by Martha E. Shivvers
IT ALL BEGAN long before dawn of the day they left their home. Letters from loved ones in the new territory called “loway” had generated the desire to see for themselves the tall timbers, the rivers, the rich prospects, and the eternal beauty that had been described. Not that their home was barren, but they longed for adventure that their loved ones had experienced a few years before and were writing about now.
Once the decision was made for this new venture, strenuous work began. The men did more than the usual amount of butchering, and their wives preserved the extra meat by frying down pork and layering each piece in stone jars, covering the pieces with lard and capping the tops with porcelain plates. They snugly tied muslin towels around the full jars. The beef was cut up, and sides hung in smokehouses, smoked, and salt cured. Earlier in the fall, apples had been sliced and dried, and the sweet corn had been dried in the sun. Bags of these foods hung from the rafters in the cold rooms.
With thoughtful and heart-rendering judgments, it was decided what furniture could be taken, and what had to be left behind. Many tears were shed over these decisions, and many times some favorite bric-a-bracs were hidden in the folds of feather ticks or pillows or some of the clothing.
The long, low-boxed wagons, bowed at the ends and the sides, with high curved iron casings fastening from side to side, were covered tightly with canvas. These conveyances not only served as wagons, but as boats when it was necessary to cross many of the larger streams of water. The loads had to be well-balanced, and the men packed the most-needed articles close to the front end or the rear opening. The home-ground flour, the sugar and molasses, the salt, and the dried and cured meats were stacked in places that would be convenient to reach when meal times came. The dried fruits and vegetables hung from the iron casing and swung on their moorings. The pots and kettles needed for cooking dangled from under the wagon body, along with the buckets of tar and grease that were needed to keep the wagon wheels in repair. While the tool box was fastened on the right side of the wagon, the box on the opposite side held food for the animals.
The men checked and rechecked every part of their traveling gear, making sure the braces for the high drivers’ seats, the tongues of the wagons, and the singletrees were secure. Even the rawhide bull whips were tested for their strength and availability.
The cattle, sheep, hogs, and even the cats and dogs that the families owned were counted, and the tally of each family’s belongings was given to the leader. The drivers were assigned their tasks before dawn, that day in 1844 in the central Indiana hills. Several wagons pulled by oxen started out with their occupants for a new home. Many of the men, guiding the livestock, rode horses. Children skipped or walked along the roadside. When the younger ones tired, they crept inside to rest upon the soft feather ticks. Many of the women sat upon the high seats holding firmly to the reins as the animals pulling the loads lumbered on. Small children played in the “children’s box” that was firmly fastened behind the dashboard, and many times a baby lay on the seat beside the mother or was folded into her arms.
As the sun slipped to the far rim of the plains at evening, the wagons circled for the night. Whenever possible, camping was done along a stream. The animals were driven inside the circle, given food and water, and the cows were milked. Bonfires were built to cook the evening meal and provide warnings to any wild creatures that might be hovering nearby.
Through Indiana and Illinois this group of hardy pioneers traveled and found a ferry at the Mississippi River crossing in Iowa. With anxious expectations they entered what appeared to be a land of mystery. The prairies were covered with grasses and flowers, and there were woods along a winding river. The land that nourished oaks, pines, maple, walnut, and many other trees lordly enough to command reign over this ground also gave shelter to the bison, deer, elk, bear, and wildcats. The animals’ paths were prominent and provided guidance onward for the people in this adventure.
The families built homes of logs in Iowa. There were large rooms with broad fireplaces which provided their warmth and their heat for cooking meals. They built pole barns (roofed, log structures with one end left open – steel sheds of this design are still called pole barns by farmers in this area) to house the livestock, and they sought out firewood and foods to keep them through the months ahead.
Using oxen to pull the two-wheel, oak-beam, single-share plow, the tough, virgin prairie sod that covered the earth like a blanket was broken up. Only oxen could be used for this task because horses were not strong enough. Sometimes two oxen were needed to clear the land of the thick grass and the long roots while two men wove back and forth, holding onto the plow handles.
At first the “harrowing” was done with branches pulled over the fields to break up the matted soil, and the corn, oats, wheat, and barley were planted. Then the branches covered the seeds with dirt so they could sprout and grow.
Vegetable gardens were planted near the homes, and until the rail fences could be built, family members took their turn keeping the livestock out of the new growth. As the vegetables grew, the grains developed, and the animals reproduced, it became possible to purchase new grounds for permanent homes.
One particular pioneer, Benjamin Sherwood, grieving over the death of his wife of over thirty-five years, and fired by the intrigue of adventure, bade his children good-bye and joined the wagon train, riding his trusty horse. No doubt he recalled earlier days when he, his beloved Sally, and six of their young children were part of the group that left North Carolina, traveling in Conestoga wagons along into Indiana by the way of the Wabash River into Montgomery County. (Seven of the older children remained in North Carolina.)
Perhaps he thought, too, of the fate that brought his ancestors from the Sherwood Forest in England to the “new country of freedom” and to the shores of Maryland and North Carolina in the late seventeenth century. Then again, he might have been thinking of his ancestor who had walked beside George Washington, serving him in a humble manner during the war that separated the New World from the Old.
Now, with his wife gone, most of the children grown, he joined the trek, again westward, urging his children to follow.
The area of settlement, west of the Des Moines River, was named New Indiana and later became Indiana Township, Marion County, Iowa. Other families in the wagon train were the May’s, the Cade’s, the Sweem’s, and the Gullion’s, and these family names have remained popular throughout the years in this area.
“Come to Iowa,” Benjamin wrote his children in 1853. “We had remarkably good cropping season last year for all kinds of grains and roots…. I measured some corn very carefully and found that I made about 61-1/2 bushels to the acre. My wheat made about 17 to 18 bushels to the acre. Wheat is worth 50 cents a bushel, corn 20 to 25 cents, and potatoes, sometimes, sell for as much as 50 cents a bushel. Pork is high along the river markets being $6.50 per hundred. But since I have been in Iowa pork has sold for as low as $1.50 to $2.00 per hundred, and in this part of the country never higher than $3.00 for this time of the year. (January.) The price of cattle and horses is also high. A first rate milk cow is worth $20.00 and a good yoke of work steers costs $60.00 to $80.00.”
Benjamin was described by a relative as being, “a proud man, civic minded, a hard worker, and one with chin whiskers, often dressing up in a swallow-tailed coat, silk hat, tight waistcoat, and long trousers fastened under his feet with straps…. He often rode around the countryside in a two wheeled cart drawn by a white horse. To his relatives, close friends, and second wife, he answered to the name of ‘Benny.’”
Three children, William, Enoch, and Benjamin Franklin, bringing their sister, Caroline, did move to Iowa in 1852, stopping in Linn County. Enoch and William purchased large farms there. However, Enoch was caught up in the Pikes Peak mining fever the next year, rented his ground, journeyed west and was struck by lightning near the Peak and was buried there. William died of typhoid pneumonia soon after. Benjamin Franklin, called Dr. Frank, moved his family one hundred fifty miles west to be nearer his father in Marion County. He applied for some congress land and was granted “eighty acres not claimed by Private William Gray who had served in Captain Ashton’s Company Ohio Militia of 1812 and thus entitled to this ‘bounty land’ granted to certain officers and soldiers who had been engaged in the Military Service of the United States. Signed, President Franklin Pierce.” In May of 1856, Dr. Frank bought another 40 acres of “bounty land” that had been granted as not claimed by a soldier in the Black Hawk War (In the following years he purchased 169-1/2 more acres for the sum of $810 and one-half acre of coal land for $50. A coal mine was opened from which all local people secured their winter’s supply of fuel free – free for the labor of getting it.
In another of Benjamin’s letters written January 8, 1860, we read:
My wife and I filed on a piece of Congress land… thought we could save enough to enter at least 40 acres… Providence blessed all our efforts beyond expectations, and we secured 100 acres… our health then became such that we could not take care of ourselves… I sold the land for $500 and that money was loaned out at ten per cent interest. Son Franklin who had moved from Indiana and bought a large farm from Congress wants us to move to their small house… about ten miles from here.
You might not remember that Franklin had studied medicine in Indiana with an eminent German physician, but soon found that he would rather follow the plow than practice medicine, and I believe that object had a great bearing toward inducing him to sell in Indiana and come to Iowa. But no sooner had he located than his practice commenced and constantly increased.
We made excellent crops of corn last season and a monstrous crop of beef and pork. A good beef cow brought from $15.00 to $20.00, a three-year-old steer sold for about the same; Pork still sells for around $3.00 per hundred. Our cattle and hogs are driven on foot to the Des Moines River then barged down to Ottumwa about forty miles downstream, then they are shipped by rail to either Chicago or on to New York.
So Benjamin tells his family back in Indiana and North Carolina whom he never saw again.
As most homes of large families, Dr. Frank’s Iowa home had four large rooms about eighteen feet square, and the house was a story and a half, made of logs. It was built in a grove of elm and black walnut trees. The two fireplaces in the two downstairs rooms heated not only the lower areas but sent warmth up the stairway to the two bedrooms above. The east room served as kitchen, dining room, and the doctor’s office and boasted of a huge cupboard secreting the medicines needed in his medical services. The west room was not only the living room but the bedroom for the parents. A feature of historic interest was the cellar underneath the kitchen area, and entered from that room. The walls and floor were of rock, and the timbers were sixteen inches thick. The smokehouse sat apart, along with the pole barn; and a fruit and vegetable pit was dug near the house for the storage of foods and fruits.
The news spread quickly that Dr. Frank’s medical services were available, and time found him riding his sturdy horse with saddle-bags of medicine across the horse’s withers. During the days of the Civil War, he made a point of caring without fees for all those families whose husbands and sons were in the service of their country. Needless to say, the farm labors fell into the hands of the wife and mother, Sara, and their five sons while the four daughters helped with household chores.
The incident my father liked to tell about his grandfather was regarding a young man that had had an accident, and one limb had become badly infected. Two doctors had been called in on the case, and after much deliberating decided the leg had to be surgically removed. By chance Dr. Frank was riding out on a call and going by this particular house was stopped for a consultation. Not wanting to interfere with another’s patient, he hesitated to comment. Upon urging, however he said that he thought the leg could be saved. The family begged him to tell them what to do, anything, and they would comply. The family was instructed to peel huge quantities of bark from a white oak tree, then place it in a large iron kettle and cover it with water. This must be boiled for some time, then strained to take out any bark particles from the ooze; after which the liquid was to be put back into the kettle, brought to a boil and a large quantity of salt added. After the liquid had taken all of the salt it could hold, and was well dissolved, it was to be strained again, then portions poured onto the bandaged, injured leg. Within a few hours after the applications, the pain began to leave, the young man was able to go to sleep, and his leg soon started to heal. It goes without saying that the young man never hesitated to tell how his leg had been restored, and he could walk as good as new. In fact he lived to be well over ninety years old.
Because of his long hours in service and unselfish care of the ill and his previous bouts of frail health, the doctor lived to be only fifty-four years and was buried beside his father.
Some of the progeny moved to other areas; some of the land was sold to neighbors; but one parcel remained in the family, and was a home of enchantment to eight more children, until our father’s death in 1950 – a land revered with nostalgic memories.
Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Perpetua. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 410 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook. The cover was printed on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, MD 20770