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Homestead History
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View Fergus' complete list.
rucial to any overland journey was a rifle, pistols, powder, and lead, used both for hunting and for self-defense. Typical homesteaders would pack two or three changes of durable, warm clothing, as well as blankets and rubber mats for camping. Many settlers attempted to load books, furniture, and other treasured belongings into their wagons, but these were often left behind after a short time on the road, when draft animals became tired and the load needed to be lightened. Because of the roughness of the trail and the length of the journey, spare wagon parts -- such as spokes, axles, and wheels -- were often slung under the wagon, while water buckets and water barrels were strapped to its sides. Some emigrants attempted to bring along milk cows and chickens, though the chickens were usually eaten and the cows often died of thirst or malnutrition along the way. Josephine Gage Bartlett, who moved to Montana from Kansas in 1876, remembered:

"We had two eight yoke ox teams drawing two wagons each. Some of the other families [in the wagon train] had horse teams and thought we were too slow. We brought along some calves tethered to the back of the wagon, but they became footsore and we had to put them in a wagon. We also had chickens in that wagon. When we stopped for the night, we would let them run around."

Planning for any extended overland migration was an enormous financial drain on homesteaders. The wagon and oxen cost about $400, and supplies about $1,000. Additionally, settlers needed several hundred dollars of cash on hand for the trip to pay for supplies that had been used up, ferry tolls, replacement oxen or wagon parts, and food for the first winter on the frontier. Many families had to save for months or years to afford the trip, and had to sell off their lands, household goods and furnishings, and heirlooms to finance their journeys.

After property had been liquidated, supplies bought, and goodbyes said, homesteaders could hit the trail carrying about 2,500 pounds of freight in their ox-drawn prairie schooners. Because the wagons were so full, and because they traveled at the not-quite-dizzying speed of two miles per hour, many settlers -- men, women, and children -- walked beside their wagons across the continent.

When Minnesota settler Pamelia Dillin Fergus received a letter from her husband James summoning her to rejoin him and bring their four children for a new life in Montana Territory, her husband, keenly aware of the life they would face on the trail and in their new home, provided explicit directions to his wife on how to prepare for the journey. He instructed her to "sell all [she] could at private auction, and bring no poor articles" west with her. He advised her to "have the sides of [the] wagon boarded up high with thin boards to keep things from falling out," and cautioned her to "never let one of the children go out or in the waggon [sic] without stopping it as many get killed or injured by the waggon running over them." Remarkably, James Fergus also sent his wife a complete list of items that she would need to bring in the family's three wagons ranging from 600 pounds of flour to $5 worth of stamps to "whiskey for poisoned cattle." For a complete list, with Fergus' spelling preserved, click here.

Those who had "borne arms against the United States, or given aid or comfort to its enemies" were denied homesteads, a significant restriction during and after the Civil War.

amelia Dillin would load the essentials from her Little Falls, Minnesota home into a single wagon, and drive to Illinois, where she would visit briefly with her mother, and meet up with O.J. Rockwell, one of her husbands' business associates. Rockwell would supply her with two additional wagons, six yoke of oxen, and a milk cow. Rockwell, Pamelia, and the Fergus children would travel to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they would finish outfitting the wagons and be joined by a few other families from Little Falls before "jumping off" and starting out for their new lives in Montana.

There would be rivers to ford, plains to cross, and mountains to climb. Whether it was a terrible ordeal or a fantastic adventure, getting to a new home on the frontier was an experience few settlers ever forgot.

If you would like to learn more about Pamelia Dillin Fergus' life and adventures, consider reading THE GOLD RUSH WIDOWS OF LITTLE FALLS by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith (University of Minnesota Press, 1990.)


Works Consulted:

Burns, Paul C. and Hines, Ruth. TO BE A PIONEER. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962.

Horne, Robert N. JAMES FERGUS: FRONTIER BUSINESSMAN, MINER, RANCHER, FREE THINKER. Dissertation. University of Montana, 1971.

Lamar, Howard, ed. THE READERŐS ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN WEST. New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1977.

MONTANA IN OUR OWN WORDS. Compiled by the Western Heritage Center and Anneke-Jan Boden. Western Heritage Center, Billings, Montana.

Peavy, Linda, and Smith, Ursula. THE GOLD RUSH WIDOWS OF LITTLE FALLS. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Press, 1990.

---. PIONEER WOMEN. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

PIONEER MEMORIES. By the Pioneer Society of Sweet Grass County, Montana, 1960. From the collection of the Montana Historical Society.

Unruh, John D. THE PLAINS ACROSS. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

White, Helen McCann, ed. HO! FOR THE GOLD FIELDS: NORTHERN OVERLAND WAGON TRAINS OF THE 1860S. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1966.

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