300 miles in a covered wagon

I’ve written before about my grandmother Gladys Parke Bergeson’s uncle, Leonard Lee Redfield. Lee served in the Civil War from 1862-1865 as a member of the 32nd Iowa Volunteer Infantry Company C. All of the information I have about Lee and his brother James has been passed on to us by his youngest daughter, Eveland (Mae) Redfield Devries.

Mae Devries left us a written account of another astonishing adventure in Lee’s life, his migration from Jesup, Iowa to Canton, South Dakota. Lee made the journey in 1873 with his wife Margaret Scarborough Redfield (Molly) and their two children, Mary Josephine and James Alfred, both of whom were under two years of age (Jimmie was only five months old!). It took ten days for them to make the 300+ mile trip and they did it in a covered wagon pulled by two horses (not one of the wagons pictured below, but something very similar). They stopped by the side of the trail each night, made a fire to cook dinner and then got as much sleep as the environment would allow. Their nights were often interrupted by wolf and coyote activity.

When they arrived at Saddle Creek, South Dakota where their homestead claim was, they had two horses, the wagon, “all their worldly possessions,” and $2.65 in cash. They rented a one-room cabin fourteen miles from their claim site.

Lee’s first order of business was to build a sod shanty so the family could stake their claim. He traveled the fourteen miles and back daily until he had put up the walls of the house. After that, he commuted 90 miles each week by rail to Lemars, Iowa for work. In the fall, when the weather got too cold, he opened a blacksmith shop in Saddle Creek to support the family through the winter months.

The next spring they needed to be in residence on their claim by April 1 or the claim could be challenged by someone else. However, Lee had no wood with which to support a roof or frame in windows and doors so the structure was completely open to the elements. All that they had for shelter was Lee’s old army tent that they spread over one corner of the shanty for relief from the sun and the rain. Nevertheless, Molly and the babies moved into the shanty and stayed there from April to November. Lee walked the fourteen miles to the claim each Saturday after he closed the smithy and walked back on Sunday so that he could spend at least one day a week with his family.

By November 1874, Lee had put aside enough money to buy the wood and windows that he needed to completely enclose the sod hut from the elements and install a rough board floor. Now his commute to work would be the reverse since the whole family could be together in their new home.

Life on the prairie was challenging. For further proof, here is an excerpt from Mae Devries’ account of her father’s first years in South Dakota: “They also ordered warm clothing which came in late spring, wet and mildewed. Molly washed each garment and spread each piece on the rushes to dry. They then sat down to eat their dinner. They heard a strange sound and went out to investigate the source, fearing Indians had come to the area. They found the dry stream had become a raging torrent and their clothing had been washed away.  For days they walked down the creek and picked up a garment here and there or what was left of them.”

Three times in the coming years the farm was devastated by grasshoppers and twice by fire. They never lost their home to fire so they stayed on. Eventually Lee’s mother, Ruth Ann Newberry Redfield, arrived with her two youngest children and made her own claim next to Lee’s.

From now on, every time I encounter a difficulty in daily life, all I have to do is consider the details of this story and I’ll probably feel much better.

To read Mae Devries’ complete account of Leonard Lee Redfield’s journey, click on the link below.



covered wagon 2

covered wagon


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