Tales from the Tread: Journey West at the Tread of Pioneers Museum
July 5, 2016
Steamboat Springs — In 1873, the James H. Crawford family loaded up their wagons in Sedalia, Missouri, and headed to Colorado in search of a new life in the area that would eventually become Steamboat Springs.
But how did they and other pioneer families do it? What were their routes? What did they eat? How did they survive sickness, inclement weather, wild animals, treacherous mountain passes with no roads and the grueling long hours?
Drawing on diaries, personal memoirs, photographs and actual objects from Routt County’s first pioneer families, “Journeys West: Pioneer Tales from the Wagon Trail,” the newest exhibit at the Tread of Pioneers Museum, explores what life was really like for these brave frontier adventurers.
Much of the exhibit focuses on the journey of Steamboat’s founding family, the Crawfords. After an exploratory trip to Colorado in 1872, James H. Crawford returned to Missouri and prepared to move his family to the Rocky Mountains.
“After this tour of careful investigation, I returned to Missouri fully impressed with the feeling that Colorado would do for me. I had seen the Columbine blooming, although I did not know what to call it, and listened to the soughing [sic] pines, had seen the wild deer, caught the mountain trout and felt the effect of the crisp air. I began immediately to get ready to move out. During the winter I sold my farm and a large portion of my livestock and on the first of May, 1873, started with my family for the Rockies.”
After the 35-day trip from Missouri to Denver, the Crawfords began the most difficult section of the journey — crossing the Rocky Mountains in the days before roads:
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“When June arrived we loaded our goods into the wagons and set out on our expedition into what to most of us was unknown country . . . We reached the road [Rollins Pass Road] early in June but the work on it was still far from finished. Indeed, it was so incomplete that we could not make a start and when we did get started we had reason to wish we hadn’t.
“It was very hard going. The road was extremely rough and in many places was obstructed by large boulders still unremoved. Progress therefore was slow. At times it was necessary to double up, so that often we even had three mules, one horse and two yoke of oxen hitched to each wagon to get over an exceptionally rough place. At times the wagons would be standing almost on end.”
Though we can only begin to imagine the myriad of trials and tribulations the young Crawford family experienced traveling with young children no less, into the frontier west, James’ wife, Margaret Crawford, sheds light on the harsh realities:
“Of course the children and I could not ride. It took all the men to help get the wagon up…I, with my three children, one seven, one four, and one a year old, plodded along. The sun shone very warm. I was very tired carrying my baby when a most severe wind and snow storm came up. The children were frightened and crying. I found a saddle blanket where someone had left it with a saddle. I put that over our heads and gathered the children close to me until the storm was over.
“We crossed high streams, the teams getting into quicksand and going under water with wagons attached to them so they couldn’t swim. Such was the case when we crossed Sand Creek…we soon discovered we had camped over a rattlesnake den.
“[In Hot Sulphur Springs] We covered the cabin with bark until Mr. Crawford could find a good tree to rive some boards to cover it. During the summer for about a month it rained almost every afternoon. The bark had cracked open and we hadn’t a dry place to keep anything. Our children had the scarlet fever in this house. We put a wagon sheet over the bed to keep them dry.”
Sickness was the number one killer on the wagon trails, and yet without doctors, or needed medicine, or any idea of what event might threaten them next, Margaret kept going with her young family. She gave up security and took an enormous leap of faith to follow her husband’s dream.
Don’t miss the new “Journeys West” exhibit at the Tread of Pioneers Museum to discover the tenacity and determination required to get from Denver to Routt County on the wagon trail.
Candice Bannister is executive director of Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs.