Pioneer Sarah Jane Rousseau’s diary offers details of cross-country trip to San Bernardino – San Bernardino Sun

Editor’s note: Part one of a two-part series.

Of the hundreds of first-hand accounts by pioneers traveling west during the 19th Century, one of the most eloquent is a diary written by Sarah Jane Rousseau, a woman traveling by wagon train from Iowa to the San Bernardino Valley.

Sarah Jane wrote diligently each day for seven long months, describing tales of adventure, hardship, courage and sometimes boredom.

Born in 1815 into a well-to-do English family, Sarah Jane Daglish was “home schooled” by accomplished tutors. The classical composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven, for example, had mentored her music instructor.

Upon arrival in America, Sarah Jane lived in Michigan. There she met her future husband, a promising young physician named James A. Rousseau.

As newlyweds, the couple moved to Kentucky in 1839 before settling in Knoxville, Iowa, where they raised four children.

From Iowa, the Rousseaus and three neighbor families — the Earps, the Curtises and the Hamiltons — decided to move west.

Suffering from a debilitating case of rheumatism, Sarah Jane was eager to escape the bitter cold Iowa winters. Perhaps she could find relief when she reached her new home.

On May 12, 1864, when the four families embarked on their trek to Southern California, they rendezvoused out of Pella, Iowa, where wagon master Nicholas Earp and his family lived.

According to Jesse Curtis, grandson of one of the party, the train started with 30 people. Three children were born to the other families during the trek — Charles Hayes, a son to Mr. and Mrs. Tom Hayes; a son to Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton; and Jenny, a daughter the Rev. and Mrs. Israel Curtis.

The journey started along the Oregon Trail, following the Platte River across the plains and through the rugged Rocky Mountains. The caravan then headed southward along the Old Spanish Trail through and across the Mojave Desert before reaching San Bernardino.

Sarah Jane Rousseau was nearing age 50. Virtually unable to walk now because her arthritis, she began her journal of the group’s experiences. Each entry was detailed with descriptions of their day-to-day lives.

After spending the first couple nights in the Rousseau’s former hometown of Knoxville, Iowa, the travelers expressed their euphoria as they prepared to cross country new to most of them. Early in her diary, Rousseau wrote:

“Monday, May 16th: Got up and prepared breakfast. After eating all confusion getting ready to start. I can’t describe the appearance of all things as they really are. But the weather is indeed beautiful. All nature seems smiling. The birds singing their lively song of praise unto Most High God We started and went through Sandyville, then as far as the lower River, about ten miles from Pleasantville. So here we camped for the night. Just done eating supper and getting ready for bed. The girls are talking of fishing some tonight. Elizabeth and Mattie have been riding horseback most of the day. John has been riding his mare most of the time and Albert most of his.”

Elizabeth, John and Albert were the writer’s children. This author does not know Mattie’s identification.

“Tuesday, May 17th: We did not get off this morning as I thought we should. We were detained on account of Jesse Curtis’s cow running off. I hope he will be here tonight. Jesse has come. Could not find his cow and now one of his horses has run off. Tom has started after her. He had to go to the other side of Pleasantville about one mile before he got her. Some man saw her and put her in a stable.”

Sarah Jane noted in her diary that after they made their first night’s camp, seven more wagons straggled in late. By the time the wagon train reached California, there would be about a dozen wagons total. Sarah Jane noted that when the caravan reached Council Bluffs, they’d made 163 miles, an average of about 12 miles a day.

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