Skirt Magazine, September, 2005
When I was a little girl, my family would gather around the television set every Wednesday night for our weekly dose of Wagon Train. Season after season, Ward Bond would lift his gloved hand, shout, “Wagons ho!” and guide us on another adventure across the plains. Romantic and thrilling, the stories hearkened back to a time when Americans had to be tougher and stronger, it seemed to me, than the families in our 1950’s L.A. suburb. Never once during those childhood years of watching pioneers traipse across 1800’s America did it ever occur to me that I was watching a slice of my family’s history. If there were any family tales about covered wagons and log cabins, I’d never heard them. As far as I knew, our family tree didn’t have an ounce of pioneering sap in it.
Then, about ten years ago, a far-flung cousin sent me a family genealogy complete with names, birthplaces, birth and death dates, and the occasional revealing anecdote. After careful study I realized that my family had been pioneers after all. Four generations back, they’d been part of an early wave of westward movement that had settled Illinois in the 1840’s. The bizarre first names on the family tree – Dolenna, Dorastus, Euretta – suddenly became real people with real lives. My great, great grandmother, in particular, struck me as a woman who must have had a million stories to tell, if only somebody had bothered to write them down.
Her name was Angeline Lucretia DeWolf Leavens, and although her life spanned 89 years, only the barest statistics remain. Born in 1822, married at seventeen, she was twenty-one when, with her husband and two small children, she made the rugged three hundred mile journey from Pennsylvania to Indiana in a covered wagon. Even calculating an optimistic fifteen miles a day, it would have taken three exhausting weeks to make the trip. Two years later they moved two hundred miles further west, building a log cabin in the little Illinois village of Melugin’s Grove. When she died, Angeline had been widowed for fifteen years and had buried six of her fourteen children – interesting facts, to be sure, but they give few clues to her personality. In trying to imagine what she was like, though, I’ve made a few educated guesses. She must have been a patient woman to have raised all those kids. She must have had a sense of adventure to make that journey into the west, and she must have had courage to be able to cope with the hardships of pioneer life and the loss of so many of her children.
Intrigued by this stalwart ancestress, I decided that it was time I paid her a visit. Last March I flew across the prairies from California to Chicago, then made my way to the spot where Melugin’s Grove once stood. The village is long gone, withered by the passage of time. But the old cemetery where Angeline is buried next to her husband, Daniel, can still be found if someone tells you where to look. With a little guidance from the farmer’s wife whose fields border the tiny graveyard, I followed a grassy lane to where a scattering of grave markers sat forlornly among wizened pine trees and winter brown prairie grass. Standing in front of the obelisk that commemorates Angeline’s passing, I traced her name with my fingertips along the worn gray stone. How does it happen, I wondered, that a woman who has lived such a long, full life can be all but forgotten just a few generations down the line? Here was someone who had probably experienced enough adventures to spin out several years’ worth of Wagon Train episodes, yet my generation, up until a few years before, had completely lost track of her. Although I can guess at how she lived and what she felt, her stories will remain forever buried in the prairie soil beneath my feet. I can’t resurrect them. I can’t get any closer to this woman than her lichen-crusted gravestone.
Pondering the broad strokes of Angeline’s life, however, has made me reconsider the other women on my family tree. They all have stories that I can only imagine. Angeline’s mother, Eliza, married her dead sister’s husband, bore twelve children, and is buried in that same little Illinois cemetery, just a few steps from her daughter’s grave. My great grandmother, Bridget, left Ireland with her young husband to settle in America. My grandmother, Julia, traveled alone from Eastern Europe across the Atlantic to the land whose language she would never quite master. Even my mother, Laura, whose life in southern California had always struck me as unremarkably mundane, ran away from home to marry the man she loved. She crossed the prairie to do it, too, but in a 1935 Plymouth instead of a Conestoga wagon.
Each of these women deserves a special place in the family record, some recognition by their progeny of who they were and what they did. Unfortunately, in each subsequent generation the demands of home, career and family force us to focus on the present and the future. Only rarely do we find the time to look back. Our foremothers, like Angeline, get lost in the passage of years, their names and the details of their lives forgotten. In the eyes of historians, they accomplished little besides the raising of children. Yet without that singular accomplishment, where would any of us be?
As I stood in that all but forgotten graveyard, I made a promise to Angeline and to myself. I would pass on what I knew of my family stories to my own children and, someday, to my grandchildren. Perhaps, a hundred years from now, a great, great granddaughter of my own would cross the prairie, in heaven-only-knows what kind of vehicle, to pay a visit to Angeline and to remember all the women who came before.