Chicago, July of 1875 -
Clutching my valise to my body tightly, I cautiously stepped forward to board the railroad car along with the many others gathered on the wooden platform. The humid air gave me cause to wipe my forehead of sweat and then place the handkerchief in front of my nose to block the chocking fumes. This smoking monster, the Chicago and Northwestern train, would be taking its passengers away from this hot Midwestern city today. Traveling west from my Chicago home to unknown Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory should be a great adventure I told myself many times. If that was true, why couldn't I feel the excitement that many around me seemed to harbor?
I had agreed to take a post with a family at the Fort. It was a bold step for me at age 19. Very bold - yet very necessary. The governess position here in my hometown, I had high hopes of obtaining, had been given to another. In my childhood home, my new stepmother had become someone I simply couldn't stand to be near another day and the thought of living in the house with her and my infatuated father was nauseating. The chance to leave and travel west was thrust upon me by a childhood friend, Rebecca,who had recently taken a similar position at the Dakota fort and urged me by letter to join her. Rebecca had nothing but praise for the handsome soldiers there, the cavalry family she had come to love now as companion and tutor and of course, the many new adventures she had experienced. I had accepted the post. I was on my way west. Lifting my head high to fool my psyche into believing I was the adventuress also, I boarded the train.
Settling myself near a small window, I watched the remaining passengers board and remembered fondly my childhood home before Emeline Thatcher had stolen my father's heart. How I would miss the place I had grown up in! How I did miss my mother who had only left this earth a mere ten months ago! Father would miss me I suppose, when he wasn't drooling over his new, young wife. She would occupy the place I had loved so dearly. I felt the motion of the train now – it was too late to change my mind. I was headed west. The city I loved, the only home I had ever known was becoming a blur as the train picked up speed. Good- bye Chicago.
I looked around me at the other passengers settling themselves in their chosen seats. I breathed a sigh of relief, no one had chosen the seats across from me. This gave me plenty of leg room and I tried to relax. I felt my eyes grow heavy and closed them, the motion of the train now lulling me to sleep. It must of only been minutes that I dozed before I heard a child's laughter and slowly opened my eyes to see the wide blue ones of a pint size person staring at me. Her pixie mouth smiled, and I now saw clearly I did not have the compartment to myself. This little girl and a woman I supposed to be her mother, had settled across from me, the child still staring.
I straightened my back from the sleep slouch it had conformed to and saw the child whisper in her mother's ear. The mother was a hefty woman with a drab dress and hat and told her child to hush for the pretty lady was sleeping. Realizing I was the pretty lady she had been talking about, I quietly introduced myself. “Nice to make your acquaintance, my name is Katherine. Katherine Trent.”
Giggling ensued then and the little girl buried her head in her mother's ample bosom. The woman turned a bright shade of red and spoke finally, “Pleased to meet ya, we are. Mary and Lettie O'Connor.”
Nodding to them both, I realized I should attempt to make some conversation. These two would probably be my traveling companions for awhile. I was getting off the train in Fort Pierre and then traveling by steamboat as far as Bismarck where I would be met by the head of the family who would now be my employer. I had a curiosity where this woman and her child were traveling to. I knew my stop would not be the only destination of the many passengers.“May I ask your destination?” I inquired, leaning forward in my seat.
The woman had a prominent dimple which increased as she smiled, and I noticed her hat now sat crooked on her head. She reached to straighten it as she replied in a clear Irish brogue. “Fort Abraham Lincoln, we are headed to, we are. Laundresses are needed and me and my little one are startin a new life, so we are. ”
Surprised we were heading to the same destination, I felt encouraged. Well, it looked like we would be traveling companions all the way west. “Laundress you say? Well, I have taken a position there also as companion and tutor to a family of two children. I must say, I am a bit nervous about the whole thing, yet you two look fairly excited!”
Mary O'Connor hugged her little Lettie to her chest and shrugged her shoulders. “Me sister Eileen is already in service there. She urged me to come join her, she did. Well, since me Patrick passed recently, it will be new life for the two of us.”
I swallowed nervously. Oh, the poor woman had lost her husband, and she too was also starting a new life. One she had to begin with the child beside her. The little girl was staring at me again quite unabashedly. I reached my hand out to her and replied in a soft voice, “Well, Miss Lettie, looks like we will be friends. What do you think?”
Lettie O'Connor looked up at her mother and then back at me. Mary urged her to reply and I was quite surprised to hear her speak so clearly and firmly, “I's gonna help Ma. We gotta new home, so we do. Maybe I'll be your friend if I can find the time.”
Laughing to myself, I leaned back in my seat and kept a straight face. These two traveling companions would certainly make the trip interesting. “We will be friends Lettie, I just know it.”
The next morning the three of us again sat in our compartments, watching the scenery fly before our eyes as the train moved west. I had slept surprisingly well last night in my small sleeping berth, for I must have been exhausted. This morning upon awakening, I had taken my turn in the ladies dressing car trying to arrange my chignon and finally determined it was too difficult with the train movement to get it to perfection. Now fingering the strands that had escaped, I sighed and opened my book. I would pass the time reading. This didn't happen easily though, for now the little tike before me had lost her shyness. Her first words took me aback.
“Miss Katherine, ma said we have to look out for wild Indians at the fort, she did.”
My eyes grew large and Mary replied as she looked sternly at her daughter, “Not another word, Lettie, I say.”
My face too solemn I realized, I questioned Mary. “What have you heard about Fort Lincoln from your sister? Will we be in any danger?”
Mary blew out her breath and looked steadily at me. “Me sister, Eileen, says there is unrest there, she does. I'm sure shes just talking without thinking, she is. Soldiers at Fort Lincoln will keep the peace. I couldn't travel this far, I couldn't, if I thought it was dangerous.”
“What else does Eileen tell you, Mary?” I was now wondering what this new adventure would bring. I felt a strange fluttering in my stomach, a sign I had become slightly nervous. My question opened up Mary to share with me all her sister Eileen's cautions and experiences.
“Well, Miss Katherine, there is safety there with the many soldiers, there is. Eileen has written, that rumor has it, old yellow hair, that is what they all call General Custer, they do, is planning a big campaign. We should be safe within the fort walls I would imagine. My Lettie overheard me talking to my neighbor before we left, she did. I might have been more careful with her around. I'm sorry if she scared you, I am. But also, Eileen told me of my duties there as a laundress. I do think, I do, that I will be very, very, busy. And now I might shut my gob, for you look a bit frightened, you do.”
But Mary continued talking, while I observed through the tiny train window a scenery, strangely beautiful. The miles and miles of green plain, lush with prairie flowers portraying their summer finery, displayed itself clearly through my window. I would not be afraid I told myself. There were Indians in the west, of course I knew that. Native peoples of whom I had read about in the newspapers had resented the white man coming to their lands and taking over. It was something I hadn't thought much about before now. I realized I was joining a cavalryman's family, one who was trained to fight these natives. I would be in new territory that had many dangers compared to Chicago. Why hadn't Rebecca mentioned this in her letters when urging to me to come? Had she come to grips with it and was perfectly happy in her new surroundings? Or, did she just purposely leave out any fears she had to not frighten me and convince me to join her? I sighed heavily and realized Mary was still talking about laundress duties. I looked at her and realized she did not know I hadn't been listening carefully. I had learned Mary could talk a blue streak. I sat back in my seat, my hands folded and listened. Certainly, she thought she knew a good bit about our destination. Much more than I had. The train moved on. There was no turning back, Indians, danger or whatever, I had committed to this new life and I was on my way, for this fast moving train was unstoppable.
The coach that had met us in Bismarck was rapidly taking us across rough terrain to Fort Lincoln. We bounced around inside, my new employer, myself, Mary, Lettie and a stern looking cowboy type who refused to smile despite Lettie's funny remarks about our journey. I sat quietly, trying to assess my fears. The man beside me dressed in a cavalry captain's uniform would be my guardian and employer. I hoped I had made a good first impression. Unfortunately, I felt sweaty, dirty and couldn't wait to take a bath when we reached our destination and got settled. The train ride, the steamboat and now this jarring coach had all left their trail of debris upon my person. I took a deep breath. Why had I decided this would be a better life for me? The journey was taking its toll I knew and the uncertainties abounded in my tired head. Right now, all I wished to do was lay my head back in my comfortable bed in my old bedroom in Chicago, whether or not Emeline occupied the same house as I, and sleep. This decision had been made too rapidly. How could I have listened to Rebecca tell me the tales of how she loved her new life and so quickly succumbed?
As we entered the gates of Fort Lincoln, I saw the sentry posts with their carbines wave us through and their curious smiles flash at seeing a well known captain's unknown lady friend. Mary and Lettie giggled in their excitement while the unknown cowboy kept his stoic facial features tight. Stiff after the jarring journey from the steamboat, I took my employers hand as he helped me out of the coach. Waving my good-byes to Mary and Lettie as Eileen led them away chattering nonstop from the officer's housing to their homes on the other end of the fort, I almost wished I could stay with my newly found friends. My employer took my valise in one hand and small carpetbag in another and led me to his home. I skipped to keep up with his long strides and noticed I was being observed by many a passing cavalryman's eyes. “A new woman in the fort”, the captain muttered to me and whomever was listening, “You're causing quite a stir.”
That evening after the long day's journey, a warm bath and a short nap before being served dinner with the family, I sat on the porch of the small house with my new friend, the captain's wife. I had been made welcome by her immediately, for as she explained to me happily, “It will be so nice to have some help around here. The children and I are so excited for your arrival.” We sat in two porch chairs, the dusty summer turf dried up before us. It was late July and there had been little rain. Holding two small fans, we kept the air stirring as we talked together. My new friend did not seem like an employer, she was so cordial. I was given an overview of the children, ages six and seven, and their needs, along with how I might help her run the household. Quietly I listened, nodding my head now and then, trying to remember all she was telling me about this new life I would lead. I had to admit I had relaxed some, now that I had met the captain's wife and children and became accustomed to the small house's layout. The captain's wife was called in by one of the children and she urged me to stay seated and enjoy the view as the sun was setting slowly in the western sky.
As I watched, soon I could not look away. The skyline was on fire as brilliant red streaks shot across the once blue sky. As the scene displayed its glory before me, I prayed this was a sign of a bright future here in this unfamiliar place. Hope swelled within my chest as my eyes continued to view the vast beauty before me. A confidence that I had made the right decision calmed me now and I took a deep breath. Fort Abraham Lincoln would now be my home. I was confident I had a shining new horizon before me.