Idaho Early History    By Major Frank A. Fenn, Copyright 1920

An Emigrant’s Experience

None but those who experienced the trials of a trip by wagon over the old emigrant road across the plains can realize what was endured by the Argonauts of the early 50’s.

Mrs. Rhoda M. Fenn was one of the pioneer women of Idaho County.  With her husband, Stephen S. Fenn, and four children she arrived in Florence late in June, 1862, from California whither she emigrated from Iowa ten years before.

Leaving his wife in Dubuque, Iowa to follow him when he had prepared a new home for her in the land of golden promise.  Mr. Fenn crossed the plains to California early in 1850.  In August of that year Mrs. Fenn became the mother of a daughter, Clara J. Fenn.

After two years of anxious and expectant waiting, the young mother with her baby girl joined emigrant train destined for Nevada county, California, where, at Jefferson Bar on the South Yuba River, the new home had been made ready.   The train which was under the direction of Captain M.A. Singleton was composed of some 70 persons.  Mrs. Fenn was the only woman in the party but, with her babe in arms, she braved the hazards of the perilous trip through the then wilderness from the Missouri river almost to the Pacific.  She was typical of the splendid frontier women who indelibly impressed their characteristics of courage and fortitude upon the population of the entire west.

Council Bluffs was the point of departure for Iowa emigrants.  To get there was but a preparatory step which might be retraced, beyond there the course led ever to the westward, there was no turning back.  To him who looked longingly toward the New Eldorado, the Missouri river was the Rubicon.

The Singleton train left Council Bluffs in May, 1852, the year which is recorded in emigrant annals as the “cholero year”.  Nothing beyond the usual brushes with Indians occurred to the train until it was well out on the Platte Valley, and then, on the night of June 20, the cholera came upon it.  Several persons were stricken but that first night none but little Clara succumbed.  Early in the morning the mother saw the remains of her only child placed in a rude feed box, which had been detached from the back end of one of the wagons, and buried with scant ceremony beside the road whose course during that frightful year was clearly defined through the fatal Platte Valley by the way-side mounds that registered the awful toll exacted from the multitude whom the lure of gold tempted into the western wilds. 

To escape the deadly scourge of the valley the train was forced to hurry on and on ever westward, the length of the marches limited only by the endurance of the teams.  Death itself was not permitted to retard the flight for life.  The dead hurriedly buried in shallow graves with only the mournful howl of the prairie wolf as a requiem, and the train moved on.  While the bereaved mother stood leaning against the wheel of a wagon and looking in mute agony at the new made grave of her loved one.  E.S. Jewette, a member of the company, sat up there a little head board, a strip plank, on which was inscribed “Clara J. Fenn, aged 1 year and 10 mos”, and at the same time placed in the mourner’s hand a slip of paper on which was written the following:

“How oft the tenderest tie is broken,

How oft the parting tear must flow,

The words of friendship scarce are spoken,

Ere those are gone we love below,

Like suns they reise and all is bright,

Like suns they set and all is night.

To Mrs. Fenn, from E.S. Jewette.”

Then the command “forward” was given the teams moved out and the lone and sorrowing woman turned from her own dead to minister as best she might to the living companions to whom Israel whispered the dread summons.  She was not called but, spared for others’ sake and after passing out of the valley of the shadow of death at last reached the California home for which she had endured so much.  Very few even of her intimate friends ever heard from her the story of her tribulation there in the Valley of the Platte, but she always preserved the little slip of paper on which Jewette had written his sympathetic words and when she passed on she left it as a precious heirloom in her family.




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