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  • Notes From The Frontier

Creature Comforts

Indian and pioneer children had as their back yard the great wilderness and interaction with wildlife taught them much about life and about themselves. Life on the frontier could be lonely for children. Parents worked hard. The work was never ending and exhausting. Children were often left to fend for themselves once their chores were done.

Many frontier children relied on animals for friendship and adventure, and not just domesticated livestock, dogs and cats, but plenty of wild animals raised from babies too. Baby raccoons, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, buffalo calves, turkeys, eagles, possums, bear cub, wolf and cougar cubs, even frogs and turtles could become companions.

Some children even had imaginary pets or toy animals that had to stand in for furry or feathered creature companions. One such story was found in a Mormon diary from the Martin wagon train in 1856. The expedition was in danger of not reaching their destination by winter and all families were ordered to dump all but their absolute essentials to lighten the load of the wagons. Many children had to part with their cherished toys. One little girl had a cast iron toy lion. During the night, before the wagon train left, she went to the pile of discarded items and dug until she found her pet lion. She tied a string to it and wore it underneath her dress all the way to Salt Lake Valley. She could not part with her friend.

Death was a constant companion on the trail west and many children lost their pets. One family traveling on the Oregon Trail in 1859 had lost all their oxen but the last pair, Martha and Brock. The son had raised the two oxen from calves and loved them dearly. When Martha finally fell to her knees in exhaustion and had to be put down, Brock mourned his yoke mate and laid down beside her and would go no further. The father said Brock must be put down too, but the boy begged for more time. The family went on with the wagon train, and the boy stayed behind with Brock, sitting beside him, stroking him. As the wagon train traveled on, many days passed. The family began to worry because the weather was turning wintry. One day they were traveling across a low basin and someone yelled to look behind. There, on the horizon was the boy walking beside Brock. The wagon train erupted in happy whoops and ran jubilantly to welcome the pair, waving their hats and jumping with joy.

See these related posts:

-Remembering Old Yeller

-In Praise of Oxen

-For the Love of Horses (& Mules!)

-Indians & Their Wolf Dogs

-Custer’s Dogs


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