“I have experienced the first real trial of my life. After a few days of suffering our little Hannah died of lung fever so we are left with one baby,” Keturah Belknap wrote in her diary in November 1843 of the death of her first child. But it would not be the last time she would endure similar pain. Three of her five children would die before reaching adulthood.
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Born in Ohio, Belknap had moved to Van Buren County, Iowa, with her husband, George, in 1839 when Iowa was still a territory. By the spring of 1848 the Belknaps were preparing to leave in a covered wagon for Oregon. As George practiced driving with their team of oxen, Keturah gathered together household supplies that would carry the family through the months on the trail and get them through their first months in their new home in Oregon. Their surviving child, three-year-old son Jesse, would make the trip too.
Keturah packed dishes, a medicine chest and four homemade linen sacks each filled with 125 pounds of flour. Another sack held 125 pounds of cornmeal. In smaller sacks she packed dried apples and peaches, beans, rice and coffee. Their precious feather tick bed was thrown on top of the supplies in the wagon, and her chair was secured on the floor.
“We will have to double cover so we can keep warm and dry,” Keturah wrote in her diary about preparations for the wagon. So she sewed two strong fabric covers, one muslin, the other heavy white linen.
Before setting out on their cross-country journey, Keturah made a trip back to Ohio to visit her parents, knowing she would probably never see them again. “I knew it would be my last visit,” she wrote. “It was hard for me to not break down.”
On April 10, 1848, the Belknaps started their new adventure, making their way to Missouri, where they would cross the Missouri River on April 26. As the Belknaps made their way west they joined with a party of travelers consisting of 22 wagons. There were other Iowans in the group: 17-year-old Richard Cheadle and his 20-year-old sister, Sarah, from Ottumwa and Aaron and Adaline Chamberlin, sister and brother-in-law of the Cheadle’s. The wagon train, known as the Watts party after one of the organizers, Joe Watts, established a set of laws governing the group. Officers were elected and roll call was held each morning.
The Belknaps reached their destination in late September or early October and settled on a section of land about 100 miles south of Oregon City eventually moving to Washington in 1879. Years later Keturah talked about those early days in their home near Spokane, “In those days none of us believed that Spokane would ever have more than 5,000 population.” When the Belknaps first moved there, Spokane had a population of 250; and there was one general store with mail delivered by Pony Express.
In 1910 newspapers across the country ran articles about Keturah, who was celebrating her 90th birthday. Because she was one of the earliest pioneers of Washington and possibly the only survivor of the Watts wagon train, people were honoring her. Waterloo’s Courier newspaper called her the “oldest pioneer woman in the northwest.”
Keturah was pregnant during her trek across the country. Her son, Lorenzo, was born in August near Fort Boise, Idaho. Both Lorenzo and Jesse grew to adulthood. Keturah died in 1913.
An entry in Keturah’s diary reveals a little about her personality. She quoted one of the other members of the wagon train who said, “Yes, George Belknap’s wife Keturah is a little woman but she wore the pants on that train.”
Keturah saw it as a compliment. “So I came into notoriety before I knew it,” Keturah wrote in her diary.
- “Iowa Woman Is Oldest Pioneer,” Waterloo Evening Courier,” Aug. 24, 1910.
- Jones, Mary Ellen. Daily Life on the Nineteenth Century American Frontier. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
- “Kitturah Penton Belknap’s Journal,” Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, WA.
- LaSalle, Michael. Emigrants on the Overland Trail: The Wagon Trains of 1848. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011.