Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, May 15, 2009

Guest Blogger Anna Kathryn Lanier on Frontier Women: Keturah Belknap

Today I'd like to welcome Anna Kathryn Lanier to History Undressed! Today she's talking about the American Frontier Women, Keturah Belknap in particular. This is a fascinating topic! Thanks for being here!

First, thanks, Eliza for having me here today. I've enjoyed reading your blog and I'm pleased to be a guest on History Undressed.(change the name if I have it wrong...lol)

One day, I hope to write a story that involves a wagon train. To do research for it, I have acquired several books that retell diaries and letters of real frontier women. One book is “Covered Wagon Women” by Kenneth L. Holmes. In the book, Holmes retells the story of a dozen pioneer women, including Keturah Belknap, who made not one but two wagon trips to new homes. Today, I will discuss Keturah's trip to Iowa and her life there.

Two weeks after she married George Belknap in Ohio in October 1839, they “gathered up” their possessions and headed in search of prairie land. Her in-laws accompanied the newlyweds. Finding only timber land, they passed through Indiana, Illinois and crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa. The journey took four weeks and unlike some pioneers, the Belknaps seemed well prepared for it.

They took with them flour and meat, a dutch oven, skillet, teakettle and coffee pot. When they wanted fresh vegetables or horse feed they stopped at farms and buy it. It was planned to winter in Rushville, Iowa, but the Belknaps heard of a homestead for sale and continued on toward it. During this trip, they encountered sleet and snow storms. Keturah writes about how frozen she became while driving the wagon as her husband herded the cattle.

The homestead they purchased had a house on it, a good thing as they arrived in November. However, the couple and George's parents, who shared the small house, still needed to survive the winter. They bought “a dollar worth of coffee and the same of sugar that lasted all winter.” Her husband cut timber into timber in the freezing snow to earn grocery money.

Keturah spent the winter “spinning flax and tow* to make summer clothes.” In the spring they sheared the few sheep they had, then washed and picked the wool and sent it to be carded. Once carded, the wool needed to be spun, colored and woven. Keturah would spin and her mother-in-law would weave it, as Keturah didn't know how to weave.

To help earn money for their mortgage, the family sold butter (12½¢ a pound), eggs (6¢ a dozen), pork (5¢ a pound) and corn (12½ ¢ a bushel).

For the first few years, Keturah and George continued to share a house with her in-laws for three years. They saved money to purchase materials for their own home, which was finally completed in 1842. Family and friends built the 24x16 foot house, but George made the siding himself from nearby timber.

Interestingly, Keturah explains in her diary, when she describes making a Christmas dinner for twelve, that she has never cooked on a stove. Instead, she bakes in the hearth and cooks in a dutch oven over the open fire.

The Belknaps stayed in Iowa until 1848, when they left for Oregon. During their time in Iowa, Keturah gave birth to three children, two daughters and a son. Unfortunately, both daughters, Hannah and Martha, died as toddlers and the deaths affected her greatly. Her son, Jesse and his brother, Lorenzo, who was born on the Oregon trail, survived to adulthood.

If you'd like to read more about Keturah and her journey to Oregon, please check out my blog today. I'm talking about the Belknap's trip on my weekly feature The Friday Record. http://annakathrynlanier.blogspot.com/

Also, you can visit me at http://www.aklanier.com/ for information on my stories.

Thanks again for having me, Eliza.

*Tow: the fiber of flax, hemp, or jute prepared for spinning by scutching; the shorter, less desirable flax fibers separated from line fibers in hackling. http://www.dictionary.com/

16 comments:

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Anna Kathryn,
Great article. They were certainly brave and resourceful those frontier women, I guess they had to be or they wouldn't have survived. We have a similar history here in Australia, where women joined their husbands on long treks, across harsh inhospitable terrain to make their homes hundred of miles from civilization.
Cheers
Margaret

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Eliza. Once again, thanks for having me today. Yes, Margaret, the men and women of the 17th, 18th and 189th centuries certainly were brave and resourceful. If we were transported back in time, I think most of us would be lost.

A.K.

Emma Lai said...

Well-written post, Anna Kathryn! Isn't it amazing that they lived in such a small house and today we feel like we need huge houses to live in?

Pat McDermott said...

What riveting history, Anna Kathryn. Reading about the lives of our admirable forebears is as close as I'd care to get to enduring the incredible hardships they did. I'm sure they're smiling down on you for keeping their stories alive.

Mary Ricksen said...

I love to read these historical blogs. Just imagine yourself cooking over a hearth. Driving a wagon. These women had character and we could all learn from them.
No TV, no microwave, no air conditioning. Ahhh, shoot me!

Skhye said...

I'm always fascinated at how much time and energy is invested in people making clothes... Of course, we spend money we earn (or our spouse earns) and can appreciate how money is come by. But the work women vested in raising animals or crops to turn into fibers that could be woven or crocheted into clothing is beyond belief. In anthropology, it's called invisible work--work that doesn't put coins on the table. Add to whipping up clothes the making of daily bread--an enormous and crucial undertaking for any day--and I can't even imagine banging dirty clothes on the rocks at the riverbed... Oh, I'm going to go put the wash in the dryer before I forget! Thank goodness I don't have to hang them on the line! ;)

Jannine said...

Hi anna Kathryn:
Don't you love diaries of the Old West? LOL, I have the book you mentioned about Belknap.

I followed a diary about traveling West for one of my historical westerns. It was amazing to read about what they went through and all the sacrifices these people made just to reach the Pacific Coast.

I always love your articles about the Old West. They're so informative.

Ashley Ludwig said...

Hey, Anna Kathryn -- I'm a huge fan. I did enormous amounts of research for my historical, All or Nothing (set in 1876).

I was entranced not only by the travel, but making of clothes, but the washing of them! And making soap! and the cost of sundry items and what exactly happens to butter over time... and so many other things we take for granted.

Well done. You must be so proud of your story. can't wait to read the wagon train book when you get to it!

~Ashley

Caffey said...

Hi Anna! I just read your post on your blog and came here to read even more! I do hope you get to write that story someday. I'd for one would love to read about it! Too, reading the diaries of the real frontier woman. I can't remember much of what I reading a romance book that set mostly on a wagon train (I think tho Candace Protor's book NIGHT IN EDEN(Writes now Historical mysteries at C. H. Harris) and too writes in the gritty realistic harsh life it was then. We have it so much easier now than they did. Just so fascinating reading about this Anna. I loved learning about their journey. Thanks

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Wow! Lots of good info in this blog. Katurah must have been a hearty soul. I can't even begin to imagine what she endured (and sure hope she and her MIL got along!)

Great Blog.

Maryann Miller said...

Interesting stuff, Anna. It's so much fun to learn all these little details of a life so different from ours.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hello, everyone. Great comments. One book I've read about a wagon train that was well researchyed was Janelle Taylor's Midnight Secrets. The hero and heroine travel from Georgia to Texas after the Civil War. Good stuff there.

When you stop to think about all the women and men had to do to put food on the table and clothes on their backs, it's amazing. And we think our lives are busy now!

Also, something I was told while touring a house one time....their clothing cost more than the house did, because the house materials were mostly free.

A.K.

Jeanmarie Hamilton said...

Thanks for the great blog on this family. It really makes you wonder how they survived the winters. And to think that some folks traveled with only a hand cart. Those were determined people back then. Some of my ancestors made the trek from Ohio to Iowa in the early 1840s in the winter as well. Boggles the mind. Great food for writing. Thanks!

Susan Macatee said...

Great info, Anna Kathryn! I love to read first person accounts to get a real feel of what my historical characters would have to know and live through. Makes me feel wimpy knowing what our ancestors had to deal with just to survive.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Great information, Anna Kathryn. I did a lot of research on wagon train travel and found it all so interesting at how strong and brave they had to be to survive.

Eliza Knight said...

Fascinating stuff Anna! Thank you so much for being here with us!!!