Lightening the Wagons

“As the emigrants moved up the grade approaching the Rockies, it became obvious that the overloaded wagons had to be lightened, and gradually they discarded materials not essential for survival. Domestic goods, of course, were most easily excluded from the essential category, much to the dismay of the women. “We came across a heavy old fashioned cook stove which some emigrant had hauled all those weary miles mountain and desert, only to discard it at last,” wrote Lavinia Porter. “No doubt some poor forlorn woman was now compelled to do her cooking by the primitive camp fire, perhaps much against her will.” True recalled that by the time hisparty reached the Great Basin all his mother’s camping conveniences had been discarded, greatly adding to her labors and filling her days with anxiety. This anxiety was not only the effect of added work. Books, furniture, knickknacks, chine, daguerreotypes, guitars—the very articles that most helped establish a domestic feel about the camps were the first things be discarded. Lightening the wagons, however necessary, was interpreted by women as a process operating against their interests. In one party a woman “exclaimed over an escritoire of rare workmanship” she had found along the trail “and pitied the poor woman who had to part with it.

“The loss of a sense of home—the inability to ‘keep house’ on the trail—was perhaps the hardest loss to bear, the thing that drove women closest to desperation.”