An eager group we were, surrounding the fire that March evening. Father had come home late and was very silent. As he entered, I had seen him give Mother a quick nod not meant for us children, and had seen her face lose its tired look and seem to glow with a new fire. With difficulty I had waited for the disclosures I felt sure would come when supper was over and the dishes cleared away.
That winter had been a sad one for the Vanderburgh family. The fact that the war was surely drawing to a close was dwarfed to us by the news which had come in a letter from the chaplain of my oldest brother's company. He wrote to tell us of a new grave near Vicksburg. After that, Father and Mother seemed to have no heart for planning another year on the Iowa farm. Their one desire seemed to be to sell the place and start anew in some spot where perhaps they would not feel their loss so keenly. But where? During the cold winters Father was often ill; he needed a warmer climate. He dared not take his family into the unsettled South, even if he had been willing to live in secession territory. Again and again the problem had been discussed but no solution had been reached.
Then came a letter from Uncle Alfred Collver, Mother's brother in far off Oregon. It was a wonderful letter. Over and over we read it. To Winfield, my fifteen-year old brother, and me, it seemed that Oregon must be the most wonderful spot in the world. Father and Mother must have thought so too. They talked about it so much, the wonderful climate, the warm winters, the beautiful harbor, the thousands of orchard trees, the great forests of valuable timber, the coal mines, and always again, the climate.
"Isaac has decided to go back to Oregon to live," Father said one evening. "They have sold their place."
Winfield and I looked at each other. How wonderful it would be if we could go too. The Acker family, Aunt Caroline, who was Father's sister, and Uncle Isaac and their four children were our dearest relatives. Henry and Florence and Winfield and I had long been inseparable. For them to go to Oregon without us would be a loss indeed.
"I think I can sell the place," Father said slowly, "but the trip! Six children all those hundreds and hundreds of miles; dare we go?"
"They are all healthy; the trip will be good for them," Mother said. "The change might start Philura to growing, too. She is well now, but so tiny." And so it was decided. If the place could be sold in time for us to start early in the spring, we would go with Uncle Isaac when he took his family to Oregon.
Early in March, Father went to Dubuque to complete the sale of our home and to talk over plans with Uncle Isaac. It seemed a long time that he was away; there was so much to wait for. Mother and Caroline, my only sister, who was really grown up now, since she was eighteen years old, talked and talked, planning what we would take with us if we went, the things we could not do without, the things we would need, but would have no room for. As I listened, I was thinking that we would have to leave behind everything I valued, and so it turned out, almost. Mother stored a few things for us in the bottom of a trunk, - but I am getting ahead of my story.
At last the work was done that evening. The three little boys, Robert, who was seven, Darius, who was four, and little Charlie, who was only two, had been tucked into bed. I wasn't much bigger than Robert, but, being thirteen years old, felt and really was old enough to know all about our plans. Win and Carrie and Mother and I sat about the fire and listened to Father's story.
He had sold the place, he told us, and all the stock we owned. The cows of course could not be taken with us; they would travel too slowly. The buggy horses were too light; Dutch and French were too old. I caught my breath at that. The old farm horses were so much a part of the family that it seemed we could not go without them. Father was talking, so I had not much time to think. All our pets were to stay, all.
"Even Major?" I asked, aghast.
Father thought a moment. "No," he said, "I think we had better take Major. He is such a good watchdog that we will need him." I was glad to hear that. Father went on:
"I bought three fine teams today, one a four-horse team, and three wagons, and canvas to make wagon covers and a tent. We are especially fortunate to get one of those teams," he said; "big dappled grays that have been trained for hunting and do not frighten at anything." A wise purchase those english hunters proved, too - steady, faithful beasts which nothing excited. On one occasion months later, far out in the Sioux country, they saved our whole train.
"We can take very little but food and clothing," Father said. "We will get new things in Oregon." That became a frequent saying with us when, as we were packing, treasure after treasure was cast aside. "No room in the wagons; we'll get new ones in Oregon." We did not know that when we reached Oregon we would find that all the people who had gone before us had followed the same plan. As there were no factories in that new country, many a day was to pass before we could again have the few simple toys and luxuries we were leaving behind.
One day as I was trying to help Mother fit together the seams of the big unwieldy tent, Carried called, "Philura, come here, quick!" I ran to the window. The passing of emigrant wagons was a daily occurrence, as it had been every spring since I could remember, but here was one with a big sign painted on the cover, "Pike's Peak or Bust!" We laughed and wondered what fate would meet the outfit, little thinking we would ever see the wagon again.
Those few hurried weeks, our last in Iowa, passed very quickly. We were so busy. Clothing, tent and wagon covers had to be made, all by hand, of course, for that was before the day of the sewing machine. Food for a four-month journey was to be planned, bought and packed into the big wagons. Father and mother planned the food very carefully. There must be no sickness caused by wrong food in our family. Too many tales had reached us of suffering among the earlier emigrants. We profited by their sad experience. Dried fruit and citric acid a-plenty we took with us, and vegetables to last as long as possible.
We children watched Father open the potato pit that spring, more eagerly than ever before. When he shoveled off the earth and lifted out the straw which covered the store buried in the ground the previous autumn, mingled with the earthy odors of potatoes, rutabagas and parsnips, was the fragrance of two or three bushels of wild crab apples which we children had gathered and stored there. "Don't eat too many now," Father said. "We will care more for them when we are traveling." When we had picked those crab apples in the fall, we had not dreamed in what strange surroundings we should eat them.
After busy weeks of sorting and sewing and packing, of trips to Dubuque for stores, of good-bye visits from friends and neighbors whose words of advice and warning still rang in our ears, we took a last long look at the pleasant farm, with the gentle, friendly horses and cows gazing at us from the fence corners, and turned away. There was a lump in my throat and I could not see very clearly as I climbed into the great wagon with the others. A word to the horses, and - we were off to Oregon.