Weddings in the 1840s


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Al and Theresa exiting the church to "Ode to Joy"

Al and Theresa exiting the church to “Ode to Joy”

My wedding anniversary is tomorrow, November 26, so for this month’s post on life during the 1840s, my topic is weddings of the times.

In the early years of our nation, weddings were low-key affairs, typically held in the bride’s home and attended only by family and close friends. Weddings were typically on a week-day morning, followed by a wedding breakfast. An announcement was made at the couple’s church—if they had a church—on the Sunday following the wedding.The bride did not often purchase a new dress, but wore her best.

By the 1840s, wealthier Americans in the East had started having more lavish wedding celebrations. Although brides did not always wear white wedding gowns, white was a popular choice, even before Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Queen Victoria chose a white satin dress with a lace overskirt. She selected these fabrics to support impoverished neighborhoods in London, and over the next decade or two, the custom of the bride wearing a white wedding spread across England and America.

10th February 1840: Queen Victoria (1819 - 1901) and Prince Albert (1819 - 1861) on their return from the marriage service at St James's Palace, London. Original Artwork: Engraved by S Reynolds after F Lock. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

10th February 1840: Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) and Prince Albert (1819 – 1861) on their return from the marriage service at St James’s Palace, London. Original Artwork: Engraved by S Reynolds after F Lock. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Over time, the practice of wearing a dress made specifically for the wedding also moved into the American middle classes. However, traditions such as these simply were not possible on the frontier. Along the Oregon Trail and in the West, it was sometimes difficult to purchase even necessities, let alone luxuries. Families didn’t have a lot of extra clothes, nor cash to spend.

Most women on the frontier simply wore their best dress for their wedding, not even necessarily acquiring a new dress. Often, these best dresses were dark colors and simply styled. White was simply not a practical color to wear in a land of grit and wind.

In the early 1800s, wealthier Americans also started having more elaborate wedding feasts. The wedding ceremony itself might still be a small affair, but it was followed by a grander feast. Over time, the ceremonies moved from the bride’s home to churches, primarily to accommodate more guests. When the weddings became large social events, the attendees could not fit into the bride’s home.

Poorer families, if they had a celebration beyond family, would have had a “pot luck” event to which their friends contributed. They could not afford to feed the entire neighborhood.

Most frontier weddings remained frugal affairs, such as in the early years of our nation. Moreover, there were few ministers and even fewer churches available, so couples sometimes began “common law” marriages, which were celebrated when a minister was found.

In Lead Me Home, I described many of the frontier wedding practices, though with some variations. The couple waited to find a minister along the trail, which happened sooner than they had anticipated.

The bride (I won’t tell you which character was the bride—you’ll have to read the book!) wore a new blue calico dress. The dress was made for her wedding, but it would have been a practical choice for her life in the West.

The bride wore “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” for good luck. I could verify that this tradition existed during Victorian times, but I have not been able to establish that it was common on the American frontier. Nevertheless, it gave me a couple of pages of nice dialogue.

The wagon company held a potluck wedding feast to celebrate the marriage. They were celebrating their stopover at Independence Rock also. And they held a “shivaree” for the newly married couple—an American tradition of the times.

What weddings have you attended that broke with tradition in some way?

Stories I Couldn’t Tell Before: Driving Dad’s Oldsmobile


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A 1972 Olds 98, four door sedan. Now imagine it forest green. That was my dad’s car.

When I was in high school, my father had this huge Oldsmobile 98. It was a big four-door sedan, the biggest car Oldsmobile made. The V8 engine could tow a boat crammed full of boxes for a summer on the lake. The passenger compartment could transport our family of six, plus our large dog, comfortably. (Well, maybe not comfortably—small kids and dog often sat on the floor of the back seat—but it did hold all of us. While towing the loaded boat.)

Only my father typically drove the Olds. My mother and I could drive it. It was an automatic transmission, had power steering and power brakes, and moved more easily than my mother’s little Ford Falcon station wagon (which is what she drove until my parents bought a Capri). But the Olds was a behemoth. Huge. A tank—and it was dark green and somewhat resembled a tank.

My class—the Class of 1973—was the last class in Richland, Washington, to have all students graduate from Columbia High School. The next year’s class was split between Col Hi (as it was called) and Hanford High School. My senior year, my fifteen-year-old brother was a sophomore at Hanford. But I had classes at both high schools that year, because the only Russian teacher in town taught at Hanford, and I wanted to take second-year Russian.

Occasionally when my father was out of town that year, I was allowed to drive the Olds 98 to school. My mother usually drove me to Hanford for my first-period Russian class, then I took a school bus to Col Hi. Either Mother picked me up after school when she picked up my younger sister at the Catholic grade school near Col Hi, or I took a bus home. With all this shuttling, it was really a treat when I got to drive myself around town all day long.

One evening late in the autumn of 1972, I drove my sophomore brother and myself to Col Hi for a basketball game. Col Hi always had a good team and was an area powerhouse in basketball. This was early in the season, and fans were pumped. The parking lot was packed. I couldn’t find a space.

I drove down the last aisle in the parking lot, only to find myself boxed in at the end of the row. Earlier cars had parked illegally, blocking the end of the lane. Cars lined up behind me, honking. I couldn’t back out, and I couldn’t go forward.

There was only one option.

I gunned the powerful engine in that Olds and drove it up the side of the hill, around the cars blocking us, into the next row over, and headed out of the lot. An illegal move, to be sure.

But even worse, the hill had a 30% slope. The Olds leaned to its side more than I’d ever felt a car lean in my one year’s driving experience. And probably more than I’ve ever felt a car lean in the forty-plus years since.

Momentum carried us around the blocked cars, and nothing bad happened. As reckless acts go, this was minor. But it was still about the most reckless thing I’d ever done at age sixteen. Certainly the most reckless thing I’d ever done with Dad’s car.

“Don’t ever tell,” I warned my brother, knowing that our father would chew me out royally if he ever found out I could have rolled his Olds.

As far as I know, my brother never told. And I never did either—I never told my father, and I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone before writing this post. Maybe Dad would have laughed. And maybe he would have chewed me out after all this time.

What reckless acts have you undertaken in your life?

Half a Generation, But Not So Far Apart


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Me in my babysitting years with younger siblings

Me in my babysitting years with younger siblings. I’m holding “baby brother”.

My youngest sibling is eleven-and-a-half years younger than me, and he was not yet six when I left for college. I was his primary babysitter from the time he was just a few months old until I left home. In those early years, he sometimes felt as much like my own child as my brother. My memories of him are mostly of his baby and toddler years.

He was a sweet kid, very bright, and generally easy-going. He knew his alphabet and could read some words at age two (witness the airplane letter incident). He was willing to go along with anything his older siblings wanted, which I put to devious use (witness the airplane letter incident).

At age ten, he escorted our mother into the church when I was married. He looked pretty cute in his tuxedo and took his role seriously. But he still seemed to be so much younger than me—in grade school when I was in graduate school and getting married.

Today he turns 48.

One joke my father often told was that his first three kids each only took three years to get through college, while his youngest child (the brother turning 48 today) made up for the rest by taking five. But in later years, my father was extremely proud of his youngest child’s professional accomplishments—my baby brother grew up to be the chief pediatric resident at his medical school, and then joined a good pediatric practice in the Seattle area.

Today, my brother is not only a respected pediatrician, but a loving husband and father. And, as is typical of baby brothers, he grew to be much bigger than his older sister(s). Many of us in the family now rely on him as a steady and comforting influence.

My father appreciated very much that this youngest child of his talked to him almost every evening. As my brother drove home from work, he called our father to check in. Dad often said my brother called just to find out whether he was still alive, but I know it gave our father a welcome human contact every day. Dad dealt first with our mother’s declining health and mental abilities. Then he was alone after she moved into assisted living, and finally he was even lonelier after her death. It was good for him to know that this son of his cared.

At Dad’s funeral last April, this youngest sibling of mine gave the best eulogy I have ever heard. It was spot-on in describing our father, with the appropriate touch of humor and lots of love.

One paragraph from that eulogy reads:

“. . . I got my first taste of how organization can be of benefit by witnessing how my father used to get us going for vacation. When he said we were leaving at 8AM, we were always on the road by 7:45. He somehow got my mother and four kids as well as the dog packed, loaded and in the car early every time. I now have greater understanding of what a monumental accomplishment that is, as with only two kids our 8AM is invariably 8:15 or 8:30.”

This example and others in the eulogy showed me that my childhood experiences and my brother’s were not so different, despite the large gap in years growing up. We both, along with our other siblings, benefited from strong parents.

Happy birthday, baby brother!

When has one of your siblings impressed you?

First Grade: From Superstar to the Slow Line


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I wrote last week about the autumn of 1961, when I spent three weeks in kindergarten before being promoted into the first grade. I loved my first grade experience in Corvallis, Oregon, where I was the superstar of readers in the class and had a teacher I adored.

Then we moved to Richland, Washington. In late October or November sometime, I started in a first grade class at Jefferson Elementary School in Richland. I remember that teacher’s name, but I won’t write it here, because she was dreadful. She was old and crabby and a really bad teacher.

Even at age five-and-a-half, I knew she was a bad teacher. I’d had a good teacher, and this lady was terrible.

Her method of teaching reading was to give the kids basic Dick and Jane books and have them sound their own way through the books. We spent about a half an hour most school days in this silent reading. If kids came to a word they didn’t know, they stood in line on one side of her desk. When it was their turn, they pointed at the word and asked the teacher to tell them what it was.

Once a child made it through the book, he or she stood in line on the other side of her desk. Every book had a vocabulary list in the back. When the kid got to the front of the line, he or she read through the vocabulary list. If they missed a word, they went back to their desk, read the book again, then brought it forward again to read through the vocabulary list.

Even though I could read well, this teacher made me start at the beginning of the Dick and Jane series. I had to read through each book and bring it to her desk to read the vocabulary list. I could read two or three books during one silent reading period. Some days I could get signed off on three books, other days I was slowed down because I had to wait in line at her desk for my turn to read through the vocabulary list.

List of the first grade books I read

List of the first grade books I read

When I went through my father’s files earlier this year, I found the list of books I read. The list is in my first grade teacher’s handwriting, showing the dates that she signed me off on each of these easy readers. The list proved that there were time when I did get signed off on three books in one day, just as I remembered.

I never missed a word on the vocabulary lists, but she made me go through the same rigmarole as everyone else.

I thought this was stupid.

Yet it continued all year long, and there was nothing I could do about it.

From starting two or three months behind everyone else in the class, I raced ahead and was in third grade books by the end of the year. I could have read much harder books, but I was still plodding along reader after reader, without any variation in the pattern. (These easy readers are really boring, if you remember them at all.)

But the monotony was not the worst. The worst was the day when this teacher said to me as I stood in line to read her a vocabulary list, “Oh, Theresa, I know you know the words. Come over on my other side and wait for me to get through the other children.”

She moved me to the line for the kids who needed help. BUT I DIDN’T NEED HELP.

The rest of the class teased me all day long about needing help with a word. BUT I DIDN’T NEED HELP.

The injustice hurt worse than the boredom.

And that’s why she was a bad teacher. It wasn’t the only reason, but it’s the one I remember the best.

Did you have any teachers who treated you unfairly?

Retelling Tales: My Grandfather the Salesman


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My grandfather, Laverne Ernst Claudson

My grandfather, Laverne Ernst Claudson

I’ve written before that my paternal grandfather, Laverne Ernst Claudson, was the grandparent I knew the least. Both of my grandmothers overshadowed their husbands in my young life, and I spent more time with my maternal grandparents as a child than I did my father’s parents, so I never felt I knew my Papa Verne very well.

When I was a small child, I knew my grandfather worked as a traveling salesman in the Pacific Northwest. He was based out of Vancouver, Washington, and called on retail stores in Washington and Oregon. I knew he handled the Carters line of children’s underwear and pajamas, because he kept my brother and me well-supplied. All our footie pajamas came from him as birthday and Christmas presents.

I learned much later from my father that Papa Verne loved to sell and worked in sales most of his career. When my father was small, Papa Verne ran the Woolworth’s store in Pratt, Kansas. Later, he managed stores in the Los Angeles area.

When my father, known then as Tommie, was in high school, Papa Verne ran a five-and-dime store in Klamath Falls, Oregon. In his teenage years, Tommie worked in his father’s store on weekday afternoons and on weekends. I don’t think Tommie enjoyed sales, but he learned some good lessons from his father, which my father later told me.

One lesson was about pricing. Tommie found out that the wholesale price of a pack of gum was two cents, and his father was selling it for ten cents. Tommie thought that was highway robbery. He told his father that the ten-cent price was taking advantage of his friends who came in the store and bought the gum.

Papa Verne took his indignant son into the back room of the store and opened the ledgers. He showed Tommie what he paid in wages, rent, and other expenses. By the end of that lesson, Tommie decided the ten cent price was quite reasonable.

Another lesson my grandfather taught was that the customer is always right. A five-and-dime store in a small town in the 1950s carried some of everything. Tommie was stocking shelves for his father one day, and a customer picked up a ceramic pan. “What a nice vase this will make,” she exclaimed.

“But that’s a—” stock boy Tommie started to say.

Papa Verne interrupted his son and told the woman to bring her vase to the cash register.

After the sale was completed, Tommie said to his father, “But that wasn’t a vase. It was a bedpan.”

“If she wants to call it a vase, who am I to tell her it isn’t?” my grandfather replied. “A sale is a sale.”

And that’s how my dad learned the customer is always right.

Today, November 9, 2015, would have been Papa Verne’s 106th birthday. He worked until he retired at age 65, and he died in February 1975 before he reached his 66th birthday.

What family stories do you know about your grandparents’ occupations?

Three Weeks in Kindergarten


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I started kindergarten in Corvallis, Oregon, in September 1961, when I was five-and-a-half. I was so excited to finally be in real school—I had a neighbor friend who was a second-grader, and she told me how wonderful school was. She had lorded it over me, because she went to real school, and I was just in pre-school. Even kindergarten was just for “little kids” she told me.

My kindergarten classroom had a wall of cubbies like these. As I recall, I fought for the lower right-hand cubby.

My kindergarten classroom had a wall of cubbies like these. As I recall, I fought for the lower right-hand cubby.

I remember quite a bit of my kindergarten days that September. We played outside. We played in the classroom. We sat in a circle and learned about Little Red Riding Hood and not talking to strangers.

Another girl and I had identical nap-time rugs—pink, in the shape of a kitty-cat. We fought over which of us got to put her rug in the favorite cubby hole. I don’t remember why we both liked this one particular cubby hole, but we had daily battles to get there first.

In addition to the usual play-time and nap-time of half-day kindergarten in the early 1960s, we were exposed to books each day. The teacher passed out easy readers and picture books, and the kids thumbed through them. When we finished looking at one book, we put it in a stack and took another.

Most of the kindergartners looked at the pictures. But I read the words. It was no big deal—I read much harder books at home.

One day during our third week of school, the teacher noticed I was reading a book. She asked me to read out loud to her. I did. She gave me another book and asked me to read it. I did. And a third.

The next day, she had me read to the principal. That afternoon my mother got a call. They wanted to move me up to first grade.

I was so excited—I would be a big kid! I’d be going to school all day long! The neighbor girl couldn’t lord it over me any more. And maybe in the back of my mind was the realization I wouldn’t have to fight over a cubby hole any longer.

My mother wasn’t as happy about my potential promotion as I was. She and I went to a meeting at the school with my teacher and the principal. They told my mother I would be bored in kindergarten. They said I’d even be ahead of the first-graders, because they couldn’t read either.

I begged and begged, and my parents finally decided I could go to first grade. (I really don’t remember my father being involved much in this discussion, but he must have been.)

The next Monday I marched into the first grade classroom with my mother. The teacher was a very kind young woman whose name was “Mary Theresa” just like mine. (I don’t remember her last name, except that she was a Miss, and was getting married when that school year was over.) She made me feel right at home, and I immediately loved first grade.

I was a superstar in that first grade classroom, because I could read. One boy could read some, but not as well as I could. “Wead to me, Teweesa, wead to me,” one little girl commanded daily, shoving a book into my hands. And I happily read to her.

I wasn’t as good at arithmetic, but I soon caught on to the basic counting and adding and subtracting the class was doing. And I practiced my penmanship, which was far behind my reading skills.

Unfortunately, I only remained in that wonderful first grade class for a few weeks. We moved from Corvallis back to Richland, Washington, in October 1961, because my father had finished his Ph.D. dissertation and was returning to work for General Electric at the Hanford Engineering Works. I remember drawing pumpkins in Corvallis, then we moved to Richland, where my new class drew Pilgrims.

Many years later, I learned why my mother hadn’t wanted me to be moved to first grade. She wanted me to start as a first-grader the following September at Christ the King Catholic School in Richland. Christ the King didn’t have a kindergarten in those days, so all the children started as first graders. However, there were no openings at Christ the King for first-graders in October 1961, so I spent the rest of my first grade year in public school at Jefferson Elementary School in Richland.

More on that next week.

What do you remember about your first experiences in school?

Returning to Childhood With Favorite Books


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I’ve written before about the importance of reading in my family when I was growing up (see here and here), and about how my husband and I read out loud to our kids when they were small (here). I recently had occasion to revisit some of my favorite children’s books.

My husband boxed up a bunch of our daughter’s old belongings, intending to ship them to her now that she has her own home. When she found out about his plan, she told him she didn’t want any of that stuff, and he should just give it away. We’ve adopted an interim solution—the boxes will await her visits during the holiday season, so she can review and confirm that we can give away her childhood possessions.

Some of the books I rescued from the "give-away" pile

Some of the books I rescued from the “give-away” pile

But I have already rescued a few of her books. Some were my childhood books that I gave her when she was small. Others were books I bought for her that I loved as a girl, but didn’t own. A couple were even my mother’s childhood books, which my mother gave to me. No way will I let those go at this point; someday, maybe, but not now.

Some of the books from my daughter’s shelves I decided I could part with, even though I loved them. They were paperback copies of books now in the public domain. Most notably was What Katy Did. This was the first in a series of three books about a tomboy named Katy, written by Susan Coolidge. Katy ended up with an injury that cut her tomboy days short. I won’t tell you any more, but even though I was never a tomboy, the story struck my fancy.

I have my mother’s copies of Little Women and Little Men, and my sister has our mother’s copy of An Old Fashioned Girl. An Old Fashioned Girl was my mother’s favorite of Louisa May Alcott’s books. My favorites were Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, about a girl named Rose and her seven boy cousins. The idea of being an orphaned girl pampered and bossed and teased by aunts and an uncle and all those (mostly older) boy cousins seemed such an unusual life to me—I had only younger siblings and no cousins in the vicinity.

My mother's Ex Libris sticker from her copy of A Wonderful Year

My mother’s Ex Libris sticker from her copy of A Wonderful Year

But the two books I loved most that were in the give-away pile—the ones I most had to rescue—were A Wonderful Year, by Nancy Barnes, and Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt. Both are girls’ coming-of-age stories.

A Wonderful Year, published in 1946, was my mother’s book. It is about Ellen, a young girl whose family moves from a town in Kansas to a ranch in Mesa Valley, Colorado, sometime early in the twentieth century (well before 1946, given the illustrations in the book). Ellen feels terribly out of place on the ranch, until she becomes friends with a teenage English boy on a neighboring ranch named Ronnie. As a young girl, I often felt terribly out of place, and I empathized with Ellen, though she seemed to have many more interesting adventures than I ever had. But I could relate to her descriptions of tumbleweeds and sage.

I received Up a Road Slowly for Christmas when I was twelve or thirteen. This coming-of-age novel was the 1967 Newbery Medal winner. It’s set in some period earlier than 1967, though the year is never specified. The story is about Julie, whose mother dies when she is about seven, and she is sent to live with her strict aunt. As a result, she believes her family doesn’t love her. She lives with the aunt for many years, and the readers see Julie mature through her high school years. I read it when I was older than Julie when the book begins, but she was older than I when the book’s timeline ended. This novel formed many of my visions about what high-school life should be—visions that did not come true. But I still loved the story.

What these two books have in common is a girl protagonist who feels alone and friendless, much as I felt as a child. I could escape into their stories and see that they came out of lonely childhoods into a brighter maturity—a message I very much needed in those years.

Since my daughter has no interest in keeping these books, I guess her tastes in books are different than mine. Maybe the passage of the generations has made the books I loved less relevant. Maybe my daughter had more friends as a child than I did (I think so). Maybe she just doesn’t want to be encumbered by “stuff” in her new home.

Whatever the explanation for why she doesn’t want them, I welcome the opportunity to treasure them again. I want to dive back into another time when life was simpler, if not always happier.

What things from your childhood do you treasure that your children don’t care about?

A Tale of Two Kauffmans and Two Spirits


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There are two landmarks in Kansas City named after city benefactors Ewing and Muriel Kauffman. Actually, there are more than two, but this post focuses on Kauffman Stadium and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, both of which are on my mind this week.

Kauffman Stadium, photo from Wikimedia Commons

Kauffman Stadium, photo from Wikimedia Commons

The Kansas City Royals baseball team was once owned by Ewing Kauffman and the team plays at what is now called Kauffman Stadium. Much of the world knows that the Kansas City Royals are in the World Series this year for the second year in a row. In 2014, they scrambled their way from a wild card bid, through a roller-coaster playoff season and into the World Series, which they lost in the seventh game.

This year, they started the playoffs at the top of the American League Central Division, won their division (but took all five games to do so), won their league (in six games, the last of which was a 4-3 nail-biter victory after a rain delay), and started the World Series with the home-team advantage.

All this after a dearth of World Series appearances of twenty-nine years.

I am not a sports fan, but even I am caught up in the spirit of Kansas City these days. Sports teams can be good and sports teams can be bad, but when they bring a community together, they are at their best.

I have no intention of going to Kauffman Stadium for a Worlds Series game. I probably won’t even watch many innings on television (though I may sneak glances at the score from time to time). But even I am rooting for the Royals, as are 99% of the citizens of this metropolitan area. It is rare to have such unanimity of opinion on any topic.


Kauffman Stadium, photo from Wikimedia Commons, by H. Gascoigne

This week, the spirit of Kansas City is strong.

Last Saturday evening my husband and I attended a Kansas City Symphony performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. This world-class hall is home not only to the symphony, but also to the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. It is a shining monument on a hilltop just south of downtown Kansas City, which I pass by regularly as I drive around town.

Kansas City Symphony warming up on October 24, 2015, with chorus behind them

Kansas City Symphony warming up on October 24, 2015, with chorus behind them

The program last weekend was called “Festa Italiana” and featured selections from Italian opera overtures and choral works performed by the Kansas City Symphony and the 160-person Kansas City Symphony Chorus. The instruments and voices filled the concert hall with lovely music—pieces from Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, and others.

The Royals had won the American League title the evening before, and the mood in the concert hall was festive. Even the snootiest of arts patrons were part of the Kansas City spirit on Saturday.

But another spirit was more on my mind that evening.

Pasadena Boys Choir, 1940s sometime

Pasadena Boys Choir, 1940s sometime

My father was a huge fan of classical music. His love of music may have started when he was in the Pasadena Boys Choir as a youth. They performed throughout the Los Angeles area in the 1940s after World War II, including on stage with Bob Hope and in the Rose Bowl Parade. He couldn’t play any instruments, but he could sing, and frequently hummed or whistled as he went about chores, sometimes embarrassing his children.

My father had a large collection of classical records . . . later replaced by cassettes . . . and then by CDs. He played classical music frequently in the evenings while he read. He almost always had music playing as he drove—either classical music or country. (When I drove his car after he died, the Sirius presets were tuned to half classical and half country. I chose the classical options.)

While I don’t know much about opera, I recognized most of the pieces the symphony played last Saturday from listening to music with my father. His spirit was with me that evening through every crescendo and pianissimo, through every allegro and adagio. His spirit was with me as the chorus sang from Mascagni’s “Regina coeli”:

“The Lord is not dead, radiant He has opened the tomb.”

My father’s spirit was as strong as that of Kansas City.

P.S. I wrote this post before the first game of the World Series on Tuesday, October 27. The Royals won, 5-4. It took 14 innings, one of the longest World Series games ever. After finishing six innings as starting pitcher for the Royals, Edinson Volquez learned his father had passed away. Triumph and tragedy—both require strong spirits. My heart goes out to the Volquez family.

Back to Research: Oregon Land Laws in the 1840s


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The reason most settlers went to Oregon was because they could claim free land. In my first Oregon Trail novel, Lead Me Home, all I needed to know about the Oregon land laws was that settlers could file land claims once they got there. But in the sequel I am working on now, which takes place between 1848 and 1850, the nuances of the homesteading laws in Oregon are critical. So I have gone back to my research notes and done additional searching.

When my emigrant characters arrive in Oregon in October 1847, the Organic Act of 1845 was in effect. That law was adopted while the United States and Great Britain still disputed which nation ruled Oregon. The only clear authority in the region was Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered by Great Britain. But the Americans didn’t want to be governed by a British entity, so in 1843 some Oregonians had taken it upon themselves to pass laws, which resulted in the Organic Law of Oregon.

By 1845, the Organic Law of Oregon provided that each person could claim up to 640 acres in a square or oblong form. They had to mark the boundaries of the land they claimed, register the claim within twenty days in Oregon City, make permanent improvements within six months, and occupy the land within a year. If they did not occupy the land, they had to pay a tax of $5.00 per year, or the claim would be deemed abandoned.

My novel required more detailed information, however. I had male characters older than twenty-one, who I assumed were eligible to file claims. But what about men younger than twenty-one? What about African Americans? Could a woman file a claim? What if the man left the land after filing? One of my character might be widowed and want to keep the claim (I won’t say more, because I don’t want to give anything away!)—can she get the land or not?

I discovered that the Oregon Provisional Legislature specified that

—Only free males over 18 years old could hold land, unless they were married, and then men could hold land if they were under 18 years old

—Blacks could not own land, even free Blacks

—Widows could hold land, but single and married women could not

Oldest legal document in Oregon -- for the purchase of cattle in 1837. The purchaser later died, but there were no laws to determine who got his property.

Oldest legal document in Oregon — for the purchase of cattle in 1837. The purchaser later died, but there were no laws to determine who got his property.

I also learned that there were no inheritance laws in Oregon in the 1840s, so if someone died, what happened to his property was unclear. My poor widow might be out in the cold, or at least might have a legal fight on her hands.

By treaty between the United States and Great Britain, Oregon Territory became part of the United States in 1846. That led to a new Territorial Legislature, which adopted new land laws in 1849. That is important to my story, because the timeline of my novel runs until late 1850.

The new law, called the Donation Land Act, effectively nullified all existing land claims, though most could be refiled without problem. This act gave 320 acres to every white male citizen of the United States over eighteen-years of age who filed a claim.

If a man was married, his wife could also receive 320 acres, upon proof of marriage, which would result in the same 640 acres that had previously been available. The husband and wife each owned half of the total grant in their own name, and this was one of the first laws in the United States to allow married women to own property under their own name.

Men arriving after December 1, 1850, could only claim 160 acres, with an additional 160 acres for their wives. Over the next few years, the land laws in Oregon became less generous. Fewer acres were granted, and some money was required. But those are not relevant to this book. Maybe I’ll need to do more research in the future, but not now. I’m hoping I have enough knowledge now to flesh out the plot in my sequel over the next several months.

When have you struggled to pin down details on a project of yours?


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