Do we ever get used to the experience of flying above the clouds, across this vast continent, thousands of feet above earth, looking down on both its wide-open spaces and the drawn-and-quartered pieces of it? It's hard to fathom the experience our ancestors had crossing it slowly, on the ground.
At age 7 or 8, Elsie Mae Brown, my maternal grandmother, crossed over half the continent with her family. The family had started in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where Elsie Mae was born. Council Bluffs was one of the main jumping-off points for crossing into the American west. It was also the eastern terminus of the Continental Railroad.
Elsie had spent time living in Pretty Prairie, Kansas, where some siblings were born, not far from where the railroad traversed through cattle and wheat-growing country. In the late 1880's the market for wheat crashed. The family moved again. My mother says she does not remember her mother, Elsie, talking about how she arrived in California; to my knowledge, there is no diary, or record, of how the family emigrated.
The crossing from Kansas to southern California took place around 1888; they may have come by covered wagon, or they may have come by train, but it seems clear Elsie, her mother, Clara McAfee Brown, and siblings were following a trail set out by Thomas Lindsey Brown. [Addendum: At the picnic, an eldest cousin confirmed that Elsie and family crossed to California in a covered wagon.]
Thomas and Clara are buried in a cemetery in Fowler, California, not far from the tombstone of William D. Brown, a Presbyterian minister who helped to establish many Presbyterian chuches across the west, including the one in Fowler. Thomas and Clara were the next generation with other ambitions; Thomas worked in the railroad post office in Council Bluffs where all mail coming from the west and going east and vice versa, had to pass. Thomas tried ranching and wheat-farming, and eventually followed the zeitgeist to California and brought his family forth.
Grape rows in the San Joaquin Valley
Tomorrow, I go to an annual Brown Family gathering held each year in Fowler. When I was a child, the picnic was held in Kearney Park, in Easton, just outside of Fresno. The picnic was larger then, and I remember being confused by all of the criss-crossing relationships, with my mother trying to explain that "this woman is your mother's mother's sister's daughter," and so on. It is still something of a shock to me that I learned my maternal great-grandparents are buried in Fowler, because for most of my life, they and their stories seemed lost in the mists.
Like the followers of Moses out into Sinai's wilderness, like the enslaved Africans and partitioned Native Americans, the impulse toward survival quite often overshadowed everything else. My ancestors' migratory patterns were rooted in the pursuit of improving the material aspects of their liveslife. Yet, my great-great-grandfather's ministry, says that something other than purely economic interests were at stake. How these motivations interweave with the rest of America's story is a fascinating and complex one.
Just when do our ancestors catch their individual breaths and come to grips with so much organic change? My fear is that they never did, they just kept pushing on, pushing on. For economical or political reasons, they had to keep moving: first, from lush Scotland to the Ohio Valley, then to the prairie, and finally to California.