As a young bride, Catherine Haun and her lawyer husband caught the gold fever early in 1849. This was a period of national hard times and the young couple longed to go West and “pick up “ gold with which to return to their native Iowa and pay off their debts. The story of her journey across the Great Plains was written as a reminiscence for her daughter.
About 25 of their neighbors made up the wagon party. Beside all the necessary provisions for the journey, there were two wagons filled wih merchandise to sell when they arrived at their destination. This turned out to be impractical as they never got these goods across the first mountain. Their necessary provisions consisted of freshly ground flour, home-cured bacon, cooking utensils, dried or salted meats, and dried vegetables and fruit.
In her clothes trunk Catherine had two blue checkered gingham dresses, aprons, underclothes, and some “dress up” colorful bonnets for Sundays.
When we started from Iowa I wore a dark woolen dress which served me almost constantly during the whole trip. Never without a three-cornered kerchief, similar to those worn in those days I presented a comfortable, neat appearance. The wool protected me from the sun’s rays and penetrating prairie winds. Besides it economized in laundrying which was a matter of no small importance when one considers how limited, and often utterly wanting were our “wash day” conveniences. The chief requisite, water, being sometimes brought from miles.(20)
It took three months for all the wagons to be equipped for the April 24th, 1849 departure. The trunks that were packed held what were considered treasures, a bible and medicines. The medicines were quinine, opium, whiskey, hartshorn for snake bites, and citric acid. The citric acid was used as an antidote for scurvy. The acid would be mixed with sugar and water and a few drops of lemon essence making it a substitute for lemonade. Matches were also very precious and were kept in a large-mouthed bottle and placed carefully in the trunk.
Catherine Haun describes some of the families in their caravan. The Lemore family from Canada were a man, his wife, and two small girls. Their large express wagon was drawn by four mules. They had traveled from Canada to Iowa and had a well supplied wagon with a roll of bedding strapped to the side of the wagon. Baggage, bundles, pans and other kitchen utensils, and bags of feed for their horse and mules were attached to the back of the wagon. There was Mr. West with his wife, his son Clay who was about 20 years old, and his daughter, America, who was eighteen. He also had a man traveling with them. He had a very heavy wagon that tended to stall when the roads were bad, but since he was a wagon maker and his companion a blacksmith they were key to the caravan.
There were many memorable events on this cross country trek. One was Catherine’s first encounter with Native American women with their babies.
The squaws carried their papooses in queer little canopied baskets suspended upon their backs by a band around their heads and across their foreheads. The infant was snugly bound, mummy-fashion with only its head free. It was here that I first saw a bit of remarkable maternal discipline, peculiar to most of the Indian tribes. The child cried whereupon the mother took it, basket and all, from her back and nursed it. It still fretted and whimpered apparently uncomfortable or ill. The mother then stood it up against a tree and dashed water in the poor little creature’s face. By the time that it recovered its breath it stopped crying.(21)
Haun describes seeing herds of buffalo on the land. She described them as “ a great black cloud, a threatening moving mountain advancing toward us very swiftly and with wild snorts, noses almost to the ground and tails flying in midair.”(22) She had no idea how many animals were in the stampeding herd and she describes the sound as deafening and terrible. The herd demolished some of their wagons, but luckily no one was killed, although people were injured.
Haun describes the shooting of two of the buffalos and using the humps and tongues as fresh meat. “The large bone of the hind leg, after being stripped of the flesh, was buried in coals of buffalo chips and in an hour the baked marrow was served. I have never tasted such a rich, delicious food!”(23) They also made jerky out of some of the hump, after cutting it into strips an inch wide. It was then strung on ropes and hung from the wagon cover to cure. Afterwards it was packed in a bag and eaten when rations were low. Dried buffalo chips were also very useful as fuel. Since there were no trees on the plains, each person that walked along side the wagons carried bags to pick up the chips.
On the fourth of July they reached the Laramie River,and it was a time of celebration. They sang patriotic songs, fired off guns, and gave cheers for the United States and the California Territory. The children made up costumes, mostly of Indian characters. Everyone danced around the campfire to violin music, and celebrated until midnight. At the height of the party, a strange white woman with her small daughter rushed into the gathering. Haun describes the following scene:
She was trembling with terror, tottering with hunger. Her clothing was badly torn and her hair disheveled. The child crouched with fear and hid her face within the folds of her mother’s tattered skirt. After she had partaken of food and was refreshed by a safe night’s rest she recovered and the next day told us that her husband and sister had contracted cholera on account of which her family consisting of husband, brother, sister, herself and two children had stayed behind their train. The sick ones died and while burying the sister the survivors were attacked by Indians, who, as she supposed, killed her brother and little son. She was obliged to flee for her life dragging with her the little five year old daughter. (24)
The woman, Martha, and her child stayed with the wagon train. Martha helped Haun with the cooking. She and her little son were soon reunited. The child had been traded for a horse by Indians to other emigrants and was traveling only a few days behind the Haun party.
At that time cholera was epidemic on the plains. Haun’s party was very lucky since they did not have a single case of the disease. All along the way they found graves testifying to the lives taken by smallpox and cholera.
Only one death occurred during their trip and that was during their crossing of the desert. Mrs. Lamore, a Canadian woman, “suddenly sickened and died, leaving her two little girls and grief stricken husband.”(25) Haun does not say that Mrs. Lamore died in childbirth; there was a taboo around the facts of pregnancy and birth at this time among emigrant women.
After traveling 2400 miles the Hauns reached Sacramento on November 4, 1849. They had traveled for six months and ten days from Clinton, Iowa. On the last page of her diary, Catherine Haun says:
Upon the whole I enjoyed the trip, spite of its hardships and dangers and the fear and dread that hung as a pall over every hour. Although not so thrilling as were the experiences of many who suffered in reality what we feared, but escaped, I like every other pioneer, love to live over again, in memory the romantic months, and revisit, in fancy, the scenes of the journey.(26)