I’m returning to the memoir written by Laura Denman Booth in her later years, that covered her early life in Ohio and then her married life and moves West starting in the mid-1850s. I was listening to a history podcast, on my commute a month or so ago, which was interviewing an author of a book about his present-day trip on the Oregon Trail. This discussion reminded me that I had not completed Laura Denman Booth’s memoir and that the last half or more of it was actually all about her family’s migration across the West in the early days.
To set the scene: Laura Denman married Joseph W. Booth on November 7 1854, presumably at her parents’ home. She noted that they were married by Professor Munrow with about 40 friends and relatives present. As she remembered at the end of Part I of her memories: “Our honey-moon was enjoyed in fitting up our cozy little home in Columbus, where we spent one year of happiness before entering upon our pioneer life” noting that the following chapters of her writing would give the reader some idea of what they faced and endured as they made their way “toward the setting sun.”. This is the part of Laura’s memoir that justifies her title of A Pioneer’s Story.
By the Fall of 1855 land fever had gripped many in Ohio (as well as many other places), and Joseph and Laura started looking into moving West. Although Joseph would have liked to go to Kansas, it was very unsettled and dangerous at that time, due to the struggles growing in the country to make slavery legal there. As Laura described it, “John Brown was stirring up the people on the subject on slavery and consequently great excitement prevailed, especially as the immigrants to the new territory came from both sections of the country, the North and the South.” Because of the pleadings of friends not to choose to go to Kansas, the young couple decided to investigate Iowa as an option. The northern and western parts of Iowa were still wilderness and it was “a mammoth undertaking to emigrate from Ohio to Iowa” given the possibilities for travel but they persisted and left on “a bright October day”.
Although Laura didn’t say explicitly in her memoir, it seems very likely that the first legs of their travels were by rail. She also didn’t say anything about what furnishings and possessions they took with them from Ohio. By 1855 the railroads had developed into a very usable form of transportation at least in the East and as far West as Chicago. The young couple said goodbye to his family members in Columbus and then visited some of hers “near Cleveland” (I assume it was her parents and some of her siblings) before leaving for Chicago. There they visited an old college friend of Laura’s briefly and then her aunt and uncle Townsend in Sycamore Illinois.
None of these people were named in the memoir but my research shows me that the aunt and uncle were Ann Denman Townsend and her husband Stephen Townsend. The Townsends who had migrated West from the Neversink, New York, “knew something of the pioneer life…having many years before made the journey by wagons…to the wilds of Illinois”. This family was now said to be “living in prosperity, surrounded by the comforts and luxuries of life. They were reaping the reward of their courage and foresight in coming to this new country when land was cheap and purchasing from the government.” By 1855 the Stephen Townsend owned more than 100 acres in DeKalb County, Illinois about 50 miles to the west of Chicago. I discovered 4 land patents for Stephen Townsend from between 1845 and 1850 on the Bureau of Land Management website.
It is with her aunt and uncle that we will leave Laura at this point. As she described, it was at the suggestion of these relatives that “my husband was induced to leave me to enjoy a more extended visit while he went to spy out the land and make such a location for a home as he thought suitable.”