Press 2008). PBS also had a show on American Experience about the Donner party.

The letters and articles by survivors of the Donner party contain heart-wrenching accounts of starvation and illness, of parents and children watching each other die. They also contain subplots of murder and treachery. And the descriptions of the rescue attempts are as blood-curdling as the travails that happened in the cabins at Lake Truckee.

Of course, the lurid tales of cannibalism are why the Donner party is so famous. There are first-hand accounts of cannibalism, though some of the survivors denied it. Archeological evidence cuts both ways.

Who knows what any of us would have done, if our families were starving and freezing, with no prospect of rescue until spring? For me, more important than the sensational aspects of the Donner story are the reasons they got into the horrendous situation in the first place – they started their journey late, moved slowly, and took an untried shortcut.

As Virginia Reed, a survivor of the Donner party, said in her advice to a relative traveling in a later year:

…Remember, never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can.

This summary statement contains good life lessons for all of us.

Fort Laramie: Outpost of Civilization to Weary Travelers

By mid-June, the emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail in the 1840s had trekked 650 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Fort Laramie, in what is now Wyoming. Although they had traveled for two months or more, they had only completed one-third of the journey from Independence to Oregon. Most of the wagon companies were weary and travel-worn, their provisions depleted. Many were living only off what they could glean from the land they passed through.

By this point in their travels, they had passed the landmarks of Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scott’s Bluff. (For pictures of these natural wonders from Adventure Dates, click here, or go directly to the Adventure Dates blog.)

Despite the great vistas and imposing natural beauty of the land, the emigrants saw little evidence of the white man’s habitation. Most of the Army forts along the trail were not built until the 1850s, when dealings between the pioneers and Native Americans deteriorated.  Even Fort Kearny, which originally sat on the Missouri River near what is now Nebraska City, NE, was not moved upstream on the Platte to its final location to better serve the pioneers until 1848.

Thus, in 1847, when the events in my novel occur, Fort Laramie was the first outpost of civilization most of the wagon companies had seen since leaving Missouri. As the National Park Service website for Fort Laramie says, “This ‘grand old post’ witnessed the entire sweeping saga of America’s western expansion and Indian resistance to encroachment on their territories.”

At this time, Fort Laramie was an American Fur Company outpost. It was not acquired by the Army until 1849. A competing post, Fort Platte, sat a few hundred yards away.

Fort Laramie was located on the Platte River. Willows lined the river’s cold, rapid waters that gushed from snowmelt in the Laramie Range. The adobe buildings had walls that were six feet thick and fifteen feet tall.  In 1842, John C. Fremont described the fort as follows:

A few hundred yards [from Fort Platte] brought us in view of the post of the American Fur Company, called Fort John, or Laramie … its lofty walls, whitewashed and picketed, with the large bastions at the angles, gave it quite an imposing appearance … the fort, which is a quadrangular structure, built of clay, after the fashion of the Mexicans … walls are about fifteen feet high, surmonted with a wooden palisade…. Over the great entrance is a square tower, with loopholes…. At two of the angles, and diagonally opposite each other, are large square bastions, so arranged as to sweep four faces of the walls….” John C Fremont, July 15, 1842

Fort Laramie was primarily a trading post, and travelers stopped there for days to repair wagons, wash clothes, re-provision, and mail letters. Most camped in their wagons outside the fort, so their comfort wasn’t much better at the fort than on days along the trail. As one emigrant described their stay,

 Our camp is stationary today; part of the emigrants are shoeing their horses and oxen; others are trading at the fort and with the Indians. Flour, sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, powder and lead, sell readily at high prices. In the afternoon we gave the Indians a feast, and held a long talk with them. Each family … contributed a portion of bread, meat, coffee or sugar, which being cooked, a table was set by spreading buffalo skins upon the ground, and arranging the provisions upon them…. Having filled themselves, the Indians retired, taking with them all that they were unable to eat.” Joel Palmer, June 25, 1845

And here is another traveler, who, like travelers today, was upset about high prices on the road:

I purchased a dressed deer skin for 2.50 cents and returned to camp satisfied that money was allmost useless while all kinds of grocerys & Liquors were exorbitantly high for instance sugar 1.50 cents per pint or cupful and other things in proportion Flour Superfine 1.00 dollars per pint or 40 dollars per Barrel … no dried Buffaloe meat could be had at any price so our stores of provisions did not increase.” James Clyman, 1844

Many other emigrants wrote of their stays at Fort Laramie, including descriptions of trading and feasts with the Indians who also camped near the fort.

But soon the wagon companies moved on, traveling higher into the Rockies, and on toward their final destination.

In the weeks ahead, I will periodically describe more of the hardships and wonders they encountered on a journey that remains remarkable to us 165 years later.

For more information on the history of Fort Laramie, see Fort Laramie Park History, by Merrill J. Mattes, which can be downloaded from the National Park Service site.

Jumping Off to the Unknown

Part of my horoscope on my birthday this year read “Develop a way of handling the unexpected, as it will become a regular occurrence for you.”

But isn’t this true for everyone? The unexpected becomes expected, because change comes to all of us. Sometimes we seek the change, other times it is foisted upon us. But at some point, we all jump into the abyss of the unknown.

The pioneers called leaving the States for Oregon “jumping off.” Their jumping off points were typically Independence or St. Joseph, Missouri, where they left civilization as they knew it and headed into the unknown.

Most emigrants jumped off around mid-April. At this time of year, these frontier towns teemed with people and wagons and livestock. Prices surged as high as spring floods as families sought to provision themselves for the arduous journey ahead. Imagine the bustle and excitement of thousands of strangers converging on muddy streets and splintered boardwalks.

For those of us who live in the Midwest, think of the weather this time of year. Last Saturday we had thunderstorms and hail and more than 120 tornadoes across a wide swatch of what used to be the open prairie. Some years there are late snow storms in April.

Would you want to head out across the prairie with only a canvas wagon cover between you and the elements? The covers could get blown off by wind and shredded by hail. There were no warning sirens or National Weather Service to give notice.

Most of the emigrants walked, rather than riding in the wagon, to spare the mules or oxen. Would you want to walk through wet or snowy spring grasses? Wade across swollen spring creeks? Search for firewood dry enough to cook your meals?

The unknown will hit all of us. Some of our rigors are physical, some are mental or spiritual. What challenges can you anticipate? And how can you prepare yourself for the unexpected?