"Your book received incredibly high scores and is truly a work for you to be very proud of. All of us at JADA Press look forward to hearing even greater things about you and your writing in the future." … Glenda Ivey,
Owner, JADA Press Publishing, Jan. 7, 2004
Whither thou Goest
2004 Nonfiction Book of the Year Award
Whither Thou Goest is the first nonfiction book to focus on 1878 America, when the world was in the depths of a depression like none before. In two parallel journeys that take place in the past and the present, Whither Thou Goest attempts to make people long gone come back alive. It examines who we are, where we've been, and has everything to do with where we are going.
The first journey started in 1878. The author's Great-grandaunt and Uncle Beardsley—with their two young daughters, Eva and Frankie—followed their dream of a new life in the American West. They left their small-town Wells Bridge home in upstate New York (between Oneonta and Binghamton) by rail and after a false start on the harsh plains near Sioux Falls, [Brandon] South Dakota, they headed west again—this time by wagon train. Unbeknownst to them, they were headed straight into an Indian war. Swallowed up by time, they became forgotten by everyone back East. Everyone except one—the author.
The second journey started in 1996. By chance, the author learned that Frankie's family home was now the Frazier Farmstead Museum in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. He discovered a small diary kept by Eva—a bare-boned chronicle of their journey west by wagon train. The inspired author and his wife decided to follow their trail across America and learn all they could about 1878 America and his relatives, living and dead. What they discovered—and what they learned—is as exciting as any novel to come out of the American West.
Private Lewis Simpson was small, only five feet five inches tall, with a light complexion, gray eyes, and-in spite of his young age-white hair. He was almost albino in appearance. Now he was a member of the Union Army—a private in Company K of the Eighty-ninth New York Volunteers. The Eighty-ninth formally joined together at the barracks in Elmira, New York late in November. They became known as the Dickinson Guard and left for Washington, D.C., on December 6, 1861. [His sister] Mary Jane worried about him—a lot.
"Dear Sister, . . . He [Stonewall Jackson] will wake up some morning to find his stonewall all gone to thunder and his soul singing rebel anthems with the Devil and his Angels in Hell. May God arrest him in his mad and reckless career and convert his guilty soul over to taking the oath of allegiance to our dear good old Uncle Sam before it will be everlasting too late for him to repent." (Letter from Lewis to sister Mary Jane Beardsley written on August 18, 1862 from the front lines near Fredericksburg, Virginia.)
Frankie and Eva
Moving [from Wells Bridge, New York] must have been the last thing on the minds of Frankie and Eva, now nine and fifteen years old, in that summer of 1877. Did they know that their idyllic world was about to change forever? Frankie may have spent many summer afternoons on the pair of sloping wooden doors over the outside cellar entrance. They were perfect for sliding and reclining, which automatically became the home base for young children's games and idleness. Eva may have been caught up in the croquet craze, a game of wickets and pegs, gaily-striped mallets and round wooden balls. It was the first popular outdoor game designed for equal participation by both sexes. Victorian Americans saw croquet as an avenue to the heart.
And so, only three months after leaving family and home and friends in New York State, Theo and Mary Jane Beardsley, with their two daughters Eva and Frankie, left their relatives and new home and friends in Dakota Territory [near Brandon and Sioux Falls, South Dakota] and headed west to Oregon. Theo followed his dream and she followed him.
"They had been here four months now; to her it seemed like so many generations . . . People had never dwelt here, people would never come; never could they find home in this vast, wind-swept void . . . Yes, they had been bewitched into straying out here!" (Ole E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth.)
Chief Buffalo Horn
From a dozen campfires scattered among the Bannock lodges at the head of a small aspen-fringed mountain valley, the smoke curled lazily into the clear, crisp sky on the spring morning of May 30, 1878. The face of Buffalo Horn, chief of the Bannocks, was solemn as he stepped from his tepee and gazed east onto Camas Prairie below him. With field glasses he had retained from his scouting duty with General Howard in the Nez Perce campaign the year before, he scanned the prairie before him for traces of the white man's cattle trespassing on the sacred camas ground of his tribe. While he stood there, lean and tall, his intelligent face hardened as he observed the breakfast smoke of cattlemen's camps.
Buffalo Horn was determined not to give up Camas Prairie, which his tribe had used since historic times and had reserved with the Portneuf lands in the treaty with the United States Government at Fort Bridger in 1867. . . .
His plan of battle was clear in his mind. He would not make the mistakes of Nez Perce Joseph and Sitting Bull. He had little respect for the tactics of the Army's commanders. Buffalo Horn's mind was made up. The injustices of the white man would be tolerated no longer.
"Princess" Sarah Winnemucca
[Paiute Chief] Egan introduced Sarah to the Bannocks by saying, "You need not be afraid to talk to her. She is our friend. Tell her all your troubles. I know she will help you." Egan called for the Paiutes to take up a collection to send Sarah Winnemucca to Washington, D.C. There, she could discuss the matter with appropriate officials. All told, only $29.25 was collected but the people she had transported from Oregon agreed to pay her $50.00 to take them as far as Silver City, Idaho (today, a "ghost" town with some forty historic buildings). On the morning of June 8, the day after the council ended, Sarah Winnemucca's party headed east from the Malheur Agency toward Silver City.
The Malheur Paiutes under Chief Egan departed from the reservation with forty-six Bannocks. Their trail led southeast. Rinehart wrote that they went east "in the direction of Boise, claiming to be going to their fish traps on Main Malheur River." But they had planned to rendezvous with the [over 700] Bannocks at Steens Mountain, about a hundred miles south. At around this same time, Chief Eagle Eye and about forty-five members of his Weiser tribe arrived at the agency, drew their rations, and left immediately, heading east.
Trouble on the Trail
For the Beardsley party there was no going forward or backward without passing through Indian territory. It was a time of resolve that required courage. All the members of the wagon train had to rally together under their captain at this turning point. The ultimate goal was to make it to Walla Walla alive. Maybe the Indians had been defeated and maybe not, but the company had to stick together and keep a wary eye out for trouble. Their odyssey was no longer just a journey; it was an escape from certain death at the hands of the Bannocks. Were they being pursued? Were they being watched, even now? They were still alive. The Bannocks wanted them dead.
An Old Soldier
Frankie's wedding reception was like a gathering of eagles. . . . They had survived all the ordeals and had lived through death. Their new lives in the west would be forever different because of the roads they had traveled. Her new father-in-law was William S. Frazier, an old Confederate soldier from Texas, born in North Carolina.
William, who had just turned sixty-one, was dressed well for his namesake's wedding: white shirt, bow tie and dark, tailor-made suit. His full head of still-dark hair swept straight back like a lion's mane and a light beard and mustache covered his lower face. He even looked like the founder of a town [Milton] that he was! He was tall, with piercing eyes that read people like a book. And his own face told a story of hardship, grief, and joy shared by far too many in those times. The day's events had brought back many memories of his own wedding—to the love of his life, Rachel. She had passed on barely thirty-one months before, at age fifty-five.
Frazier Farmstead Museum
Milton, now Milton-Freewater, Oregon, was laid out in a flat valley nearly surrounded by low, rolling hills. I stopped at the edge of town and photographed the "Welcome to Milton-Freewater" sign. We were nearly "home."
This is where bits and pieces of my family history were stored. This is where my call to adventure had taken me. It was as if, of all the relatives Back East, I was the chosen one, the one to continue the journey that Mary Jane began, and the one to tell her story. Ever since I had learned of this place I had been plotting, figuring a way to get out here. And like Mary Jane, I hadn't come alone. I had brought part of my family with me. Anne was as excited as I was.
What had begun as my feeble attempt to settle an estate in 1960 had now grown into a full-blown search of my past. I had lost much of my old family but had discovered a new family. We had headed west in search of them, and now we would meet them head on. . . . we headed directly to the Frazier Farmstead Museum.
To learn more about the museum, go to Frazier Farmstead Museum
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© Patrick Simpson