The west was and is a place that brings a sort of longing for the good old days to your heart. People that came and settled the west in the homesteading days, possibly came because of that longing, but paid for it with much suffering and tears.
Suffering is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about the old days. What I picture in my mind when I think about the homesteading years is a little cabin with a sod roof and log walls, green prairie grass rolling in the gentle wind, and cowboys pushing cattle up into the draws and coolies that lie at the base of great, timbered mountains.
The real life in the west was not always so picturesque. It was filled with all of the beauty described above, but it was seldom that one had the time to truly admire it for very long. In truth, the grass in the west is only green for such a short time in the spring that one hardly remembers that it was green. Most of the time the hard prairie grass, which rarely grows taller than 6 or 8 inches in height, is burnt brown from the sun and lack of moisture. The wind does blow in the west, almost every day, but gentle is not usually how it is described. It is harsh and fast many times reaching from 50 to 80 miles per hour on a regular basis. The air is very dry, and the wind, blowing this dry air over the ground, sucks what little moisture there is right out of it. Many times this gives the ground and the air a parched feel to it.
None of the above hardships take anything away from the absolute majestic beauty of the western states and the Rocky Mountains. There is truly nothing else like them. When you weigh the hardships of life in the west with what you gain from it, it comes down to whether or not you were cut out for that life or not. Many were, or thought they were and they paid a price for it in their lives and the lives of their children that they could never have forseen. Was it worth it? That depends on just how great that price was, I suppose.
Just in my family coming out to the west and settling down, there are many stories of perseverence, death and struggle. I wish I could say that there were many stories of prosperity and happiness in my family tree too, but it does not seem to be the case. Those that were happy, simply chose to be happy in spite of the circumstances around them.
In the picture at the top of this page you see a family of people who indeed struggled with life in the west most of their lives. There were 14 children in the family and with the youngest being still an infant, both of the parents died suddenly. Back then in Gillette, Wyoming, where they lived, there was not much for prospects. They had been very poor farmers already and lost the farm at some point after the parents died.
All the children had to split up. Anyone over 14 went out on their own and made a living any way they could. Any children over the age of 18 took one or two of the younger ones as their responsibility and raised them along with making a living for themselves and their families. One of them, Ashton Whistler, was right at 14, so he was on his own from that day on. He made money where he could, breaking horses, raising pigs and chickens and keeping enough in the garden to feed himself and his wife, Mildred when he got married at a very young age.
Ton, as they called him, never had any more than just enough to get by, which to us in todays world would be mighty little. His family was hungry sometimes, but if he heard of a family that needed food or clothes or anything he was the first on there to give of what he had, down to the last potato.
They had children, several boys and girls. One of the girls, they named Sally, and when she was four years old, she went down to the irrigation canal with an older brother and sister to cool off in the summer.
The older boy and girl were wading while little Sally watched them as she couldn’t swim. She remembers seeing the boy suddenly slip and disappear into the muddy water, then his hand appeared above the surface and the older girl who had been wading next to him grabbed the hand and tried to pull him out. In an instant she was gone too and all Sally could see was muddy water, churning in a big circle in the canal. She waited for a long time before she decided to go back to the house, which was about a half mile away across open fields. She said that the walk seemed to be miles as she toddled along on her little four year old legs, crying. They never found her brother or her sister.
Sally never learned to swim and was deathly afraid of water her whole life. She married a farmer and moved to Northern Montana until she succumbed to Ovarian cancer at the age of 50. She was one of the sweetest women that I ever knew.
Was life in the west worth it to that family, I don’t know, but I am here because of it and I can’t say I have yet seen anything that pulls my heart strings like the west does.
Men and Women endured much that we don’t understand out here. I want to thank them for giving me the life that I have, because little Sally was my Grandma.