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The ever welcome Sanitary Commission. [Stereograph] 1861-1865.

Wagon trains often had to vote on whether they would "keep the Sabbath" or travel on Sundays.
hen the river levels reached an acceptable level, the emigrants secured their supplies, caulked their wagons, and attempted crossing. This process could be extremely time-consuming for wagon trains, since each team and wagon had to be taken across one at a time to prevent them from becoming entangled. At deeper and more swiftly flowing rivers, many settlers were forced to build rafts to carry their wagons over the water, with varying results. After sickness and accidental gunshot wounds, drownings at river crossings were the most common cause of fatalities among settlers.

Accidents with draft animals were another commonplace mishap while traveling. Although the oxen moved slowly, they were very large and very heavy, and there was no way to quickly stop them. Many women were injured when their long skirts got caught up on the wheels and dragged them under the wagon. Josephine Gage Bartlett, whose family settled in Montana in the 1870s, remembered:

"Somewhere along the Snake River, we were going over some very rough road (or what they called a road), and everyone got out to walk except Horatio and little Montie [her younger brothers], who were asleep in the wagon. We thought they were safe, but they woke up and baby Montie stood up to look out and toppled over and fell beneath the rear wheel. It passed over him, killing him instantly."

Pamelia Fergus' party was also troubled by wagon accidents. In a letter, she reported to her husband that "Bell McGuire fell out of the wagon. The wagon run over her instep. She has not steptet for a long while," and that after another mishap, five-year old Frankie Gravel "barly escaped with his life."

Contrary to popular belief, Indians were among the least of the settlers' problems while in transit, though the settlers themselves certainly believed otherwise. While there are several cases of Indian attack on western wagon trains, the majority of settlers made their cross-continent journeys without incident. Many settlers made their trips without ever even seeing an Indian. However, tales of the Indians' conduct, and the larger-than-life horror stories which sprang up around them, fueled many settlers' sense of dread and foreboding. Settlers often carried startlingly large arsenals of weaponry to fend off Indians, but far more settlers died from the mishandling of their own firearms than from actual attacks. Pamelia Fergus proudly wrote her husband, "Our company is good for over one hundred shots" -- meaning that one hundred rounds could be fired before the settlers would need to reload.

Some settlers had portable rubber mattresses that could be filled with air or water ... an early version of the modern-day waterbed.
When encounters with Indians did occur, it was often far less of a bloodbath than settlers would have thought. One night, a band of Indians wandered into the Fergus camp. Pamelia's daughter reported that the Indians "were very curious." When an Indian woman stood staring at Pamelia, the settler dropped down her false teeth, which caused the Indians to scream and yell, and "leave the camp in a big hurry." Later, the apprehensive natives returned to gawk at Pamelia, thinking, according to her daughter, "that she was a great prophet or witch." The Indians left without incident.


amelia Fergus' wagon train managed to reach Montana on August 14, 1864, four months after their departure from Iowa. Despite the danger and discomfort of life on the road, and its "hardship without glory," further challenges lay before settlers when they reached their final destination. Once on the frontier, settlers hoped to "tame the wilderness" and create a new version of the "civilization" they had left behind.

But first, they had to build it.

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.)

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Works Consulted:

Bierman, Henry. HEADIN' WEST. Unpublished manuscript. Montana Historical Society Archives.

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 READER'S 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.

NOT IN PRECIOUS METALS ALONE. Compiled and edited by the Montana Historical Society. Undated. Helena: Montana Historical Society.

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

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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