Sarah Jane Rousseau
Nicholas R. Cataldo (1999)
Sarah Jane Rousseau
There were many diaries kept by pioneer women trekking West with their families. One such was written by a woman traveling by wagon train from Iowa to Southern California's San Bernardino Valley, a seven-month journey took her through rugged mountains and across barren plains and deserts.
Born into a well-to-do English family in 1816, Sarah Jane Daglish blossomed into a highly educated woman. She was home schooled by accomplished tutors. In fact, one was a music instructor who had been mentored by a fairly descent classical composer by the name of Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Upon arrival in America, Sarah Jane lived for a while in Michigan. There she met her future husband, a promising young physician named James A. Rousseau.
As newly weds, the couple moved on to Kentucky in 1839 before finally settling down in Knoxville, Iowa, where they raised four children.
From Iowa the Rousseaus and three neighboring families---the Earps, the Curtis'es, and the Hamiltons,---moved out west.
Suffering from a debilitating case of rheumatism, Sarah Jane was eager to escape from the bitter cold Iowa winters. Perhaps she could find relief from her crippling disease at her new home.
On May 12, 1864 the four families embarked by wagon train for southern California, rendezvousing at the nearby town of Pella, where wagon master, Nicholas Earp and his family lived. Sarah Jane Rousseau, virtually unable to walk by this time, began her wonderful journal of the group's experiences which eventually took them to the town of San Bernardino. Her diary was detailed with descriptions of the caravans' day-to-day life.
After spending the first couple nights at the Rousseau's old home town of Knoxville, the travelers expressed their euphoria early on.
The "Rousseau Diary" tells us:
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. Mattie seems to have been accompanying the family on the trip.
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.
Later during the journey men encountered along the trail were not always so apt to be honest and obliging.
She noted when the caravan reached Council Bluffs they'd made 163 miles, an average of about twelve miles a day. Pretty tolerable speed considering the condition of roads back then.
The party's first major mishap occurred as they crossed the Missouri River when little Allen Curtis fell from a mule wagon which ran over him. Fortunately, the lad survived.
Sarah Jane wrote lyrically about almost everything between throughout the trip: rivers, birds, grass, thunderstorms, wind, distances traveled, Indians, members of the party being sick, etc.
Her diary mentions that on June 6th the group met up with a Pawnee Indian who wanted soap and matches. The next day, they encountered quicksand for the first time. And before long, they began to encounter a number of graves---so often commented on by every plains traveler.
While the wagon train was cautiously working through Lakota Indian country, Sarah Jane mentioned using buffalo chips for fuel for the first time. By then she also had reported a murdered body discovered by Nick Earp, a drowning, and an eighteen year old boy killed during a horse stampede.
The balance of the trip was frequently a nasty ordeal. Lack of discipline between the families often led to a frequent bickering and little cooperation.
Mrs. Rousseau's comments also shed some light on the abrasive personality of wagon master, Nick Earp, throughout the trip.
While resting at Fort Laramie on July 7th and 8th, she commented that "we have to keep close watch day and night over the stock. Mr. Earp went out to see about the guards (military guards) and found they had got up a dance. And he told them they must quit their dancing and be on duty. One of the soldiers told him to mind his own business and ordered him off. It made him awful mad and he was for killing. He used very profane language; he could hardly be appeased. But he cooled down after awhile and all was quiet."
As the long and exhausting wagon trip met up with the dead heat of summer, dissension within the traveling party reached new heights. Of course, Nick Earp's cantankerous demeanor didn't help.
Prior to stopping at Fort Bridger, the Rousseau Diary for July 30 reported that "... Earp got angry with the whole train because they passed him, he took it as an insult, talked pretty hard to all, some thought he had taken a little too much liquor. He used very profane language and told the whole train that he would give up his Captaincy unless they would adhere to the rules he gave. After being detained an hour or more very unpleasantly we rolled on..."
In another entry, written near Las Vegas on November 10, 1864, she remarked:
We fed five (Indians) among us. All were willing to do so but Mr. Earp. he swears and cuts up about it, although he derives the same benefit as the rest of us.
Again on November 24th, she commented:
This evening Mr. Earp had another rippet with Warren (The youngest Earp son) fighting with Jimmy Hatten. And then he commenced about all the children. Used very profane language and swore if the children's parents did not correct their children he would whip every last one of them. He still shows out more and more every day what kind of man he is.
Sarah Jane happily noted in her diary upon reaching hot dry weather while traveling further west, that she was finally feeling better. In fact, the pioneer woman was now able to walk without the help of a chair which she had been forced to do while enduring cold weather.
On Saturday, December 17, 1864, her final entry read:
A very cold freezing morning. The ground covered with snow. Started up from camp about an hour before day, got to the top of the Sierra Nevada Mountains by daylight. From the foot of the mountain to the top of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (Cajon Pass). Then we went down a very steep hill, it is down hill all the way to San Bernardino. We are now at Martin's ranch (near Glen Helen Park in Devore), the appearance of the country is quite different from what it has been for some time back. Everything has a green lively look. The grass growing nicely, it looks like spring instead of the middle of winter. Got into San Bernardino about sun down. I don't know yet if we'll remain here or not. I haven't seen the town yet. Don't know how it looks. I wish to get settled down.
Indeed, the Rousseaus did settle down in San Bernardino. In fact several members of the wagon caravan from Iowa became celebrated in the early history of San Bernardino County.
Israel Curtis founded the first Baptist Church in San Bernardino. And both his grandson and great grandson became prominent attorneys and federal judges in the area.
In addition to his work as a physician, James Rousseau established a successful career as a surveyor and served as County Superintendent of Schools during the late 1870's.
Perhaps the most dramatic pioneer exploits of all, however, belong to Sarah Jane Rousseau, who became a well known piano teacher in San Bernardino and gave lessons until her passing on February 20, 1872, at the age of 56. Although Sarah Jane has been gone for well over a century, her wonderful diary lives on. In fact, the San Bernardino County Museum Association included a portion of her journal---from Salt Lake to San Bernardino---in one of its quarterly publications back in 1958.
1. Molony, Richard, Oral Interview, 1998.
2. Rousseau, Sarah Jane, Rousseau Diary, 1864.
3. Smith, Dr. Gerald A., San Bernardino County Museum Association Quarterly, Vol. VI, Winter, 1958.
4. San Bernardino Guardian (newspaper), May 23, 1868, p. 2, col. 1.
5. San Bernardino Guardian, (newspaper), February 24, 1872.