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 . . . .