Marshall and Amanda needed money to carry them to their new life in the Territory of Colorado. A reasonable amount to do this, along with all the contingencies, would be somewhere between $750 and $1,250. They probably saved every penny they could during the war and also while working in Boston. The fact that they decided to make this leap of faith demonstrates that they must have had enough savings to go.
They needed to acquire a wagon, a team of animals to pull it, and supplies for a six-week journey that would begin from the “stepping off place” they chose, St. Joseph or St. Joe Missouri. They would also need money for temporary room and board in St. Joe and money to purchase land.
Making the Trip
Marshall, Amanda, Marshall’s cousin Lawrence, and a fourth unknown male traveler will go.
—Rodney Chipp, “Case of Marshall P. Felch, No. 401703
—Conklin, Women at Gettysburg
Amanda’s son Albert now nine years old will follow within three years but for now he stayed behind with the Ira Colburn family in Vermont. Marshall’s daughter Carrie will never make the journey, staying with Grandpa and Grandma Eastman in the Strafford Vermont area not far from West Fairlee. Marshall’s brother Henry and Charlie will join them a few years later at different times.
Jumping Off Places
A few towns such as Independence, Missouri; Council Bluffs, Iowa; and St. Joseph, Missouri; were what they called “jumping off places.” Settlers historically arrived in these places by either steamboat or overland wagon train travel, but by 1859 they were arriving in St. Joseph on the Hannibal and St. Joseph train. Settlers would buy their wagon, team, and supplies and get ready to step off into the frontier after they arrived in one of these jumping off places.
Marshall and Amanda’s train ride started somewhere in New England, possibly Boston, but just as easily could have been near Piermont, New Hampshire or maybe as far north as St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Perhaps they had a St. Johnsbury to St. Joe ride?
A train journey to St. Joseph would involve transfers and more than one train line. Trains would not be particularly comfortable, but considering the war they had been through, they were probably luxurious. Chances are they would travel light; probably haul what they could in trunk or two.
On their ride, they traversed through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. Most train lines simply stopped at the edge of the Mississippi River. Passengers were ferried across and there you would get on another train for the rest of the trip. There was only one bridge across the Mississippi River at the time- called the Government Bridge-between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa. Family legend has it that maybe Amanda and Marshall were one of the first to cross the Mississippi River on a bridge, so it could have been on this route.
—Zimmerman, Life Story of F.M. and Ruby Zimmerman.
For the last leg of the trip, they will take the rather rickety Hannibal and St. Joseph line running east to west through Missouri. The train station was in the heart of St. Joseph not far from the Missouri river. Awaiting the arrival of new emigrants like Amanda and Marshall were a slurry of “entrepreneurs” there to “assist. ”
Are we really going to do this?
St. Joe was, and still is, considered one of the prettiest cities along the Missouri. Its brick buildings sit up nicely on the river bluff. Although those parts of the town were lovely, the train station terminal where Marshall and Amanda arrived was known to be inhabited with thieves, liars, and murderers; and as the old joke goes “then there were the bad ones”. Many emmigrants arriving in a setting like this must have had a reality check, but there was no turning back for Marshall and Amanda. Marshall and Amanda had already experienced life in the worst of circumstances; they, no doubt, could sort out the honest from the dishonest individuals when making a business transaction.
Until they could set up their own camp, their first “to do” would be to seek out a temporary place to live. A popular place for emigrants, at least for the first few nights was Robidoux Row. Once Marshall and Amanda started putting together their traveling outfit they probably did what most of the other emigrants did, set up camp nearby along the River.
Missouri arrived as a slave state in 1821 and entered the Civil War as a border state, with divided allegiances. Next door was Kansas Territory, the home of John Brown. Between 1854 and 1861 there were a series of violent political confrontations or border clashes that have been called Bleeding Kansas, Bloody Kansas or the Border War. It was a war between Missouri “ruffians” and Kansas “Jayhawkers”, a term adopted by “free-staters” in Kansas Territory. The war was fought as to whether Kansas would ultimately enter the Union as a free or slave state. The outcome had national consequences. In anticipation of Kansas becoming a free state, South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860. Five more states followed and three months later Fort Sumter was fired on.
St. Joe was still in a state of divided allegiances when Marshall and Amanda arrived. The emigrant trade had faultered during much of the Civil War and Union troops occupied St. Joseph during much of the war. Amanda who fought for the Union cause would nevertheless find work in this deeply divided community, she worked her whole life.
In a sense it might have been easier for Amanda to travel along with the wagon where she could make sure everyone was fed and taken care of . On the other hand it made good sense for Amanda to stay and work in St. Joseph through the next few months. With her strong organizational skills, Amanda could make more money, hence building up a cash supply. Marshall was very used to living out of a wagon and had worked as a hospital cook for about a year so he could manage although his health was always a question.
An idyllic view of St. Joseph, Missouri about 1854 taken from the book United States Illustrated: In views of City and Country by Charles A. Dana. Picture courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society archives.
Marshall and Amanda’s purpose when arriving in St. Joseph was to assemble an “outfit.” At the time outfit was a common term. It meant the animals, the wagon, and the supplies that would make the journey, sort of like the way we think of our car, SUV, campers, or truck today. At the time, the wagon of choice was a relatively small but well-built crafted farm type wagon, rather than the much larger Conestoga wagons we sometimes envision. Amanda and Marshall like every other average emigrant family, would acquire and modify their wagon as needed.
Their wagon would have been about four by ten feet in size with hickory bows for the top. The hemp canvass top was painted with oil or other material to keep it waterproof and also provide shade. The wide rimmed back wheels were about six feet in diameter. The front wheels smaller to allow for easier turning. Since tongues, spokes, and axles were subject to breakage, smart travelers slung spare parts like this under the wagon bed. Grease buckets for the wheels, water barrels, about a hundred feet of heavy hemp rope for pulling or towing, and chains, completed the main running gear accessories.
Emigrants would stock up with provisions. Some of the common staples included flour or hard bread, bacon, beans (i.e. Blazing Saddles), sugar, salt, and a few others. Each man (or Amanda) took a rifle or shotgun and some added a pistol. A good hunting knife was essential. In anticipation of their new life, many brought farm items such as a plow, shovel, scythe, rake, hoe, carpentry tools, and crop seed.
It is the composite of these things that comprised your outfit. The total weight of the wagon and supplies was probably in the neighborhood of a ton.
Most of the time, and particularly by 1866, the animal of choice to pull the wagon were oxen. Horses and mules were a less likely option, although bringing along a horse or two for the trip was not uncommon. One advantage of oxen is that they were known to eat lower quality grass. By 1866, the valleys that they would travel on had been extremely overgrazed. They were weedy with little edible forage. Emmigrants sometimes learned the hard way that Oxen were a bit tough to handle. Astute buyers would make sure they had one that was broken in and used to being on a yoke. Oxen became a part of the family and probably had some fun names and since there were two of them, maybe something like “Abe” and “Lincoln” might work. Emigrants may have trailed along one “spare” ox and probably a cow or two, knowing that animals that didn’t survive might become dinner, even the ones with names. Once you decided what sort of animal would pull your wagon you would purchase yokes and other equipment designed specifically for them.
Marshall most likely thought of their outfit as not something that he would use to get to Denver, but probably something essential long after he arrived. Your outfit was in many ways not just important, it was critical to your survival.
The Wagon Train
Wagons commonly traveled in groups of about twenty-five. Individuals forming these groups would come together with “like minded” pioneers before the trip and develop their rules of the road. We can guess that in Marshall’s case “his” wagon train would be made up other Union veterans. This was an important distinction Marshall and Amanda would cling to for the rest of their lives.
Individual with certain kinds of talents were typically sought out when assembling a wagon group. Marshall’s medical skills would definitely make him a desirable addition to any wagon train. It’s probable, that he would have stocked up on some of the more common commodities including quinine for malaria, citric acid for scurvy, Laudanum (a tincture of opium), morphine, calomel, camphor and whiskey, all of which could be dispensed as needed.
The St. Joe Road
Sometime in late March or early April, Amanda and Marshall said their goodbyes and the wagon journey began. St. Joe is on the east bank of the Missouri River. The wagon trains truley begin their journey on the west side and follow what they called the St. Joe Road. There was no bridge at the time and the Missouri River is a big river, particularly so in the spring. Emigrants would ferry their outfit across when they were getting ready to start their journey. One boat could ferry about 35 wagons per day. There were generally only two ferries making the trip and they ran day and night. Sometimes up to 300 teams waiting to get across and wagon trains would be backed up for four or five days. Early 1866 was a very busy time period.
Once across they would journey along the St. Joe Road. This “road” was one of five major routes that traversed through northeastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska to the Platte River. All routes would converge together just east of modern day Kearney, Nebraska, about a two week journey at the time.
Many publications give insights into daily life along the trail. The first part of the entry by Ruth Shackleford entitled To California by the Mormon Trail, 1865 seems quite applicable to what Marshall’s life on the trail might have been like.
—Holmes, Covered Wagon Women Volume 9 Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1864-1868
Fifteen miles a day
Most wagon trains would average about fifteen miles a day. Stage or ranch stops were located to accommodate an average day’s travel of a covered wagon train. These stops would include places like Seneca and Rock Creek, the latter a historic site you can visit today. They traversed first for about two weeks through what today we see as relatively lush green farmlands of eastern Kansas and Nebraska territory. The toughest aspect of this initial part of the journey was the dangerous river crossings such as the Big Blue near modern day Marysville, as evidenced by the many grave markers along its bank at the time. Some settlers would pay for special toe rope to help guide their wagon across the trechorous waters.
Death along the Trail
Most deaths were the result of disease and accidents. Getting run over by a wagon, drowning during a stream crossing, or self-inflicted gunshot wounds were not uncommon. Diseases like the deadly Asian cholera arriving on steamboats followed wagon trains on their journey west.
The Great Platte River Road
The official beginning of the Great Platte River Road was Fort Kearney, about five miles west of modern day Kearney Nebraska. It was a rather nondescript group of buildings manned by army troops. All routes converged at this fort on the south side of the Platte River. After stocking up emmigrants traveled along the Platte River. The Great Platte River Road was in a sense a “divided highway” starting about modern day Kearney, Nebraska and the wagons doing a “westward ho” from there. The river formed the “center median” and the north and south sides of the river were the “lanes” with all traffic heading west.
It’s tempting to think about Marshall heading out into the untouched frontier, but quite to the contrary he traveled along a path that had been extensively traveled and transformed. By 1866 settlers were experiencing a weedy flood plain with little grass. It was dusty, buggy, and had few if any accessible trees. It was quite unlike the environment the Pawnee experienced 50 years earlier or what we see today.
—-West, The Way to the West
In one six-week period , more than six thousand wagons passed through Nebraska headed west. “Emigrants scoured the land along the travel routes until there was not a stick of wood with which to kindle a fire; even buffalo chips were at a premium…. Along the Platte River Road, telegraph poles became more plentiful than trees.”
—-Cozzens, The Earth Is Weeping
The Platte River was very wide and flat and not very deep. From a vantage point on one side or the other, the valley could take on a look to the emigrants of being next to the ocean with glistening water across the wide river valley that was flanked by sand hills.
Beginning in the early 1840’s tens of thousands made the trip; most traffic going went west to California and Oregon with that traffic being concentrated along the Platte and North Platte rivers. After the Colorado Gold Ruch in 1859, traffic picked up intensely along the South Platte River. Intermingled with the covered wagon parade were stagecoaches, freighting wagon trains, mail wagons, fur trade caravans, supply trains, U.S. Army troops, and dispatch riders. After the Civil War there was again a wave of traffic.
—Mattes, The Great Platte River Road
Pioneers would report seeing long columns of covered wagons stretching into the distance as far as they could see. They reported choking dust when it was dry, or muddy conditions when it rained. Most travelers would commonly bring along horses, milk cows, sheep, and goats. They grazed their animals in the valley as they migrated, heavily grazing the land. They cut down trees and chopped wood along these rivers for fires.
Marshall would have seen bison herds up to about the middle part of Nebraska. Further west the herds that relied on healthy river valleys as they relyed on healthy river valleys, particularly in the winter. Bison were hunted, but much of their loss was simply from starvation due to the loss of food in these river valleys.
—-West, The Way to the West
Like the bison, the Pawnee who lived along the Platte also depended on a healthy river valley. By the time Marshall came through, this society was rapidly disappearing, with remaining Pawnee somewhat in disarray. Perhaps it is how we might look if a hurricane destroyed our home and community.
The 100th Meridian
To geographers, it’s simply the line that marks 100 degrees of longitude west of Greenwich, England. It is an imaginary north-south line dividing middle America. About three days out of Kearney, Marshall would have crossed this line. Today the line is pointed out in the modern town of Cozad, Nebraska.
In addition to an important geographic marker, the 100th Meridian happens to correspond with well-watered prairies to the east and the more arid plains landscapes to the west. The arid nature of the west was something that the famous explorer John Wesley Powell understood. Although Marshall most likely never heard of him at the time, Powell will facilitate Marshall’s dinosaur excavations in the future.
—Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West
The North and South Platte Rivers converge about where the modern town of North Platte sits, a place well known for Buffalo Bill. Most settlers continued along the North Platte on toward Wyoming and beyond but emigrants like Marshall followed the South Platte that turned southwest about where Julesburg, Colorado is today. This was the Overland Trail and the end point will be Denver. One interesting Civil War connection along the Overland Trail is Fort Sedgwick, located near modern day Sterling, Colorado. It was named for General John Sedgwick, the commanding general of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. “Uncle John” Sedgwick was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter at the battle of Spotsylvania something that both Marshall and Amanda would have mourned. Seven years earlier, Sedgwick was a captain in the US army here where he stayed, rising to the rank of Major in 1860. He established a fort in the Sterling area which was later named Fort Sedgwick in his honor. Marshall would have passed by this fort on his way to Denver, and may have been very surprised to learn about this aspect of the general he knew and respected. If alive, Sedgwick may have been dismayed to learn that the fort named after him was not particularly nice by this time and, in fact, it was considered pretty much a hell hole.
— Williams, Fort Sedgwick, C. T.
Cheyenne and Arapahoe
The Arapahoe and Cheyenne were distinct tribes with less nomadic roots to the northwest, even up in the Great Lakes area. They became bison hunters with the acquisition of horses and pressure from incoming setters. They naturally migrated west into the plains areas east of the Rocky Mountains and would have been more common along the Overland Trail closer to and even residing near Denver. When Marshall departed in the spring of 1866 there were apprehensions about the possibility of an attack from Cheyenne or Arapaho warriors, even though relatively few pioneers actually died along the trail from such a thing. The apprehension was mostly due to attacks of Julesburg (Colorado Territory) in early 1865 by Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota warriors. These were attacks in retaliation for the Sand Creek massacre where an estimated 150-200 Cheyenne women and children were killed and mutilated. By the time Marshall came through in the spring of 1866, most of the remaining Cheyenne were being pushed out primarily into northern Nebraska and the Black Hills area. Their demise is a sad one, certainly not anything we should be proud of today. They were just another victim of manifest destiny.
As early as a four or five day wagon ride from Denver, Marshall would have first viewed the snow capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Spring snows are common in the Colorado Mountains in March through April. By the time they passed south of modern day Greeley (the basis of the fictional city of Centennial in the classic novel by James A. Michener) the Front Range of Colorado would have looked formidable unlike anything they had ever seen before.
A Bumpy Ride
Most likely Amanda found some sort of work managing boarders going west although she possibly found herself working once again in a nursing role, especially with all the Asian Cholera going around. She was skilled and adaptable.
Like all other emmigrants, Marshall and Amanda would communicate by mail that was transported relatively quickly by stage. Amanda wrote to Marshall at least three times with letters arriving in Denver on May 7, May 21, and, finally, on September 10. This last letter was presumably just ahead of her traveling to Denver. Notifications of these incoming letters were posted in the Rocky Mountain News and Marshall would check out the paper, then go to the post office to pick them up.
—Denver Public Library -Western Archives – Card catalog
Wagon trains typically left in the spring and joining one in the fall was unlikely. We don’t know for certain but Amanda most likely would have taken a stage, probably the same ones that also carried the mail. A stage ride was a common mode of transportation, and would be somewhat like the stage coaches we’ve seen in countless westerns. A driver and an assistant that both sat up top and the assistant held a loaded rifle across his lap. The driver and assistant were colorful, adventuresome, and willing to take risks. The passengers and mail were tightly crowded into the compartment below with mail commonly packed in around them. Some passengers would bring their own food while others like Amanda on a budget did their best to haul their own. All passengers had to obey the stage rules that dealt with language, snoring, chewing tobacco (spit with the wind), alcohol (you had to share), etc.
—-Weiser-Alexander, “Stage Routes of Kansas“.
Amanda may have headed down the Missouri about forty miles to Leavenworth and then taken a stage line called the Jones Express. It ran past Fort Riley, where the well-known George Armstrong Custer was stationed at the time, and on into Junction City. There it had a daily coach traversing Kansas north of the Republican River into Colorado Territory and Denver. An encounter with Native Americans or robbers is not out of the question for her trip.
Four or more horses would pull the stage along at 5 to even 10 miles an hour, providing a bumpy ride for the passengers. They might travel 60 miles in a day, so it would be about a five day trip from St. Joe to Denver. Wagon trains were heavily dependent on access to water and would follow a river, but stage routes were far less dependent on water and so Amanda may possibly taken the more southerly route directly through Northern Kansas and into Denver.
A ride from St. Joseph to Denver could cost up to about $150 and more, especially if you bought the “meal plan” which apparently ranged from almost edible to fairly good. No doubt Amanda found a ride at a reasonable rate possibly working off part of the cost through assistance she could provide.
The Great Plains
The Great Plains stretch about 1,800 miles north to south and about 500 miles east to west. About the time Columbus arrived in America, the Platte River would have been like a ribbon of green stretching out from the mountains on the Great Plains to the Missouri. The river was very wide but often only a few inches deep, with many vegetated sand islands in it. Forested areas with cottonwoods and other trees were found along the banks of the river. Green grass, particularly in the spring, carpeted the valley bottoms. In the winter, Bison settled in the valley for protection from the often brutal winter weather. They grazed the valley bottoms in the spring and moved out onto the wide expanses of upland grassy plains in the summer and early fall to forage, giving the valley bottoms time to rest and recuperate. The bison had a year round fan club, so to speak, being trailed by wolves, coyotes, and a rich diversity of Plains Indian tribes including the Pawnee.
Starting in the early 1800s the ecosystem began to change and by 1880 it was largely gone. The term “free land” enticed settlers to go west. The bison and Native Americans lost their winter home and within a relatively short period of time, the grassland ecosystem were replaced by the modern agricultural society we know today. Untouched glimpses of tall and short grass prairie such as the Flint Hills Preserve in Kansas can be woundrous experiences, particularly in the spring. There are also quite a few places where we can visit bison herds such as Yellowstone and Wind Cave National Parks.
Holmes, Kenneth L. Covered Wagon Women Volume 9 Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1864-1868. Glendale, Calif.: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
Michener, James A. Centennial. Reprint edition. Princeton, NJ: Fawcett, 1987.
Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
Weiser-Alexander. “Stage Routes of Kansas.” Accessed November 25, 2017. http://www.legendsofkansas.com/stageroutes.html.
West, Elliott. The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains. Calvin P. Horn Lectures in Western History and Culture. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1997.
Williams, Dallas. Fort Sedgwick, C. T : Hell Hole on the Platte. Sedgwick, Colo.: F. S. R. Trust, 1993. http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/24188474.
Zimmerman, Ruby Christensen. Life Story of F.M. and Ruby Zimmerman. F.M. Zimmerman, 1991.
Amanda, like Marshall and Lawrence was completely underwhelmed when she arrived at the relatively treeless Denver City sitting all alone out there in the plains. It was maybe twenty miles east of Golden City where the mountains started. Their goal now was to acquire land in the new Colorado Territory and establish a foothold. It would not necessarily where they would initially live. For now Denver would be their home.
If I had a wagon: Travelogue and info about the trip