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Women's Diaries Give a Glimpse Into History

December 19, 1986|MEREDITH FERGUSON | Ferguson lives in Los Angeles. and

When the late Christa McAuliffe was a student at Framingham State College in Massachusetts, she took a course based on the diaries of pioneer women. Later she said it was those diaries that inspired her to submit to NASA the idea of keeping her own diary as the first teacher in space.

She had, perhaps, read the words of women like Rachel Fisher, a devout 25-year-old Quaker living in Salem, Iowa, when in the spring of 1847 she and her husband, John, and their little girl, Angelina, became part of America's westward migration.

They set out for Oregon in a wagon train, leaving behind their families, their meeting house and the graves of three children who had died before they were 3 years old.

But the road to a new life was not to be much easier, as her letters home revealed.

"John still continued sick . . . I had to bid him farewell and see him breathe the last breath of Earthly Life without A struggle or groan . . . the place where we left him was nine miles from whare we had come to platt river close to the road side by a small grove. I thought of returning but I had none to take me back and I did not see how I could do better than to go on."

In another letter, we learn that Angelina died a month later and was buried somewhere in what is now Idaho.

Three days after her daughter's death, the man driving Rachel's wagon drowned in the Snake River. Rachel fell sick for six weeks.

A Happier Turn

Yet Rachel Fisher managed to get herself and her cattle safely to Oregon, and she decided to stay on in what is now Washington County. It was there that she married William Mills, a 22-year-old farmer, and her life began to take a happier turn.

The letters of Rachel Fisher and those of other women pioneers are gathered in a series of books called "Covered Wagon Women," published by the Arthur H. Clark Co. in Glendale. They are part of a projected 12-volume series based on obscure or little-known diaries and letters written by the housewives and mothers who became part of America's history as they journeyed westward in the 19th Century. So far, five volumes have been issued. The company plans to issue about two volumes each year.

Volume I documents the great overland trails from 1845-1849. Volume II concentrates on diaries and letters from 1850. Volume III includes diaries from 1851; Volume IV covers 1852, the California Trail. Volume V includes 1852, the Oregon Trail.

The Clark Co., owned by Robert Clark and named for its founder, his late grandfather, has been publishing nonfiction Western Americana since 1902. In Glendale since 1930, the company is the country's oldest small specialty publisher. Its primary markets are collectors and historical institutions. (The books are available by mail order at $25 each by writing the Arthur H. Clark Co., P.O. Box 230, Glendale, Calif. 91209.)

"We're simply trying to get the documents out there as documentary evidence for the public to use as they will. We've presented no reminiscences after the fact. We haven't tried to analyze the material," Robert Clark said as he sat in his book-lined office filled with old photographs and Western memorabilia. "We're just trying to get it out there as source material. We're still trying to dig up the stuff."

Personal Accounts Only

All of the letters and diaries are personal accounts, and none of the letter writers or diarists had expected to see their writings in print. Thus, their writings with their authentic detail reveal an intimacy and immediacy.

The editor of the volumes is Kenneth L. Holmes, a professor of history emeritus at Western Oregon State College who searched out the documents in historical societies, including the Oregon Historical Society as well as the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the Huntington Library in San Marino, the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University and the Western Oregon State College library.

Holmes has also found a number of other never-published documents in private family collections as he brings to light the long neglected story of the American woman pioneer and her contribution to U. S. history.

"I think women in general have been neglected in American history and so have ordinary people," Holmes said in a telephone interview. "I'm not writing interpretive books. I'm presenting primary sources. I don't get rich doing this, but I love it. I have a contract for a book every six months and, at age 71, I measure my life in volumes rather than in years."

Holmes was born in Montreal. His parents were both English, and his father was a clergyman. His early years were spent in Pasadena but he left in the 10th grade after his family moved to San Pedro, where he graduated from San Pedro High School. He graduated from the University of Redlands with a B.A. in 1938 and later received a master's degree from the Berkeley Baptist Divinity School. After a career in the Baptist ministry, he became a Quaker and a college professor in Oregon. He received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Oregon in 1962.

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