September 20, 1982 12:00 PM

by Lillian Schlissel

Schlissel, who teaches American studies at Brooklyn College, has collected and beautifully edited the diaries and reminiscences of 103 women who traveled with their husbands and children on the Overland Trail westward to Oregon and California. About 250,000 people followed the trail from 1840 to 1870, starting from jumping-off points all along the Missouri River. From there they trekked, by wagon, 2,000 miles west, battling hostile terrain, disease, heat, Indians, drought and grinding tedium. Schlissel points out how women reacted differently from men. They were quicker, for instance, to recognize the kindness of Indians, whereas men were distrustful and withdrew. Some women were reluctant pioneers, too, though Luzena Stanley Wilson writes of setting up a hotel in Nevada City, Calif.: “…with my own hands I chopped stakes, drove them into the ground and set up my table…and when my husband came back at night he found…20 miners eating at my table.” In most cases, the women coped with their discomforts quietly, with a kind of energy and courage that seem awesome today. Amelia Stewart Knight writes uncomplainingly and with good humor of a harrowing five-month trip from Iowa to Oregon Territory. Only in her last entry—”This is the journey’s end”—does she mention she was pregnant the whole trip with her eighth child, who was born in Oregon shortly after the family’s arrival. (Schocken, $16.95)

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