Charlotte [Stearns] Pengra’s 1853 Trail Diary


This text is from The Diary of Charlotte Stearns Pengra. Oregon Trail—1853.  A transcript of Pengra’s diary was provided to me courtesy of Lane County Historical Museum, Eugene, Oregon, in April 1995. 

A special thanks is extended to Deborah Confer for bringing this diary to my attention.

This text consists of partial quotes taken from Pengra’s Trail Diary, to which various notations have been made.  For a more complete rendering of her diary, see Lane County’s rendition of it which has been transcribed and republished.


HYDROPATHY.  It was during these major cholera epidemic years of 1848 to 1852 that hydropathy matured as a popular alternative medicine.  The first Hydropathy schools opened in the United States in the tri-state region of New York-New Jersey and Pennsylvania during this time.  With trust in allopathy at an all time low due to its inefficiency in treating cholera, a second blow to this profession following its failures to treat and prevent yellow fever for more than 20 years, hopes were transferred to non-allopathic options.  The various forms of medicine that succeeded during the period typically denounced the mineral drugs remedies that physicians were actively prescribing, avoided the use of opium whenever possible, and engaged in a form of medicine with a philosophy that did not conflict so much with the traditional religious teachings and expressed some sort of natural philosophy that seemed more natural to its most avid supporters.  

As a hydropath, Charlotte Stearns Pengra learned about the human body and its anatomy, a little about its physiology and the roles of food and water in preserving personal health, and the power of nature (and God to some) in enabling the the body to heal.  Stearn’s methods as a mother and “nurse” or healer for members of her family required that she emphasize water and the forces of nature.  A popular philosophy several decades before held the belief that the natural forces of nature were very much related to the health of the human body.  By observing the activities of rainstorms, especially lightning and thunder, one could obtain a better understanding of whatever natural forces were present in these events that could impact people’s health.   Many of the people who lerned hydropathy therefore had some sort of natural philosophy that played a heavy role in their understanding and belief about disease.   To those most in touch with this philosophy, man had guns, knives, poor diet and poor sanitation to deal with regarding health and disease, God had weather and nature in his hands.   These women were usually on the natural theologists’ side for this argument about disease prevention.

Charlotte thus became learned in hydropathy.   She received her education in any of several ways.  As a teacher in New England, she may have been self-taught, having purchased her texts on hydropathy with her earnings made as a teacher.  She may have also been educated at one of the two school sstablished in New York City.  One of these schools, run by Mrs. Joel Shew was dedicated to teaching women about personal health and hygiene. 

Initiated in New York City, this school, designed specifically for women, taught several dozen during its first several years of classes.  This school was established near Clinton Square in New York City, a place named for New York’s former Governor.   In this same part of the city, the Fowler and Wells Families had initiated a publishing house where most of the country’s spiritual healing guides were printed in the ensuing decades.  This site is also where a lecture hall was established, for avid listeners to listen to speakers who offered their views of many different forms of “new age” spiritual and religious healing methods. 

Charlotte’s knowledge of hydropathy suggests her familiarity with the other faith healing sects that erupted to replace allopathy.  These included phrenology (initiated by the Fowlers), spiritual or electric psychology, seancing and channeling, mesmerism, and spirit rapping or table-tapping.  One popular rage in this field of non-allopathy came about due to the teachings of Rev. John Bovee Dods. Rev. Dods was a preacher out of the Boston area who frequented the New York setting preaching his view of the natural philosophy of health and disease.  Like any modern physician into “natural cure” concepts, Dods claimed that clean air and a clean earth were very important to preventing disease brought on by environmental problems such as putrid waters, exposure to unhealthy swamps and marshlands, living on rocks and soil unhealthy due to their own unnatural or uncomfortable ingredients.  For this reason he preached using several unique terms that he invented, such as  aeropathy (belief that clean air in your environment means good health), terrapathy (choosing good land to live for a long and healthy life), and climopathy (choosing a comfortable environment to live in).  

More than likely Charlotte was already well aware of this form of natural philosophy.  For Charlotte, the belief in curopathy (another of Dod’s terms) was equivalent to the knowledge of how to perform the most appropriate method for curing or treating someone who was ill, relying upon a method that was in agreement with nature, as well as God if you are at all strongly devoted to your religion.    Charlotte’s notes on the local climate, on foods, on being in touch with nature, and on the evils of life such as the possession of guns, make her diary an interesting piece of writing about overland trail history.


NOTES:  All items are directly quoted from the Lane County Historical Museum transcript, except for items noted with “(sic)”, any items bracketed as “[  ]”, and indented notes which follow the diary entries and/or begin with “NB:”  

Most of the dairy writings are in this version of Pengra’s work, but the entire entry for a given day was not always provided with this review, just the core text for whatever points had to be made.

The original Journal writings are in Bold.

Additions to the diary are italicised and often begin with a header indicting the key topic focussed on in the discussion, such as WEATHER, or WATER-CURE.


Tuesday [April 5th 1853]

Our first day on the road to Orregon (sic), was extremely windy and unpleasant travelling the dust blowing directly into our faces the entire day…

Charlotte [nee Sterns] Pengra’s first day on the Trail was Tuesday, April 5th, 1853.  Her first journal entry was made on April 7th.  For this presentation on Charlotte [nee Stearns] Pengra’s Journal, these two entries have been reversed from how they appeared in her journal.   

WEATHER: The weather throughout April 1853 was windy and very erratic due to recurring cold fronts, apparently from the northwest to true west.  This weather pattern was perhaps part of the reasoning the Pengra’s opted to leave in 1853, for in 1851 and 1852 it was held responsible by many for the onslaught of cholera throughout the Midwest and Atlantic Coastal states.  This climatic pattern contrasts with the 1848 spring and summer climates, which were the end of a long drought period.  The 1849 heavy rain-flood period was synchronous with the emigration of cholera victims from Europe and India, where cholera struck most fiercely in 1847 and 1848. 


Thursday noon April 7th 1853

We have travelled two days and a half and this is the first opportunity of sketching anything like a journal of our journey.

WEATHER:  The weather ensuing throughout April 1853 was very windy.  Charlotte’s description suggests that the wind came from the west-northwest and true west; as she stated: “directly into our faces the entire day.”  Following her departure from Illinois, the team took a direct westward journey to the Illinois-Iowa border, meeting up with the Mississippi River just across from Des Moines, Iowa.

Sunday– [April 10]

…crossed the river this morning at about nine oclock.  The watter (sic) was calm and beautiful…

This delay in the crossing at the Mississippi River for a day was not out of the ordinary.  The Pengras remained on the eastern shore until, perhaps, they were sure they had a complete set of food rations and purchased any other knick knacks they felt they must have for the trail. 

WATER-CURE: As a trained hydropath, Charlotte Pengra would have reviewed her water supply on board.  Periodically throughout their trip to Oregon, Charlotte she re-filled her water supply, chosing water when it seemed fit for consumption and use.  Whether or not she prepared the water for special use later on is uncertain.  Without knowledge of germ theory for disease, boiling was not a requirement for use of water in the minds of most Overland Trail emigrants.  Stiil, those trained in domestic cleanliness were well aware of the need to clean the water by filter and perhaps by boiling water or by heating it after adding a special ingredient to taint its flavor somewhat and prevent spoilage. 

NATURAL PRODUCT: The use of Oak barrels to carry the water may have helped reduce bacterial contamination due to the tannin acid contained in the wood.  

Monday night  [April 11]

Up bright and early this morning we were on our “winding way” over roads  Oh dear I cannot describe them.  Slew. Slew, Slewed all the way almost for eighteen miles and now it rains hard, pours right down, but thanks to the good people of this cabin we are most of us housed from the storm, Sister Susan had a chill today, and feels very feeble tonight.

WATER-CURE: Charlotte’s repeated mention of these sloughs is important to understanding her belief system.   As a water-cure doctor, Charlotte was sensitive to the state the water was in, whenever she came upon it along the trail.  Travelling along the floodplains of major rivers she mentions the conditions of the various sloughs she passed. A number of these emitted various smells including those of Skunk Cabbage, decaying marshlands, and dead animals, such as cattle and oxen.

In hydropathy, water was considered the source of all healing powers.  Charlotte learned about this and came to trust water on the Trail, which she used for bathing, cooking, cleaning utensils, washing clothes, drinking, and obtaining her healing waters.  Charlotte makes special mention of her fears about the “Alkali Water,” which she and many others knew was the cause for numerous deaths along the trail.  Writing as a naturalist, Charlotte also noted waters devoid of vegetation and fodder, water with a disagreeable smell, non-slough water, water harboring excellent grass for feeding the oxen and livestock with, clean water to dine and camp next to along the rivers.  At times, she also expressed her appreciation for the water which fell as precipitation, noting as any well-trained hydropath was taught to, the weather (including storms, floods and airflow), the flora and their growing conditions, the allaying of dusty areas by precipitation, majestic thunderstorms and flooded river banks, and the chemical content of water when this was known, such as water nearly saturated with minerals and salts such as Salermonic and Sulphur. 

Tuesday night  [April 12]

Have travelled twelve miles today over the worst roads I ever saw; we have found very bad slews on high prairies….It rained hard this morning (as it did all night)…

Charlotte’s repeated mention of the sloughs is significant.  As a hydropath, she was probably well aware of the association of disease and the behavior of local sloughs and slough environments.  Evidence for this back east was the strong association between disease and people living in and around dirty urban settings.  The urban setting is how the cholera came in to the country.  Chartlotte probably felt that due to the masses of people camping along the trail, this would also be how cholera makes its way westward if we aren’t careful.  Charlotte’s fears could be of contagion in the groundwater, or vermin and decaying biota around sloughs.  Throughout the journey to Oregon, she made special notes of these situations and the conditions of the weather and of the water-ridden areas.

Wednesday April 15th.

…were in very good spirits though the night was very rainy and disagreeable, our tent was completely drenched and some of us things that were inside, such as bedding, folds and so forth…can scarsely imagine the exquisite pleasure, such as awaking affords, especially when it brings the contiousness of a hard thunder Storm rageing (sic) without andn the certainty that there is nothing but the thickness of cotton cloth to shelter us from the pelting rain.”

Went by way to Clinton Co., IA, through the town of Dewit.  More rain was then encountered, at times “raining in torrents.”

Note mention of cotton cloth.

Thursday 16th

Friday 15th [sic]

According to the editor of the original text, “15th” was written over “17th,” as if a correction was implied.  This creates a discrepancy in the date-day associations given when these are compared with Pengra’s earlier and later notes.  They would, for example, later cross the Wapsapenaca River by ferry a little after noon that same day, which is geographically unlikely.  Several other mistakes are made by Charlotte Pengra regarding day-date relationships, suggesting she corrected her own internal or scribed calendar several times along the way.  During the five months it took to migrate to Oregon, Charlotte made changes in her day-date relationship at least ten times.

Saturday 16th

Sunday 17th

…we are still in tent and intend to remain till tomorrow morning…

Sunday eve (end Sabbath)

Monday 18th

Started early this morning travelled 18 miles…rains very hard and some of us has taken shelter in a poor cabin.

WEATHER:  This rain continued into early morning on Tuesday.  Charlotte passed by numerous wet areas en route through Iowa on Wednesday April 20th.

Thursday 21st

Rained hard all night–until eight or half past this morning…

Mostly prairie lands were noted, which were absent of the timberlands Charlotte was used to seeing in Illinois.  She wrote of passing through “a little muddy town called Montasuma.”

Friday 22nd

Rained hard all night…

Saturday 23rd

We were awakened several times in the night by the blowing of wind, and the falling rain not only on our tent but in our faces, and all over us, and when daylight dawned upon us, we made a “spectacle” and no mistake, the ground everywhere was completely saturated with the previous rains…and what was worse it still kept on raining giving no possible chance to better ourselves, and the stream ahead of us a mile and a half (Skunks Creek) has raised so high that we cannot cross–

MUDBATHING, they made a “spectacle” of themselves.

NATURAL PRODUCT:  Skunk Creek was probably named for Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

Sunday 24th

This morning the ground was covered with snow…found that in all probabilities we could not cross under three or four days…

They later had to make a bridge, which they crossed the next morning.

Monday 25th

left our quagmire bright and early reached the creek at about seven o clock…the Rubicon was passed…At twelve we crossed the main boddy (sic) of the Skunk river, on a good bridge.  We thought we though (sic) the river rightly named from the scent which greeted our Olfactories, when nearing it…William sick with a cold caught while making the bridge.

NATURAL PRODUCT: This confirms that Skunk River was appropriately named for its Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

NUTRIMENT: Charlotte described the meal: “a cracker pudding warm biscuits…tea, and after supper stewed two pans of dried apples and made two loaves of bread…”  Was she learned in Grahamism and did she make use of Graham bread or crackers?

ILLNESS:  William took sick with a cold.

Tuesday 26th

Wednesday 27th

…passed through a little Town by the name of Newton came ten miles to the river…could not cross until tomorrow…

Thursday 28th

…the river had overflowed the flats nearly three quarters of a mile.  And it was like crossing a wide Shallow river all the way…encamped for the night…had a call to visit a lady suffering from cramp Colic went with two or three others, found her sick, indeed for sometime I thought her case almost hopeless but after applying numerous remidies (sic) we succeeded in relieveing (sic) her, and left about nine in the evening for our tents.

WEATHER: The rain would continue till sundown that day.  Pengra refers to her apparent reputation, at least in her company, as a health care giver–probably as a hydropath. 

ILLNESS:  The “cramp Colic” could be simple malaise due to the food (i.e. dyspepsia, indigestion, cramps, intestinal gas, diarrhea), or it could be a more serious case of dysentery or asiatic cholera.

HYDROPATHY: Were the lady she mentioned willing to be treated, the remedies Charlotte Pengra would have applied would have been a towel pack around the lower back and abdomen, or a full- or half-body (lower body-torso) pack, using Linen sheets and blankets.  

Friday 28th

NUTRIMENT: Gives food listing; griddle cakes, stewed berries and tea for dinner; “prepared potatoes and meat for breakfast.”

Saturday 29th

Reached the Desmoines River about noon…waited our turn to cross…passed down watter street half a mile when we slap came into another ferry…we were set across…encamped near a brook on the prairie 4 miles one way and five the other from habitation…We have passed over some beautiful country for the last week.  I do not where a prettier one can be found or a better soil of land, it is well wattered (sic) but tuo (sic) thinly timbered, and as a general unhealthy.

TERRAPATHY: What is the basis of her labelling this land as unhealthy?  Her hydropathic-climopathic training may have taught her this area was too underprotected from the climate due to a lack of trees.  Thus it was not a safe haven to camp in.  In addition, the soil was “well wattered,” possibly concerning her about its disease-causing nature, due to either the condition of the groundwater, miasma, contagion, or local vermin.

Sunday 30th

Unpleasant, cold and cloudy…were obliged to travel to obtain hay or grain for our cattle…came to a small stream…travelled in all 19 miles encamped on the prairie 10 miles from Winterset.

WEATHER: This brief account of the weather as “cold and cloudy”  suggests a cold front may be coming in.   During her future weeks she would give accounts of numerous cold front passing through, cycling about every week or two.  They entered the Great Plains and blew across the trail from the west, perhaps from the far northwest judging from their cold temperature and the incidence of snow a few weeks later on the trail.  

Monday May 1

Reached Winterset…Winterset is a small but apparently thriving little burgh.  The road this side for several miles very bad, Sloughs constantly, and bad ones too.  Came only a prairie 25 miles accross. (sic).

TERRAPATHY: Her repeated reference to the “slews” or “sloughs” again relates to the contagion, miasmata or effluvial theory of disease.  Charlotte expresses concern regarding their repeated passage of these sloughs.

Tuesday May 2

Started as early as possible this morning, reached North river about noon…after passing through the timber bordering on the stream, we came onto a prairie of 85 miles accross without settlements or groves…

Wednesday 3d

Have travelled all day on the wide Prairie…rather sandy soil and not very well wattered, No kind of vegetation not even good grass, is to be found,–About night crossed a small creek bridged by emigrants.  Found a few trees and a little shrubbery….Can hear the wolves howl very distinctly.  Rather Ominous, perhaps you think.

SPIRITUALISM:  These latter words are indicators of the Transcendental movement still going on. Transcendentalism brings God and Nature together.  All of the events of nature, physical and energetic, are considered sign of God’s existence.   Whereas for a while during the 18th century, religious people had split into agnostic or semi-atheist groups who understood the concept of God, not sure what to believe in regarding this concept, and so went to nature instead of religion to better understand live and the sense of being.   These people could be termed natural philosophers.  They believed in a Creator, but not so much the role of the church.  Those who remained devoted to the church were called natural theologians.   

From 1750 to 1820 about, this view of life and the world slowly evolved into the transcendental movement as it is often taught today.  to these natural philosophers, it was the omnipresence of God that was responsible for all of our natural experiences, and the causes for these experiences.  L Maria Child’s Letters from New York, published around 1842/5, makes numerous statements to the effect.  Her writings as a women, part of the women’s rights movement for the time, must have had an influence on Charlotte.

Consider the meaning of the Wolf, in Native American philosophy.  What did the sign of the howling Wolf stand for? 

A common healing belief in the mid 1800s was based on the effects of Animal Magnetism.  This concept, born perhaps from Middle Ages and Renaissance myths, was re-affirmed by the discovery of similar belief systems inherent to Indigenous North American cultures by early explorers.  This is perhaps what later led to a rebirth of this philosophy in the 1700s in England.  Mesmer wrote about this in the 1770s, for which reason it was soonafter re-named Mesmerism.  This belief system had attached to it the notion that disease onset was due to the invasion of animal spirits.  Animal Magnetism was responsible for beliefs in hypnotism, table rapping, and other forms of spiritualism.  One learned in this belief system might ask “why is the wolf howling?” recollecting the myths evolved around the wolf’s behavior.  The Myths about wolves which were set in her homelands might relate to this observation by Pengra.       

Thursday 4th

Last night met with quite a novel accident, sometime in the night– I was awakened by the cry wo, wo,; and on raising my head to see what was the matter, found myself lying not in the tent but out doors under the broad canopy of heaven.  The horses were hitched to the waggon, and the tent ropes also; and by some means they became frightened...

This was the ominous feeling she had the day before?  Was it a full moon?  Note, they would later cross the Nishnebotnee River by ford, “very steep too and from the watter…”  crossed another fork, camped out on the Prairie; it rained most of the day.

Fryday 5th

prairie all the way…has rained very hard since four o clock.

This supports the note made based upon her “Sunday 30th” entry that a cold front had advanced into the region

Saturday 6th

…crossed the west Nishnabotnee by Toll bridge…The rest of our rout (sic) has been over high rolling Prairie.

Sunday 7th

Sandy soil, barren land.  She met up with Native Americans.

Monday 8th

…commenced washing–got my clothes ready to suds–feel very tired and lonely–our folks not having come–I fear some of them are sick.

WATER: This water she trusted.  Charlotte is probably wondering, ‘what did we pass in the last day or two that made them sick?’

ILLNESS: dysentery?

Tuesday 9th

Wednesday 10th

All was hurry and bustle this morning till about noon prepareing to start for the river, washing the Waggon an (sic) packing, cooking, ironing, and doctring one of our steers feet kept us all busy–till we started then I felt that indeed I had left all my friends save my husband and his brother, to journey over the dreaded Plains, without on(e) female acquaintance…

Perhaps her slightly depressed feelings were associated with the time away from her former home.  Did she doctor the steer using hydropathy?    The “dreaded Plains” perhaps refers to knowledge of the 1852 epidemic on the trail.  She mentions the cost of migrating to date as $75.00.

Thursday 11th

Up very early took a cold breakfast of beans and butter and tea…packed the wagon and was on board the Steamboat before eight Oclock, met with Mrs. Fordham of Rock Island….After crossing…we proceeded on our journey–over a bed of sand through a Willow thicket some three quarters of a mile–then onto prairie similar to that passed over in Iowa…

The crossing by steamboat cost them $11.00.

NATURAL PRODUCTS: Sand and Willow trees (see next entry).

Fryday 12th

Saturday [May] 13th

Started early this morning, came to a creek about 9 o clock bridged by Indians…Traveled 5 miles farther and came to Elk Horn River, a pretty stream with very low banks, timbered with buttonwood and Willow–encountered a severe storm of wind and rain before reaching it….The country here is beautiful, the land as far as you can see on one side, is as level as a floor, on the other side below us is timber and the River.  The wind is so strong that they could not raise the tent.

WEATHER:  Noted “a severe storm of wind and rain.”

NATURAL PRODUCTS:  She recognized buttonwood (Cephalanthus occidentalis L.) and Willow [possibly Coyote Willow (Salix exigua Nutt. ssp. interior (Rowlee) Cronq.) or Peach-leaved Willow (S. amygdaloides Anderss.].

Sunday 14th

Rather late this morning I arose…made griddle cakes  fried meat- and made coffee for breakfast, washed and dressed Stellam and after we had eaten gathered up the dishes, and packed them dirty for the first time…It was a beautiful morning, and the scenery delightful but there was one thing that mad (sic) me feel sad, on the bluff overlooking the ferry near to some trees, was a new made grave, where a young lady 19 yrs was laid.  It seemed hard thus to die away from home, but she could not have asked a prettier burying spot…

NUTRIMENT:  She made griddle cakes and coffee for breakfast.  She apparently also packed her dishes dirty for the first time.  This might suggest they left in haste or that she did not trust the water she had to clean in. 

ILLNESS:  They would cross another river by ferry at the end of the day.  Charlotte mentions the death of a 19 year old woman who was buried above. (Did that lady die during the first or second week of May?  This could relate to the rain, and suggest post-rain induced cholera?  On the other hand, it may be too early for Cholera to occur due to the low soil and water temperature, too cool to support the growth of Vibrio comma.)

Monday 15th

Tuesday 16th

We found ourselves in rather a pretty fix, bed and bedding wet and muddy, and other things ditto.”  Heman asked me if I did not wish I had started, I told him no, but if I had known the terror and disadvantage of such a storm, as we witnessed last night–I should not have started…though we are encamped on a rise of ground without fire or wood  had another hard rain just after stopping but it is all over…

CLIMOPATHY/WEATHER:  Again, by camping in the rise of the ground, they avoided problems due to flashfloods, and in a hydropathy sense, they maintained a nice height and distance from a potentially disease-promoting swamp due to swamp gases.  Her predilection to this is suggested when she writes: “I should not have started” referring to her ill-feeling about the upcoming storm.

Wednesday 17th

Traveled today only till noon, had bad road over low land, the hard rains has overflowed it in many places.

Thursday 18th

Friday 19th

Started early this morning, crossed the creek on the new bridge…We have have good roads, found plenty of grass and travled about 15 miles. This evening word came to camp that a lady encamped some two miles back was sick and needed aid.  Accrdingly Mr[s?] Allison and I hunted up our husbands got them to saddle two horses and started–had a very pleasant ride, found the lady quite comfortable in bed in a wagon with a little daughter–perhaps an hour of age.  Gave it a name (Sarah Emily Bondfield) wished her success and [then] rode back- reach our camp about dark, well pleased with our expedition.

Saturday 20th

INJURY:  After leaving camp, they passed over green pastureland.  An interaction between horses and cattle resulted in several injuries and a wagon which passed over Bynon’s ankle.  They reached the ferry at Loupe Fork about two o’clock.  A storm in the distance is noted. 

Sunday 21st

Have traveled some fourteen miles today- the forenoon quite unpleasant- rained all night and till nearly noon- passed a grave ready to receive its trust-  a young married lady died last night- had taken cold just after having the measles- we have a good camping ground- and excellent grass.

ILLNESS:  Patients with severe measles were capable of reaching total body infectious states.  With such severe cases, they were no longer recognizable as their facial features were hidden by a dark reddish-black specked appearance, accompanied by swelling and incredible disfigurement.  Such cases were often fatal.  Her mention of “the lady…taken cold” suggests the lady may have expereinced chills and tremors from a related fever.  Or that she was simply taken to cold due to her reaction to a case of flu, pneumonia, measles, small pox, etc.

WEATHER:  This is the influx of the second Cold Front Pengra noted, suggesting a three week cycle in the beginning of the migration season.  This would soon change drastically as numerous cold fronts passed through, apparently coming from the Northwest to North-northwest region of the continent.   

Tuesday 31st

I have been too much engaged the past ten days to note down the occurences of the day–and will just say that nothing of special note has transpired- We have been travelling all the time- have had a great deal of rain- and the roads are pretty muddy- are now just a few miles from Buffalo Creek…the company are all in good health- Indeed there seems to be no sickness thus far…have camped tonight- near the river- the grass is thin and short.  Our horse is sick.  Suppose he has taken cold- there is every appearance of a terrible storm- and I must prepare to meet it.

WEATHER:  Another Cold Front passing through, about ten days later.  Was this team too occupied with making it through this passe due to miasma surrounding them?  Note: the rain ensuing is possibly cholerigenic.  

There is this history of disease associated with storms that is eluded to here.  Even during the 1850s, theories still appeared in the regular medical journals like the Boston Medical Journal and Lancet with theories about lightning, thunderstorms, wind flow patterns, meteors, and disease.  This theory tended to focus on the association between natures energies and disease.  The common believe in miasma and disease had a variation in this philosophy which referred to the natural cause a effluvium.  Sometimes it was the electricity in the air that was considered the cause for this effluvium.  The smell of the air right after a bolt of lightning struck the area was often considered the cause for this effluvium.   “Taken cold” was the most common cause for influenza during the mid-winter months, or the common colds that hit during the off times in summer and fall weather.  This along with the mud could be considered disease promoting. 

Charlotte never uses the term animalcules interestingly.  This term is scarcely found in any trail writings (I can’t recall a single source of the word being used.)   The animalcules theory for disease is the precursor to the germ theory as we understand that theory today.  The germ or bacterial theory fluctuated in and out of popularity during the 1800s, especially between 1825 and 1875.  The germ was considered a cause, and so hygiene and cleanliness were wisely emphasized for disease prevention, but the recognition of exceptionally small germs like the bacteria was not yet a part of medicine.  To people like Charlotte who had at the most simply a hand lens to view the germ or animacule with, one’s marveling at such observation could easily lead to fears or concerns that this could be the cause for the next deaths.  In a natural philosophical sense, people religious devoted like Charlotte would have to attest to her faith in the Creator as the reason for her lack of concer of these small curiosities.  Travelling along the river edges, Charlotte would have definitely seen so many fo these animacules, ranging from tubifex worms and small slugs and snails to the even smaller fresh water shrimp and mosquito larvae.  To Charlotte, this observation of the microcosm could very much reflect the life experience in her world–the macrocosm.  Such is the thinking of a naturalist and natural philosopher who was very religious.

ILLNESS OF HORSE: As for the sick horse, perhaps it was reacting to a case of bad or salty waters(?)

Wednesday 1 of June

We had a hard night- three tremendous storms of rain, hail and wind with thunder and lightening follwoed each other in quick succession, our tent was flooded…

WEATHER:  Another storm after dinner was reported.

ILLNESS OF HORSE:  The ailing horse has improved.

Thursday 2nd.

Traveled this morning near the river so that we could see it distinctly- this is the first time we have been near enough to form an opinion respecting it.  It is a wide rapid stream and very rily occasioned by the sand which forms its bed…covered with green verdure with the high bluffs opposite and the wide stretching plain to the left…We crossed the three miles of rolling sandy land discribed in the guide and took dinner and baited just this side- The roads have been very bad this afternoon- the land is low an levil and a sickly smell rises where the watter has overflowed…

Guides for the trail were written by:  Fremont; Peter Burnet (first printed copy of such); John Kirk Townsend;  Johnson and Winters  1845;  Joel Palmer 1845, 1847;  Steven Beckham publications (Lewis & Clark author);  John Schively’s Distances to Oregon and California with description of watering districts…. 1846.  See also Oregon Humanities, 1992, (Oregon Trail issue).

WEATHER/HYDROLOGY: The Platte River was high due to either a heavy snow melt or the previous rains.  Hydrologists note snow melts don’t effect river water levels until late summer. 

MEDICAL GEOGRAPHY: The sickly smell of the land was either of marshland or streamside origin, or perhaps due to detritus and decomposing animals and recently buried emigrants in a flood plain region(?)

Friday 3d

Started early this morning and have made a good day ride.  Passed the cold springs about noon took dinner near them and brought some of the watter along- they are just copmmon sand springs- the water pretty good- also crossed wide creek…we have but two and half miles farther to go before we pass the last timber on this side the Platt for 250 miles…

WATER: Did she associate the cold freshwater springs with potential health-giving attributes as well due to her belief in hydropathy?  Perhaps it was her impression that the sandy base of this water that made the water cleaner and seem more filtered.  This could then explain in part why they had their dinner alongside the Platte River, and bottled some of its water.

Saturday 4th

Has been a very buisy day with our company washing and preparing provisions for a week…a fire made of willow bushes about as large as a mans thumb- the largest would perhaps measure as much as your three fingers…The cattle are in good condition excepting two of Mr. Allisons, a cow and an ox, which have the fouls, and our horse- though he is better- we think he has distemper-

NATURAL PRODUCTS: The Willow mentioned was possibly Coyote Willow (Salix exigua Nutt. ssp. interior (Rowlee) Cronq.) or Peach-leaved Willow (S. amygdaloides Anderss.). 

ILLNESS OF ANIMALS:  The fouls experienced by cattle could be diarrhea due to a cholera, dysentery, or due to foraging on salty, oxalate-rich plants, and/or gastrointestinally toxic plants and shrubs.  The distemper of the horse is probably due to misbehavior due to the ailment.  In more severe trail cases, it may be the results of grazing on locoweed, lupine or another equine myoneurotoxic herb. 

ILLNESS:  Bynon’s brother William, or William Brannan, a few days later would show signs of dysentery or cholera [see Wednesday 8th entry.].   This matches the bovine diarrhea and possibly the horse’s “distemper,” thus suggesting these are cases of mild intestinal disturbances.   

Sunday 5th

Have been travelling all day near the Plat.  The forenoon was cold and windy, but the afternoon has been pleasanter…We passed a new grave- a man from Illinois killed by lightning last Tuesday- We do not see many new graves.  I think it has been healthy so far- all of our company are in good health.

NATURAL MEDICAL HISTORY: Deaths during the years of 1849 to 1860 due to such tragic natural forces is not surprising to climatologists.  1848 represents the end of a long drought period, related to the average-eleven year solar or sunspot cycle.  With the sunspots again peaking by the end of 1848, the following year became a year of heavy rains and natural disasters due to the building of ecosystems unchanged by heavy rains.  With 1849 came the first floods of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers for quite some time.  The saplings of Willow and Cottonwood that had seven years to grow unthreatened by floods while residing on both the temporary and permanent sand bars had reached a useable height to travellers.  They were thus gathered for use as fuel for fires.  Pieces of wood fallen years before and which lie submerged in the mud flats, or untouched due to their waterlogging, finally broke free from the sand and mud in which they lie.  These large pieces of timber on occasion would perhaps strike pioneers, their horses and their oxen as they tried to cross the river.  Rafts might accidentally be submerged, but more importantly, they cleared out the remaining debris is the streambottoms making the water appear more muddy, swampy and miasmatic in regions, and less enticing to try to drink from.

The Sunspots Cycle also carried with it a bearing down of thunderstorms and tornadoes, along the east coast it increased the activity of hurricanes.   The dry sandy lands of middle and western Nebraska bore sand ready to be lifted with wind currents.  Thus with approaching fronts bringing storms, hail, and even snow, came the winds preceding and accompanying torrential downpours.  Thus sandstorms were not an unusual sight during these years.  The incidence of heavy storm patterns required fortressing by wagon trains, which was often ineffective at preventing the loss of life.  The increased intensity of lightning and thunder produced more deaths due to fear, leading to panic, anxiety, distemper of the animals, anger on behalf of the gunsmen, and lack of control of wagontrain masters.  Lightning often struck the open prairies about this time, thus many lives were taken by nature during these stormy years on the Plains heading to Oregon.        

Monday 6th

Mention of Bluff Fork and Sandy Bluffs.

Tuesday 7

Hard roads over high Sandy Bluffs- have encamped near Rattlesnake Creek, the grass good but thin.  We have passed through beautiful grass most of the day- but have gou out of the highest for tonight. all well- and the cattle doing well.  We find beautiful flowers all along the road and I have wished many times that my friends could see what beautiful boqets (sic) we gather every few hours.

NATURAL HISTORY/ETHNOBOTANY:  Charlotte Pengra’s last sentence is particularly important in Oregon Trail natural history.  Maps prepared by myself of Oregon Trail botany indicate that a number of plants were gathered and carried for quite a distance along the Trail by pioneers.  Due to wilting those collected for use as decorative and as symbols for what lie ahead were later discarded due to wilting in the heat of the prairielands.  Within a decade, a number of these plants made their way along the trail taking a route alongside the pioneers.  They made their way from the jump-off sites on the Missouri River, over the mountains to Fort Kearney, where many had been planted as decoratives or for use as foods and perhaps medicines.  Those which made it westward from the Missouri River flood plains re-seeded in regions ecologically similar and even ecologically diverse such as those in the less august regions of the rangelands and deserts.  One finds their distribution matches the mid and far western part of Nebraska and Kansas along the trail.  In some cases these plants made it all the way to Wyoming, while others only made it as far as Fort Kearney.  One exceptional case of Trail distribution involved the Rocky Mountain Bee Flower (Cleome serruluta Pursh).  Distribution maps for this plant suggest it was such a favorite that was carried back to Eastern Nebraska along the trail by returning families, scouts, and pioneers.  This led to its later acceptance and distribution as an herbal medicines for Eclectic and Physiomedical doctors.  Another strong example of this symbiosis between pioneer and plant is seen with Lady’s Thumb (Polygonum persicaria), which spread all along the trail from eastern Nebraska well into Wyoming.  Its distribution follows for the most part only the trail-bound counties of Nebraska west of Fort Kearney.  Cleome serrulata follows primarily the counties along the Santa Fe route through Kansas into the Nebraska-Missouri tri-state border. 

Wednesday 8th

Have crossed Sandy Creek and Wolf Creek- and are encamped near a small creek laid down in the guide as two feet deep- makeing our day’s drive 27 1/2 miles, have good grass and watter–William not very well- has an attack of the diaria.

ILLNESS/MEDICAL GEOGRAPHY:  If William caught the cholera, he would have been exposed to it two or three days earlier (see entries for the 4th, 5th and 6th.)  Remaining in one place at the camp might have increased the likelihood of exposure to cholera, especially if this was a popular settling place.  Also note Charlotte’s team carried with them what they felt was fresh water from the “cold springs” they passed on Friday the 3rd.  Could this water have carried the cholera?  It is interesting to note that the day before they passed land where “a sickly smell rises where the water has overflowed,” a place stagnant enough for cholera to come alive in the water table.  Since cholera takes two to three days to cause an affliction of diarrhea, it would have been caught a few days back, near the water holes which were dug to collect water for food, cleaning, and to bring with them while travelling. That same flood plain region is where the latrines were dug, and where some who had already died due to cholera were buried.   It took the change in climate that began in 1849 due to solar cycle for cholera to ensue, and be spread all along the trail in areas where it best resided.  These areas were at the bases of ridges and hills in eastern Nebraska, and in a small region about Fort Kearney and across the river from that resting place.  Following the deaths in ezstern Nebraska, and the deaths of those who contacted Cholera in and around the higher numbers near Fort Kearney, Cholera wouldn’t again erupt as an epidemic until they reached the Snake River Floodplain.  This region wasn’t struck by cholera until late summer in 1852.  The carrier of cholera more than likely was an eastward bound Oregonian either returning to the Midwest, or travelling out to Snake River to meet up with family members and friends who were making their way to Oregon, after leaving he Midwest to escape what had happened when the 1851 cholera struck more than just waterbound cities in the Great Plains

Thursday 9th

We have today passed the Lone Cedar Tree, Ash hollow, Quicksand Creek, Castle Bluffs makeing our ride 20 miles…stoped in a beautiful spot near Platte for dinner, took a walk, gathered some flowers, and enjoyed myself pretty well- have not a very good campground, rather low and wet, the grass just middling- prospect of rain- have commenced a letter to Uncle N.   William is much better.

ILLNESS: Should death not ensue for William, he more likely has simple diarrhea or dysentery.  Alternatively, he developed the milder form of cholera known as choleriac. 

NATURAL HISTORY:  “The Lone Cedar Tree” is perhaps a specimen of Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana L.) or less likely Rocky Mountain Juniper (J. scopulorum Sarg.).  The ash referred to in Ash Hollow is possibly Red or Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica Marsh., or Blue Ash (Fraxinus qyadrangulata Michx.; it is less likely to be Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata L. subsp. trifoliata), an important newly found herbal medicine for Oregon Trail doctors beginning about 1850.

Friday 10[t]h

Have had a pleasant travel today– nothing but the heat to mar our comfort, having made 22 miles- camped about on mile from Shoal Creek, have seen nothing worth noteing down, save that Mr. Allison was obliged to leave the lame cow before mentioned, and two of the company found another not quite so lame that had been left by some other company…

Saturday 11th

We have today passed Cobble Stone Bluffs….We had a fine view from the top, saw Court House and Chimney Rock on the south side of the river, probably some thirty or forty miles distant…Mrs. Allison and myself took a bath in the river- and were very much refreshed.

WATER-CURE:  To hydropaths, bathing in the river was not simply a hygiene practice.  Hydropath textbook author Dr. Russell Trall refers to stream bathing as a health-promoting, healing practice.  Depending on the nature of the stream (cold or tepid), he wrote this bathing could served to revitalize you and restore your energy (the cold bath), or serve as a calming cleanser (tepid waters).    

Sunday 12th

This morning we passed over some very high sand Bluffs, had a fine view up and down the river….we took dinner on the flat near the river.  The road this afternoon has been low and not very good.  Hemen Hoit had the misfortune to have his load tipt over into a deep hole of muddy water, their things were well saturated with watter…About four o clock we had a little foretaste of the sand storms of the desert.  The air became suddenly hot and opressive, and the sky hazy- soon the Storm of wind and Sand burst upon us– and raged about an hour in wild fury  the sand flying in every direction; Quite a natural phenomenon.  We are camped in sight or nearly oposite Chimney Rock…

WEATHER/CLIMATOLOGY:  See notes about sand storms following the Sunday 5th entry.  These sand storms were again indicators of the tempestuous weather experienced that year due to solar-climatic cycles.

NUTRIMENT:  Items lost by Hoit during the spill included “a pailful of sugar, and some  other articles that would have been of service to them.”

Monday 12th

We have been travelling most of the day near the river.  The morning was very cold and chilly, but it was very warm at ten o’clock, just as we stopped for the night- we were saluted with a tremendious hail, and rain storm, which lasted about an hour.  We are camped opposite Scotts Bluffs…all are well, pretty well.

WEATHER:  This was at least the fourth storm pattern to spread over the Plains since Charlotte Pengra’s departure.  The Hail is, in part, suggestive of this cycle.  See Sunday 5th entry above. 

MEDICAL GEOGRAPHY:  By now the pioneers have passed that part of the Oregon Trail in Nebraska where cholera was either harbored in the water holes or would spread to them by way of shared water sources in and around Fort Kearney.  Had they caught cholera at Fort Kearney, by now they would have more likely elicited the approriate symptoms.   The onset of maladies were now converted into Range- amd Desertland maladies such as heat exhaustion, sun stroke, sun burn, wind burn, chafing, dermatital reactions from the flora, possibly allergies, and injuries from fatigue and animal fatigue, intoxication and lunacy.  The Amerindians who provided them with food, later on might have included some unusual local botanicals for their susbsistence such as Cammasia esculenta [although their intake of foreign foods in likely to be an uncommon event].  Those not used to ingesting Camas often experienced indigestion, stomach pains, dyspepsia, borborygmus (stomach-bowel growling), and flatulence [perhaps due to steroidal saponins in the plant, a common Liliaceae intoxication syndrome].  

Tuesday 13th

It has been very cool and pleasant today.  We have traveled near the river most of the day, passed cold creek, some of our company went to try to catch some trout which abount in it.  Took dinner near an Indian vilage…pretty good grass and camp ground…

See entries where Pengra trusted the places along the riverside for preparing dinner and setting up camp: Monday April 11, Thursday April 28, Saturday April 29, Thursday May 4th, Tuesday May 6th, Tuesday May 31st, Tuesday June 7th, Wednesday June 8th and Thursday June 9th.


Wednesday 16th

Nothing of interest today…

This should be Thursday June 16th, or Wednesday June 15th.

Thursday 17th

The team experienced an aggressive encounter with Amerindians.  Several deaths ensued.  Charlotte ends with “We all feel rather uneasy.”

Friday 18th

Travelled with fears of retribution by the Amerinds.  Made it 15 miles along the trail and camped out on a river.

Saturday 19th

Have laid over today- found pretty good grass for the cattle some two miles down the river.  Mr Hoit had the misfortune to have his gun go off when driveing the cattle to feed and the load in the top of Uncle Bullfinches Charley- they think he will recover without much trouble.

ILLNESS: Gunshot Wound noted

Sunday 20th

As usual on this day we have traveled….The day has been beautiful, and the road most of the way good, though somewhat hilly….We had quite a hard rain after camping, which we were glad of, as it will lay the dust.  are camped about one mile from deep Creek.

WEATHER/CLIMATOLOGY:  The impact of rain on a dry land is noted.  During the periods of heavy rain during sunspot cycles, other regions with severe drought occur as well.   This rain is probably from another cold front coming in.  [Cold Front number 5 or 6.]   The Tuesday 22nd entry support this supposition.

Monday 21st

Noted their travels along Platt for much of the day…  good grass for the cattle.

Tuesday 22nd

The weather had been very cold, I had on my thickest clothing, and was obliged to wrap up in a comforter to keep any ways comfortable. The road has been very mountainous and barren hard travelling for the cattle.  We are camped in a valley on the river  the cattle are driven over the bluff to the right, about a mile and a half from camp where they have good feed.

WEATHER/CLIMATOLOGY:  Cold Front number 5 or 6 has come in, and will travel through in haste leaving behind little water to rid the area of residual dust.  [See Thursday 24th complaint about dustiness.] 

Wednesday 23rd 

WEATHER:  Early departure.  Pleasant weather. “the road good and not very hilly.” 

NUTRIMENT:  Passed by a trader with cattle meat.

Thursday 24th

The day has been comfortably warm but very dusty- have traveled over high and barren bluffs and are again encamped on the river-

[Scratched out:]

Fryday, 25th.  Have had a very good day for traveling, the roads just tolerable, and the feed the same, expect to get to the Alkili country tomorrow- have some anxiety in regard to how we shall get over it, but- hope for the best.

“Alkili country” refers to the salty alkaline nature of the drylands.  For descriptions and photographs of these, see Chapter 7 “Desert Shrublands and Playas,” pp. 108-119, and Chapter 8 “Sand Dunes, Badlands, Mud Volcanoes, and Mima Mounds” pp. 120-130 in Dennis H. Knight’s Mountains and Plains.  The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), especially Figs. 7.2, 7.4 7.7, and 7.10.

Fryday 25th [26th?]

The roads have been hilly and sandy- very hard on teams.  …we camped about 3 o’clock on a creek some three miles to the right of the Platte, the water slightly saturated with Saleratus, but not thought to be poisoneous, the grass excellent..We saw quite a large Saleratus lake a short distance to the right of the road this morning, there appeared to be a thick crust of pure Stuff over its entire surface–we did however go to it.

Saleratus [Sal-salt; Aeratus=Aero–air] refers to a bubbling water that is soda like in nature, usually due to carbonates and bicarbonates.  See previous references to photographs, etc. in Thursday 24th entry.

Saturday 27th

Started as we proposed at about one o clock made thirteen miles…pushed on  got to a wattering place two miles this side of Willow Springs at 10 o clock, wattered the teams and drove on  reached the springs and camped at two…the day was warm and dusty…the grass is not fristrate (sic: first rate)…the water is as good as any I ever saw.

Sunday 28th

They they thought the grass not sufficiently good to justify them in laying over and consequently we traveled.  The day had been very windy and dreadful dusty  the roads have been sandy most of the way and very hard upon teams.  We have traveled twenty one miles, are camped on Sweet Watter River, a swift but not very clear stream of good watter.  We are about one mile from Independence Rock which we see in the distance the cattle are driven some distance to pretty good grass.

WEATHER/CLIMATOLOGY: This transition back and forth between stormy, and hot, blustery weather is again indicative of the climatic pattern for the year, and most likely resembles the 1852 climate history, borne by northwesterly to north-northwesterly winds.  The 1849 climate pattern, although similar at first, made the southern trails (Santa Fe) weather different than from the Northern Trails (i.e. Oregon Trail).  This was due to convection coming from the southwest to west-southwest in 1849. 

Monday 29th

Very high wind, this morning and it become very cold, we traveled some eight miles and camped in a valley…excellent grass and 2 clear mountain streams run by our tent door, the mountain tops still to the left–are covered with snow, altogether this is the worst day we have had for traveling, the road being very sandy and hard on our teams and the wind blowing so strongly that our wagon was completely filled.  We encamped about three o’clock, I felt rather unwell and have done but little.

WEATHER:  She is possibly describing the influx of another cold front or a late day downward mountain breeze.  The cause for her sickness is unclear

Tuesday 30th

Still camped by the mountain stream; rested for a day.