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home : education : schools September 23, 2017

8/15/2017 1:52:00 PM
Of a certain age...
By Sue Stafford

Ten days of traveling across Idaho and Wyoming, and back again, brought to life the 1852 migration of my ancestors from Illinois across the American Plains and mountains to the Oregon Territory, land of promise.

Retracing their steps, walking in the wagon ruts still visible 165 years later, made real the stories I had heard all my life. These pioneers, full of hope and determination, left behind familiar surroundings and their elders to strike out on a journey full of unknown hardships and unimaginable losses, to settle a new land and build a new state.

All across Idaho and Wyoming historical markers detail the pioneer experience, memorializing landmarks that guided their journey - Devil's Gate, Independence Rock, the many river crossings, and the cutoffs discovered that shortened the journey.

Wyoming provides an amazing geological and archaeological look into not only prehistoric times, but into what life was like for those who chose to follow the westward migration. Many Wyoming ranchers are conservators of the remains of the thousands of emigrants who died on the trail. Ordinary plowing of the soil unearths artifacts discarded or lost by those who traveled by wagon, horseback, and on foot across the vast frontier of rolling plains, ancient rock upthrusts, high plateaus, and lush river valleys.

One such steward of these remains and artifacts is Wyoming rancher Larry Cundall, on whose land were found the remains of my great-great-grandmother, Ann Roelofson Scott, a victim of cholera, who was laid to rest on June 21, 1852 by her family in the ashy soil overlooking Box Elder Springs.

On the day Cundall showed us the graves of Ann, another woman, and a teenage boy, his Black Angus heifers greeted us as we climbed through the barbed-wire fence separating the springs from the unpaved county road that brought us there.

It is easy to see why a number of families chose Box Elder Springs as the place of final rest for loved ones whose journeys were cut short by disease and accident. After a strenuous ascent up Emigrant Hill, the springs provided a peaceful green oasis with fresh water, trees, grass, and wild flowers.

I was immediately struck by the peace of the site, the only sounds those of mooing cows, birds, and a soft breeze. The sun shone and warmed the soil and my back as I stood gazing at the place of final repose for a woman who endured unbelievable hardships and discomfort as a wife and mother, bearing 12 children, three of those lost in infancy. She left family and friends to follow her husband in his quest for free land in a far-off place.

Her body, debilitated by the recent difficult birth of her 12th child, who did not live, began the arduous journey in a weakened state. I tried to imagine what those three months must have been like for her, caring for her family while traveling 12-25 miles a day in a bumpy wagon or walking through mud and dust, setting up camp each evening, hoping for fresh water and meat to supplement ever-decreasing food supplies.

She probably traveled in pain, as her pelvis had not completely healed from being sawed in half to remove her baby due to an excessively curved sacrum, creating a narrow birth canal. It was the evidence of this procedure that helped to identify the remains as those of Ann Scott. The entries in her daughter's trail diary describing the place of her interment contributed to the evidence that Box Elder Springs was the place chosen to bury Ann.

As I stood over her grave, an intense rush of amazement, respect, gratitude and sadness swept through me. Unexpected tears welled up in my eyes as I felt a direct connection to this weary, frail woman who produced the offspring who became my great-grandfather.

When growing up in Portland, I had been steeped in the family history of the Scotts who came to Oregon in 1852, but not until that moment at Ann's grave had I appreciated the bravery and the sacrifice that resulted in my being born an Oregonian.

A visit to the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier, Idaho on the way back home provided the final stroke of reality garnered from my trip. The interactive exhibits in this museum include a re-enactment of riding in a covered wagon, complete with the sounds, movements, and shadows of bumping along across rough prairie, while voices read passages from pioneer diaries and letters home.

Two of the voices, surprisingly, represented Ann's daughters, Abigail and Margaret, describing their journey to Oregon. Having walked the ruts and stood by the grave, these words provided the capstone to my journey back in time. Again, tears fell unbidden as my soul was so deeply touched.

History read about is interesting and informative. History experienced is meaningful and moving. My travels to Wyoming have created a palpable link to the past and brought to life the amazing migration that created the state of my birth.

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