Raymond Starr, Book Reviews Editor
Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Volume I, 1840-1849. Edited and compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes, Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1983. Map. Bibliography. Illustrations. 272 pages. $25.00.
Reviewed by Maxine Benson, Director of Publications, Kansas State Historical Society.
In recent years there has been considerable interest among historians in the overland experience, resulting in works such as John Unruh’s monumental The Plains Across; John Mack Faragher’s Women and Men on the Overland Trail; Ho for California!: Women’s Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited by Sandra Myres; and Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, by Lillian Schlissel. Adding to this literature is the volume under review, the first of a projected series of ten volumes that will present women’s diaries and letters from the “western trails” for the period 1840-1890. The aim is to include documents that either have not been published or have been issued only in rare, limited editions. The first volume focuses on the period 1840-1849, printing letters or diaries of thirteen women, including Louisiana Strentzel’s letter from San Diego in 1849 (she thought the climate was “mild and pleasant and very healthy”).
Holmes’s editorial philosophy is to transcribe each document absolutely literally, with no additions or changes whatever, save for adding spaces at the end of phrases or sentences (if there is no punctuation in the original), and putting all journals, however written, into a diary format. He has provided a general introduction and sets the scene for each section with appropriate information about the woman diarist or correspondent. The notes (placed at the bottom of the page) are generally helpful and sufficient, as are the introductions to each section. Although some bibliographical references are included, the reader must wait until the final volume for the comprehensive index, bibliography, and gazetteer-a minor inconvenience in the interim.
Those familiar with the works mentioned above, however, as well as with such studies as Westering Women by Sandra Myres; Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1880 by Julie Roy Jeffrey; and Frontierswomen by Glenda Riley may be somewhat disconcerted by Holmes’s introduction, which opens with a quotation from Emerson Hough’s paean to “the woman in the sunbonnet” in The Passing of the Frontier (1920) and concludes with an approving nod to an early twentieth-century oration lauding the “Pilgrim Mothers.” Readers may also detect a certain unfamiliarity with women’s concerns. For example, after discussing some of the varied interests of the writers such as recording the animals or plants they observed, he comments, “Then there were the grave counters, those who told in detail of the graves seen continually along the way and what was inscribed on the crude markers” (p. 18). Such a statement seems to minimize what was in fact a crucial concern to women. Lillian Schlissel, too, comments on the “grave counters,” but emphasizes that for women, the individual deaths along the trail became a “personal catastrophe.” Indeed, she sees the care that women gave to this activity to be one of the “major sex-related differences” between men’s and women’s diaries (p. 153-54). As such it seems worthy of more consideration than Holmes’s apparently off-handed comment might indicate.
These remarks, however, should not overshadow the very real and positive contributions of the editor and the publisher in presenting this material in the usual attractive, classic Clark format. When the series is completed more than one hundred accounts will be available, an impressive contribution by any standard. Future volumes will be awaited with interest and anticipation.