Cover image for An ordinary woman : a dramatized biography of Nancy Kelsey
An ordinary woman : a dramatized biography of Nancy Kelsey
Holland, Cecelia, 1943-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Forge, 1999.
Physical Description:
223 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
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With her stunningly realistic and exhaustively researched novels, Cecelia Holland has earned unanimous acclaim as one of the finest historical novelists of our time. Her subjects range from the dawn of prehistory and the turbulent middle ages to the rough-and-tumble pioneer days of her own native California, chronicled in such sweeping epics as The Bear Flag, Pacific Street, and her most recent novel, Railroad Schemes. Now, in An Ordinary Woman, Holland gives us an intimate portrait of a remarkable woman who played a crucial role in the settlement of the West--Nancy Kelsey, the courageous young pioneer who was the first American woman to set foot in California. Drawing upon Nancy's own accounts of her harrowing journey, as well as the writings of those who traveled with her, Cecelia Holland has crafted a stunning biography of this amazing woman that is filled with all of the action, passion, danger, and determination that have made her historical novels bestsellers around the world. Married at the age of fifteen to Ben Kelsey, a restless young Scotch-Irish pioneer who eked out a meager living on the Missouri frontier, Nancy Roberts Kelsey was a strong and capable woman who could milk a cow, skin a deer, make hew own clothes, plant a field, drive a team of oxen, and shoot a rifle. The child pioneers, bred to courage and risk, she had grown up in the wilderness only a few miles from the great Missouri River that was, in 1838, the border of the settled United States. But when the lure of a new life on the farthest edge of the frontier beckoned to Ben Kelsey, Nancy was determined to be at his side. Together they embarked on an arduous odyssey across thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness, crossing the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the High Sierra to reach their promised land. Braving hunger, disaster, illness, betrayal, and death, Nancy Kelsey and her family would play a crucial role in American history, becoming the first wave of a great tide that would transform a nation.

Author Notes

Born in Henderson, Nevada, Cecelia Holland was educated at Pennsylvania State University and Connecticut College, where she received her B.A. degree. She has served as a visiting professor of English at Connecticut College since 1979.

Holland's historical novels have received broad critical acclaim. According to one critic, she "proves that there can be more to historical thrillers than swordplay and seduction." (Time) Among her novels is City of God (1979), which is set in Rome during the period of the Borgia family. Told from the point of view of Nicolas, a secretary to the Florentine ambassador to Rome, this novel brings to life the period of the Renaissance, including the political intrigue that characterized Rome at the time. Other works include Until the Sun Falls (1969), a story of the ancient Mongols and their empire, The Firedrake (1966), her first published novel, Great Maria (1974), The Bear Flag (1990), and Pacific Street (1991).

Holland is very adept at capturing the period she writes about, including the clothing, furnishings, and customs of the time. One critic has noted that Holland "is never guilty of the fatuity which plagues most historical fiction: she never nudges the reader into agreeing that folks way back then were really just like you and me, only they bathed less often."

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In 1838, at the age of 15, Nancy, the daughter of pioneers, marries farmer Ben Kelsey, who is 12 years her senior. Together they eke out a living on a small farm in Missouri. Three years later, Ben is filled with wanderlust after hearing about riches and open land in California, so he, his brothers, and their families organize a party of ambitious pioneers to make the journey even though they have no knowledge of the terrain. Luckily, they meet up with a group of missionaries traveling to Montana, who guide them along until Ben and company split off to head south, making Nancy the only woman to brave the uncharted trail through California's daunting desert and mountains. Later, she and Ben join the fight for statehood, prosper during the gold rush, and hit the trail again after Ben loses his money. A real trouper, Nancy sticks with her man through thick and thin, and Holland provides an interesting fictional account of a true story of pioneer life. --Patty Engelmann

Publisher's Weekly Review

Frontier adventure and the romance of roughing it are kept in check by the strong historical basis of Holland's fictionalized biography of Nancy Kelsey, the first American woman to reach California. Traveling by horse and on foot, 17-year-old Nancy leaves Missouri with a baby on her hip in search of California's holy grail. Part of the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson party, Nancy and her husband, Ben, decide against the meandering Santa Fe Trail in order to take a more direct‘and uncharted‘course directly across the continent: traversing the Great Plains, the Rockies, the desert and the Sierra Nevadas. Disastrous weather, hostile Indians, rough terrain and the constant threat of starvation test Nancy's resourcefulness and steadfast will. The party's eventual arrival in California heralds the end of the era of Mexican occupation and the beginning of U.S. proprietary interests in the area.The Mexican-Californian landholding nobles are increasingly threatened by the influx of American settlers, especially when the Gold Rush commences. Skirmishes evolve into a rebellion and the settlers rally under the original Bear Flag made from Nancy's petticoats, wresting power individually from each Mexican settlement and conquering California in July 1847 with the capture of Monterey. Prolific historical novelist Holland (The Bear Flag) uses Nancy's own letters as well as archival material to recreate the life of a pioneer woman who was a legend in her own time (she died in 1896). The thorough research lends authority to a vivid and engaging narrative that suffers only a little from Holland's evident fervent admiration for her heroine. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One On October 25, 1838, a girl of fifteen rode eagerly through the blazing Missouri autumn to her wedding.     She was a tall, pretty girl, with long dark hair and dark eyes and a wide, humorous mouth, her face shaped with the high cheekbones and strong jaw of her Scotch-Irish heritage. Her hands on the reins were strong and capable, and she rode astride. No pampered sheltered city flower, she had been working since her childhood. She could milk a cow, skin a deer, plant a field, drive a team of oxen, load and shoot a rifle. She had made the dress she was wearing. The child of pioneers, bred to courage and risk, she had grown up in the wilderness, only a few miles from the great Missouri River that was in 1838 the border of the settled United States. Her name was Nancy Roberts, and westering was in her blood.     In marrying so young, and marrying whom she did, she was choosing a westering life, one that would take her across the unmapped continent and change American history.     Her new husband was Ben Kelsey, twelve years her senior. One shoot of a sprawling family tree rooted in a Scotch-Irish immigrant who settled in Pennsylvania before the Revolutionary War, Ben was a big, bluff man with woolly red hair and piercing blue eyes. He was a hard worker, and a go-getter, too: he already had a farm of his own. He was sickly. Every once in a while a bout of something like malaria laid him flat on his back, but he was always up again in a little while, back to work, and back to dreaming.     Because Ben Kelsey had ambitions wider than a Missouri homestead. He simmered with plans for the future, all leading to riches and glory, and listening to him lit Nancy's imagination like a torch.     Ben was going places. Nancy was going with him. To a fifteen-year-old, there seemed no obstacle between heaven and earth that could stop them. Before Judge Applegate, the formidable Justice of the Peace of Rives County, she put her hands into Ben's and bound her life to his.     At first, the only place they went was back to Ben's farm, a clearing at the end of a long muddy pathway that was like a tunnel through the trees.     This was a familiar life to her. Nancy had grown up on a farm like this one, in a two-or three-room cabin made of trimmed logs, with a big stone hearth for cooking, a puncheon floor that had to be swept constantly to keep it clean, windows covered with oiled cloth, all the water hauled in from the spring. When she first moved in with Ben, winter was coming, and they probably spent their honeymoon getting ready for the cold time: chopping wood and chinking the cracks in the cabin walls and laying by supplies. Having just been married helped. As wedding presents their friends and families gave them hams and quilts, jugs of cider, honey, sourmash.     They had no trouble keeping warm. By spring, Nancy was pregnant with her first child.     In her few, scattered writings, Nancy mentions her own parents only once. When she married Ben, she became a Kelsey. His brothers lived within riding distance, and they did everything together--when one hollered, everybody came. Two of the brothers were married and had children, and there were Kelsey cousins all over Missouri. When they all got together, to build a fence, sew a quilt, plow a field, or celebrate Christmas, they made a loud, ebullient swarm--a comforting web of relations.     In the midst of this family Nancy ran her own household. She sewed her clothes and Ben's and, soon, their children's. She cooked their meals, planted a garden where she grew their vegetables and potatoes, tended chickens and milked the cow and cleaned house. Every year she would preserve as much food as she could for the winter months, when in spite of all, toward March and April, there was nothing left to eat but what Ben could shoot or trap.     In everything, she made do with what she had around her. Once in a while, in those first years of their marriage, they could have gone to Independence, the Jackson County seat, where stores sold staple supplies and some made-up goods, but everything was very expensive. Now and then a tinker would rattle down the lane in a clatter of pots and a cloud of gossip.     Nancy never had money to buy much. If she needed a tool she made one, or Ben did. She hoarded sugar and coffee in tins on her shelf; when she took the corn to be milled she watched to make sure the miller didn't cheat her of a few ounces of meal. She picked up windfallen apples, used and reused every scrap of fabric first as clothing and then as patching for clothing and finally as diapers and rags, she gathered herbs in the woods, as her mother had taught her, to doctor bellyaches and headaches. She had no remedies for Ben's occasional spells of the shakes, although she never gave up trying.     None of the Kelseys kept slaves, although they could have: Missouri was a slave state, according to the Compromise put together in 1820, and there were slaves on the bigger farms around them, and in rich households back in St. Louis. Slavery was a luxury in Missouri, and Ben's farm was too small to support more than the family that worked it.     Often, as the 1830s closed, it didn't even look capable of doing that.     This was from no lack of work. Ben had built the cabin himself, with his brothers' help; the Kelseys were great builders. Like all frontier people, like Nancy, they had a range of skills, from gunsmithing to distilling hard liquor, which they put to use as needed. Ben cleared some of his land to grow corn, and planted some fruit trees. Nancy tended the corn, too, those first two summers, while he went out hunting, his favorite way of life, roaming the wilderness.     That was another problem. The wilderness was disappearing. Missouri was filling up with settlers. Great stretches remained of the primordial forest that once had covered the country from the Appalachians to the great river, but Ben had seen all of it. He longed for new, untracked places. Because of his chronic health problems, a doctor had already advised him to go to the sea or to the mountains, but Ben didn't really need much of an excuse. He was footloose, a rambler, by nature; he had to keep moving.     But it must have seemed sometimes that the Kelseys were trapped.     By 1840, the burgeoning new American settlement had come up against the edge of the Great Plains. In its first westward surge, the young country had bitten off more than it could chew, and it was suffering hard for its greed. The tremendous speculation in land that began after the Revolutionary War with the Kentucky boom, which seeded the whole Ohio Valley with new people, had finally collapsed in 1837. The accompanying bank failures threw the whole young country into a downward economic spiral that by 1840 was a full-blown depression.     In their land hunger, the farmers and hunters of the settlements had far outstripped the economic systems of the young republic. Until new transport developed so that people on the frontier could sell their crops in the distant eastern cities, the backcountry was going to remain depressed and poor, in spite of the wealth of the land. Ben and Nancy Kelsey had their own farm, yes, but every day that farm was seeming less like home and more like a millstone tied to their necks.     Nor could the settlers escape by pushing out onto the broad Plains across the river. The government in Washington had given that land to the Indians for all time; it was forbidden, out of reach forever.     Of course the United States government's idea of forever was a little different than most people's.     Back before Nancy was born, Missouri had been admitted to the Union under the laws known collectively as the Missouri Compromise. What made this artful legal structure necessary was the perilous problem of slavery, and whether to allow the spread of slavery into states newly admitted to the United States. One of the terms of the Missouri Compromise allotted to Missouri a western border that was a straight line running due north and south through what is now Kansas City.     West of that north-south line was the Sauk and Fox Indian Reservation, for all time and forever.     In 1837, forever came to an end. With settlers clamoring for land, the government paid the Sauk and Fox seventy-five hundred dollars and some trade goods for the territory lying between the original north-south border of Missouri and the westward-trending Missouri River. This rough triangle of trees and bountiful meadows came to be known as the Platte Purchase.     The Platte Purchase was like the bell that tolls before the earth starts to quake. It signaled the growing instability of the situation on the frontier, and, indeed, of the whole United States. The Purchase breached the supposedly fixed and eternal western boundary, making further violations inevitable, and because the Platte Purchase became part of Missouri, the event extended slavery north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in violation of the Missouri Compromise.     Throughout the 1840s and 1850s Missouri was to be a continual hotbed for both these issues. Passions for and against slavery were already leading to scattered violence that would gradually become endemic, a low-grade civil war going on years before the official war broke out. And Missouri was the point of greatest pressure on the western boundary.     Throughout the 1830s that pressure was mounting. Immigrants were flooding into the country from Europe, aggravating the depressed economies of the eastern cities. As conditions east of the Appalachians worsened, people there were pulling up and heading west, in search of the fabled American second chance. But there was no room. Within only a few years, the whole Platte Purchase was filled up with homesteads. Still more people were looking west, hungry for new land and new lives.     The Kelseys among them. By the time Nancy bore their first child, in December of 1839, Ben was already planning to move on. While the sixteen-year-old mother and her infant daughter, Martha Ann, figured out together how to nurse, he was talking about selling out their farm here and going to Iowa, the Platte Purchase, or maybe Tennessee.     To Nancy, where hardly mattered. Wherever Ben went, she would go. She and Ann. She looked into the face of her tiny daughter, full of infinite, untested dreams.     Selling out here, however, was going to be something of a problem. On the whole frontier, times were bad and getting worse. The Panic of 1837 had closed banks and dried up the cash. Even if you had something to sell, like that old staple commodity, deer hides, there was nobody who could buy it. Jesse Applegate, whose sister Lucy was married to Ben's brother Sam, had loaded up a whole steamboat with lard and bacon, and gotten only a hundred dollars for it, and then it had all been burnt for fuel.     And the cost of those few things these farmers needed to buy--cloth, coffee, iron, gunpowder--was steadily climbing. When Ben and his brothers, big outspoken Sam, and the hot-tempered Andy, and Zed, got together in the Kelsey cabin to talk over the future, what they did mostly was gripe. Nancy didn't see they were getting anywhere at getting anywhere.     Then John Marsh's letter came.     The Kelseys may have met this young Harvard man, gifted liar and crank, when he worked as a sales clerk in a store in Independence, the frontier city and county seat, only a few miles from Ben and Nancy's farm. Raw, violent Independence, with its fringe of wharves along the Missouri, its blocks of warehouses on miry streets, was the gateway to the West. From Independence the beaver trappers set forth on their yearly treks to the Rockies. From Independence, too, caravans of wagons rumbled on down the Santa Fe Trail into northern Mexico, taking out trade goods and bringing back mules and fur.     John Marsh, clerking in a store, waiting every day on people with tales of gold and adventure to the west, one day took off along the Santa Fe Trail. Somewhere he began to hear about a fabulous country on the Pacific coast, where the dew was sweet as honey and the sun shone without cease. A place called California.     From Santa Fe he traveled down into Sonora and over to the great Mexican port of Guaymas, on the west coast. From Guaymas he took a schooner north to Monterey, California's only port of entry.     There, thousands of miles from anybody who could say otherwise, he announced he was a medical doctor. Since this made him the only physician in the entire territory it gave him a special cachet. He was a voracious reader, able to learn enough from books to practice, and he was good with words. He talked his way into a grant of land, up in the north of Mexican California near San Francisco Bay. There, he built a ranch, patched up broken legs, delivered babies, and wrote a series of letters back home to friends in Missouri.     California, he said, was wonderful. And empty. The land was fertile, the climate sublime, the Indians meek, and the local Mexican government utterly lax: paradise was there by the Pacific, just waiting for enterprising people to come grab it.     Marsh had even figured out a way to get there. The Santa Fe Trail was too hard and long and expensive for most people; going by sea was even longer and cost even more. Marsh had devised a more direct route. In his travels, he had picked up a lot of information about the territory lying between California and Missouri, and he thought it possible to come straight across the continent. In his letters, he presented this route with as much confidence as if he had actually traveled it himself. He proclaimed it direct and easy for wagons, with good pasturage and water all the way, a matter of a few months on the road, with Eden at the end of it.     Marsh sent his letters to several friends in Jackson County, Independence's hinterland, including local farmers like Billy Baldridge and John Bartleson, who knew everybody. Baldridge and Bartleson passed on the letters to the newspapers. Ben Kelsey could not read, but Nancy could, and when she read him the letters out of the newspaper Ben made up his mind where it was they were going.     The long discussions around the Kelseys' front room began to boil with excitement, and every other word was California. Soon Ben had his brothers talked into it too.     They weren't the only ones. A sort of California fever was sweeping through Missouri. All across Jackson County, people were signing on. Marsh's correspondents, Baldridge and Bartleson, were among the first, but in the spring of 1840 dozens of other men pledged to join them. Many intended to take their wives and children. Of course, they had missed the best time for leaving this year, but they all vowed that come hell or high water they would set off next year for California.     The movement got another boost when the dashing Antoine Robidoux turned up in the Platte Purchase, just north of Independence on the river.     Robidoux, the brother of Joseph Robidoux who founded St. Joseph, Missouri, was a fur man. In the late 1820s he had operated a trading post in the Uinta Mountains in Colorado, and from there had traveled down to Santa Fe. From Santa Fe he made his way through Arizona to California, where he spent some time in Monterey.     Back in Missouri, he talked so much and so loud about the wonders of far-off California that some of his listeners organized a meeting in the little settlement of Weston, up the Missouri from Independence, so that Robidoux could tell them all again.     Robidoux laid it on thick. He talked about the oranges and the sunshine, the countless wild horses and cattle, the fabled hospitality of the Californios, the docility of the Indians. The flavor of his discourse can be inferred from his answer to a question about fevers and agues, a primary concern of the Missouri settler.     "He said there was but one man in California that had ever had a chill there, and it was a matter of so much wonderment to the people of Monterey that they went eighteen miles into the country to see him shake." So wrote young John Bidwell, Platte pioneer, who took to Robidoux's words with enthusiasm.     Only twenty, Bidwell had already demonstrated both unusual resourcefulness and the fiddlefooted wanderlust that characterized so many young men of the time and place. Born in New York State, he had tried to homestead, taught school to make ends meet, and eventually become the school's principal. When he encountered Robidoux, he had just lost his stake in the Platte to a claim-jumper, mostly because he was not yet twenty-one and hence not of legal age. He needed somewhere to go and California sounded perfect to him. With a few friends, he formed the Western Emigration Society. Within a month they had five hundred names pledged.     Back in Jackson County, Ben was trying to sell the Kelseys' farm. Nancy started packing. She was pregnant again, and with some apprehension she tried to judge when the baby would be born: sometime in the winter, she hoped, and not later. In the spring, the emigrants were to gather at Sapling Grove, just west of the Missouri. It would be a lot easier to bear her baby here, at home, than it would be on the trail.     The days spun by in a clatter of excitement. Everybody around her, Ben's brother Sam and his wife and their children, Ben's other brothers, everyone, it seemed, in Jackson County--was getting ready to travel west. No one talked about anything but California. A great current of mob feeling was carrying them all along as if on a magic carpet.     The trouble was that no one had much idea where they were going.     Marsh's instructions, based entirely on hearsay, myth, and wishful thinking, were for crossing the Rockies at South Pass, finding the Great Salt Lake, and heading west, and, incidentally, looking around along the way for somebody to guide them over the Sierra. No one had any more idea of their course than that. No one had ever gone that way before.     There were some maps. Up in Platte County, John Bidwell was boarding with a man who had a map of the West which showed Salt Lake as larger than the Mississippi River, drained by several rivers flowing away out of it to the Pacific Ocean. On the basis of this map Bidwell packed the tools to make boats into his wagonload of supplies. He and another man were going as partners; Bidwell was supplying the wagon, and the other man the mules to draw it.     That winter, Bidwell traveled down to Independence a couple of times to talk up the Western Emigration Society. Maybe he was at the great noisy ebullient meeting on February 1, 1841, in Independence, where Marsh's friends in Jackson County organized themselves into a company for the purpose of emigrating to California. Of fifty-eight people who committed themselves then and there, nineteen announced that they would bring their families. One of these was Benjamin Kelsey.     Nancy was not there. Nancy was at home having her second baby.     She missed quite a gathering. Ben certainly told her about it, once he got back home. Independence was the jumping off place for all treks westward, and people were seasoned at the rituals and necessities of departure even if they never left the safety of the riverbank. Figuring there had to be onlookers and homebodies besides the enthusiastic fifty-eight, the crowd was considerable. The gathering must have had some of the hoopla and heady excitement of a camp meeting or a political convention, with glorious speeches and shouts from the audience, and a general atmosphere of anything goes.     The group voted on and accepted a number of resolutions. High-minded and noble souls that they were, they resolved to go in peace. They resolved to meet at Sapling Grove, beyond the Missouri in Kansas, on May 10, and to elect officers then, "as other companies are expected to join them." They resolved that everybody should make his own preparations, bringing enough to eat to last "till they reach the Buffalo region at least," and that nobody should bring liquor, "except for medicinal purposes."     Somebody presented them with a cannon, which (perhaps forgetful of the peace resolution) they resolved to accept, and solemnly arranged to have properly equipped (i.e., installed on trucks) and supplied with ammunition. This cannon was never mentioned again.     They resolved to follow Marsh's route, which led by Great Salt Lake. This was critical. Sapling Grove lay on the Santa Fe Road, and there was a route already established to California along that road, one of the most brutal overland routes on the continent. Torturous, circuitous, ruinously expensive, it was beyond the means of the ordinary pioneer. These would-be settlers declared themselves ready to strike directly west across the continent, the shortest, hence the fastest and cheapest route possible.     So, all resolved and ready, the group broke up and went home. Ben took back word of everything that had happened to Nancy, but for a while she paid little attention. Only a few days after the meeting in Independence, on the Kelsey farm, she bore her second child, a boy, whom they named Samuel.     At the age of eight days, the little boy died.     Nancy was only seventeen, all her feelings still pure with youth: the loss must have seemed deep and cold as a well. The baby's death probably shook her confidence, too; like all mothers, she thought herself somehow to blame. She rose up from the grief of this childbed into the California adventure. There was this other work to do. She had a new start ahead of her. Planning and preparing filled up her hands and the days and distracted her from the death. The trip was another kind of commitment to replace the one to the baby that wasn't there.     She still had little Ann, too--Martha Ann was her full name; she was a year old, a hardy baby already beginning to do things for herself. Sometimes Nancy picked her up, just to hold her, and sang to her, the old songs that had come down with her mother and grandmother from the distant unknown homeland, songs with an undertone of sorrow. Arkansaw Traveller, Polly Von. Beneath the young mother's apron there was an emptiness big as the world, that only she knew about.     But they were going to California--to California!     She must have daydreamed about what their life would be like there. She knew nothing but Missouri: in spite of what she had heard, her imaginings would have been of green hills and woods and small farms, blazing hot summers and icy winters. As she folded clothes into the chests that would go on the wagons, took down the sides of bacon out of the smokehouse, and looked for a good dutch oven, she thought of a life like the one she already had, in a place like where she already was.     She would have familiar faces all around her, on the trip. Of Ben's brothers who were going, Zed was still a bachelor. His younger brother Andy's wife had just recently died. But Sam had a wife, Lucretia, whom everybody called Lucy, and three children. Lucy's widowed sister Mrs. Grey was going too, with her child. There would be other women, then, to share the constant grind of work, to help with children, gossip, confide in.     Lucy Kelsey was a woman of parts, too. Her uncle was Judge Applegate, and she herself was forceful and opinionated. She had taken charge of Andy's two young children since their mother died. Nancy must have known she could rely on her. In late winter, while she and the others were busy finding their necessaries and packing, it must often have seemed as if this would all be just like moving over the hill, not such a big thing after all.     Yet every so often, especially when Ben was selling the farm, Nancy would know what she was leaving behind. She would realize that she had no idea where she would be in three months, or six, or a year. Then maybe she gathered up little Ann and held the baby in her arms, her heart racing, half with alarm, half with a thunderous excitement.     The baby would struggle to get down. To Ann, nothing was important except that moment, and what she was doing right then, playing with a feather from one of the chickens Ben had just given away.     Then in March of 1841, six weeks before the rendezvous in Sapling Grove, the bubble burst.     Another letter about California appeared in the local newspapers. This one, from a lawyer named Thomas Farnham whose travels (for his health) had taken him to Monterey, was first printed in a New York newspaper. It reported in shocking and outraged detail the hostility of the Mexican government in California to foreigners and the harsh treatment dealt out to Americans there. Farnham's description of the country itself flatly contradicted the rosy images of Robidoux and Marsh. Farnham said that California was a worthless wasteland, and he advised people to stay out.     The merchants of Platte County, home of the Western Emigration Society, had already noted with alarm the prospect of losing most of their local customers in a single exodus. They happily published Farnham's letter in the Independence newspaper and spread the bad news far and wide. People de-pledged in droves from the Western Emigration Society. In Jackson County, one of the major leaders of the whole project, Billy Baldridge, whose letter from Marsh had started it all, dropped out, along with most of the enthusiastic fifty-eight.     This news jolted the Kelseys also. Probably they got together and talked the whole thing over, one more time at least. But Ben Kelsey was unswayable, not to say bull-headed. Once he made his mind up about something, he did not change, and his brothers supported him. They were used to the hard, dangerous life of the frontier. Ben especially was seasoned at finding his way in wild country. They all knew that rich virgin land would ask a price of work and trouble. They believed they could pay that price.     While the men talked, the women were working, stowing away goods in the wagons.     These were not the huge Conestogas of later times and the movies, but ordinary farm wagons, with wooden beds about ten feet long by four feet wide, sloping sides, and a canvas cover that could be drawn closed in the back against the rain. The wheels, made of ash and tired in iron rims, were smaller in front than the back wheels, which made the wagons more maneuverable. The front wheels were rigged on a center kingpin, so that they could swivel back and forth to get around corners more easily. Nonetheless they were prone to tip on corners.     On board Nancy had to load one hundred pounds of flour for each of the people she was packing for, "with sugar and so forth to suit"; that meant lard, coffee, bacon, beans, potatoes. Besides herself and Ben and baby Ann, she stowed supplies for his brother Andy, who was to handle the second of their two wagons. Ben and Andy were good hunters and the whole company planned to lay in a supply of buffalo meat, once they reached the high plains.     They could not take along a cow. This must have bothered Nancy; Ann needed milk. Nor could they take the chickens whose eggs were so useful and good. Ben had told her that the chickens, like his hunting dogs, would last only a few days on a long trek; they'd fall behind and get lost, or a wolf would pick them off.     Nancy packed up her collection of herbs, carefully gathered and dried, pennyroyal and willow and coneflower, old wives' remedies for coughs and bruises, fever and thin blood and diarrhea. She found a stout box for her scissors and her precious stock of needles, thread, and buttons.     Their two wagons were drawn by oxen. She and Ben would ride their horses. Nancy had her favorite horse, "a fine racing animal," as she described it proudly later. They would herd some extra stock along, as well, a few head of oxen and horses. Nancy folded the quilts from their bed and put them into the wagon; she gathered Ann's diapers up. The wagons had seemed large at first but as she loaded them she realized how small they were--how little she was able to take with her.     And now, suddenly, somehow unexpectedly, they were going.     What did she leave behind? The framework of her life. Her old bed, the bed where her babies had been born. The table where she had served her husband's meals. The fireplace, each stone different, like a familiar face. Other things, ordinary, irreplaceable. She saw them with new eyes now, those things she had taken for granted, and which soon she would never see again. Suddenly they must have seemed beyond price to her: the view out her cabin door, and the creek where she cooled her feet in the heat of the summer; her garden, which she should have been hoeing up even now, getting ready to plant. Only last fall she had been thinking what to plant this spring, and now the whole thing was a tangle of weeds: she would never see it bloom again.     There were the apple trees, whose crop she had made into the jugs of cider she was taking along. Her husband's old hunting dogs, lying in the dusty sunlight of the yard. The patch at the back fence, under the tree, where beneath a little marker her firstborn son lay.     And thinking that, her resolve hardened; if this farm was a good place, yet it wasn't the best place; if this was all she knew, yet there was much more to know than this. One morning in the fine Missouri spring she turned her back on everything and with the wagons behind her, and Ben beside her, took the road to Sapling Grove. Copyright © 1999 Cecelia Holland. All rights reserved.