This week seemed extraordinarily long with the snow and extreme cold, but the other night as I went to bed, I kept thinking about homesteaders who once farmed this land, and the American Indians, many of whom were forced to move here. Note, however, before the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes, several tribes already occupied much of Oklahoma. Oklahoma has an interesting and diverse history, and I took a small flight of fiction this week. Please bear with me as we visit my heroine, Elizabeth Barrows, and her family on a snowy morning in Oklahoma Territory. There were five Oklahoma land runs, but the first and most famous was held just outside what became Guthrie, the Territory Capital, on April 22, 1889.
In Elizabeth’s world, it’s now 1904. Oklahoma is not yet a state.
We found our 160 wooded acres of red land about ten miles outside of the Territory Capital which was a good thing as William had to ride all night to register our claim while I stayed with the wagon and waited with a toddler tied to my ankle and a shotgun across my lap. I watched for any lawless man who thought to take our land from us, and you can be sure I knew how to shoot.
Was I worried about Indians? That’s the question I’m most often asked in letters from back home in Philadelphia. Goodness, no, my eyes were peeled and ready for claim jumpers, not the red man who occupies Indian Territory and the Cherokee Outlet. They are our neighbors, and we often trade with them.
Thank the Lord, trouble didn’t visit us that spring day, and on this cold and snowy morn, it seems ages ago. In these fifteen years, we’ve cleared scrub, built fence and used our draft horses (a wedding present from Papa) to plow fields. After several years trying to farm the rocky soil, William and I decided instead to run cattle on the cleared portion of the land. Together, with our neighbors, we built a lean/to barn first and then a small one-room cabin with a loft for the girls from our own trees. A group of us then went and helped them do the same. I don’t know how we’d fend without our friends and neighbors to either side.
It’s a good day when I can stand at the edge of the house and watch the sun set over these sandy hills, a sun as red as the often dusty land beneath my boots; but now, it’s winter, and this one has been cold, full of ice and snow. With a blowing wind that cuts like a knife, I don’t tarry long outdoors gazing at sunsets.
Seventeen years into marriage, William and I have been blessed with twelve children, although two were taken up to heaven by the Lord. Every name is set down in the family bible which, next to the horses, is our greatest treasure. It and the two or three other books we own, are kept warm and dry in a cabinet next to the door. On an evening while the girls and I knit or sew, William takes down the bible, and in his clear, strong voice, reads to us. Every one of my children can read and write and do sums. I am terrible proud of this accomplishment (although it’s a vanity) because I once thought to be a school teacher. William and I began courting in Philadelphia when he came in to buy groceries at Papa’s store. A year after we wed, we traveled west to the Unassigned Lands because, despite our trials and tribulations, we could own land which was free and clear as long as we made improvements and stayed on it for five years.
We’re grateful for the children. They are our extra hands in the fields, and though I don’t say it much, they carry my heart with them wherever they go. Each helps in his or her own way. The boys aid William in splitting wood for the stove and planting the garden. We all help with the harvest and feed the animals, moving them from pasture to pasture. In order, the children are Margaret (16), William (14), Samuel (13) Rose (12), Matthew (11), Stephen (10), Mary(8), whose job is to help her sister, Martha (5), gather the eggs from the hens house, Luke (4) and Timothy (3). Our two angels in heaven are John and Michael. A quiver full of arrows to be sure.
These thoughts occupy my mind this morning, as I lie within my cozy cocoon of four quilts. I feel William move beside me, and although it’s still dark, I hear him rising and pulling on his boots. He doesn’t speak, but touches my back to make sure I’m awake. Before I can climb out of bed, he’s off to break the water for the horses, and cattle, including Elinor, our Jersey milk cow, we hope is pregnant with a spring calf. My toes, already covered in two layers of wool socks, slide into boots, and shivering, I pull my dress over my head as quickly as I can. It feels even colder than the night before, and we’re in our third day of snow. Nineteen-oh-four has been an extremely cold winter for the territory, with more snow than usual. With a long stick, I stoke the fire into waking. As I boil the coffee,William returns and with him the cold air behind. He stomps his feet, and I hand him a cup of coffee as I begin frying potatoes. His thanks is a gentle kiss placed atop my hair. The girls start stumbling downstairs, and the boys woken by our noise, are soon up and at the table. We thank God for what we have and dig into bacon, hoe cakes and the taters. We save the precious eggs because the flock of hens don’t lay more than a couple every day, and we might need those for supper.
After breakfast, the girls and I begin washing up, and in spite of all the layers, I am cold, cold to my bones. When will this winter end, I wonder? Mary has a worrisome cough, and I’m nearly out of elderberry syrup. It’s a long ride into town so honey and apple cider vinegar may have to do.
I hope you enjoyed my early homestead vignette . . . .
What a great story, Dee! Elizabeth’s voice is very authentic. It reminds me once again to quit whining about the cold winter–I have a warm house and plenty of food in the freezer, nothing like the hardships these early settlers endured.
Dee, how wonderful! Thank you for such a poignant reminder of what it was like before we had things a bit easier. Even when we suffer from heat, drought, and freeze, I hate to whine when I remember the homesteaders who toughed it out. Even in my parents’ youth, things were a lot harder than for us now. Well. . .I’m trying not to whine!
Hi Linda, I know, I’ve been whining, and then I thought how cold they had it. Eeek!
I wanted to comment last night but needed time to gather my thoughts. I knew of your dreams to pen a gardening treasure but not how you also aspired to write fiction.
I am much enamored with the period you chose to explore — in fact, I’m interested in pre-statehood to the 1930s, which is probably why I’ve chosen to live in an old neighborhood as I have. Oklahoma needs more historical fictional writers and, based on the comments above, your voice would be a welcomed addition.
But most of all, what I’d like to confess is how I admire you for exploring, in such a public way, what I only dare to dream in my very private world. This made me remember something one of my spiritual teachers said to me a while back, which is a good way to tidy up loose ends here:
“Thinkers think and doers do. But until thinkers do and doers think, progress is stymied.”
Between these two sentences and your post and my comment, I think we know where we each lie. I celebrate your progress.
Janell, what a thoughtful comment. I wrote fiction long before I had a blog. In fact, my degree is in Professional Writing (fiction) from OU. I love fiction, but found it a long road to only possibly get read by an agent in New York.
I am always exploring new themes and thoughts. I love your quote. It makes me glad I am now a thinker and a doer. Thank you.
What a pleasurable read! Reminds me of the books of Nancy Turner about Sarah Agnes Prine. I would order your book from Amazon in a heartbeat. 🙂
Linda, you are so kind. Thank you. I’ll need to check out those books now. I love homesteading reads.
your blog and photos are beautiful…so glad that you commented on my blog so I could discover yours!
and I lived in oklahoma (atoka, to be exact) from ages 12 to 18 and then went to college at OSU. So nice to see a fellow okie in blog world!
Brandi, it’s a small world isn’t it? Thank you so much for coming by.
Dear Dee, I was sorry to reach the end of your tale, wanted it to go on and on! Please continue! Both sides of my family, maternal and paternal made Oklahoma their home in the late 1800s. Life was hard and families were big, but it was worth it to have a place to call their own. Rugged genes. Thank you for reminding me how proud I feel to be an Okie. 🙂
Awwww Frances, thank you so much. I just wanted to see if I could do it. 🙂 I think we may need to take another visit to their family soon.
Dee, What a marvelous story~I like Elizabeth a great deal. She is a wonderful heroine. gail
Thank you Gail. I like her too. She is strong as were many of our forebears.
Don’t leave us hanging … what happens next?
Well, Cindy, Mary is going to get very very sick I think.
Such a sweet vignette, Dee! I loved this little piece of fiction. Can’t wait to read more. I especially liked the gentle kiss on her hair. That told us a lot about her husband in just a few words.
Alison, I’m so glad you liked it. Maybe we’ll have to visit them from time to time.
Seeing the land before we got here would be such a revelation. It certainly will be my choice when the time machine is invented! Great reading. That was a lot of kids to keep in tow……..!
Hey Jim, we’re such a young state and still so rural, we can still imagine the land as it was. One day, my area will be filled with houses though. Yes, big families were almost a must then. My great grandmother on one side had thirteen girls!
Oh, don’t stop! Please tell us more. Sure makes you want to count your blessings, we have so much to be thankful for.
Thank you Carolyn. I’ll see if I can come up with something more.
What a riveting story. I was engrossed the whole way, wanting more. Best story and photos of the day. Loved it and I would love this life.
Thank you Donna. I think a part of me would have loved that life too, and it’s why we have chickens and other animals and a garden.
Pam's English Garden
Dear Dee, How can I possibly complain about the cold and snow. I am now sure I am a Winter Wimp! What a wonderful talent you have. I became totally lost in your story and long for more!
Pam, you are so not a winter wimp. Pennsylvania has hard winters.
You know that Jim and I lived on land that was homesteaded, too. We often walked over property to the west, where there remained a dugout. After all these years. What heroic women were those, in every state, who moved in to bring civilization! Love your story.
Curtiss Ann, you know I’d forgotten that, but now I remember. Dugouts in my opinion, were the hardest of shelters. Although they were warm, snakes and bugs constantly fell from the ceiling onto the dirt floor. That’s why I made a cabin for my family. You know how I love cabins.
Please don’t leave me here hanging on the edge…I’d love to read more.
Thank you Leslie. I’ll try to think of where to go from here. I do love writing.
Mr. McGregor's Daughter
I love this, how you can so strongly feel a connection to those who came before. It makes you count your blessings.
MMD, it does make me count my blessings too. I’m always amazed that in spite of the hardship, or maybe because of it, they were very aware of their blessings. We should remember too.
absolutely loved it…I was riveted…keep it going somehow…
Thank you Donna. I wondered if anyone would enjoy it. Maybe on these snowy evenings, I can think of more.
Lisa at Greenbow
Such a difficult life. I would like to read the entire story.
Thank you Lisa. I’ll do my best to think of more.
I enjoyed that very much… I’m waiting now for the next chapter!
Thank you Carol. I thought of your Ida Bennett while I wrote it.
What fun! I enjoyed this.
It reminds me, though, that I promised to send you a list of books about homesteaders. I kept forgetting to look at my bookshelf at the office, so I can’t give you much of a list, but here is one I like very much: _Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier_ by Joanna Stratton. Really good oral histories, some of which dealt with what the everyday life was like. Excellent.
Susan, that is one I’ve never read. I’ll look it up. I love their everyday lives, making their homes, raising their children and surviving day by day. Thank you.
Dee, you need to expand on this. It is wonderful.
Oh, thank you Nancy. Maybe I will. I wonder how little Mary will do?