Wagon trains west: Marjorie Thelen’s Wings of the Dawn, a novel of mixed-race women on a journey to California
Nicole Duval is a high-class lady with a past. She is octaroon — a woman of one eighth negro blood — in New Orleans of 1853. She gains her freedom from slavery, sells out, and heads west to escape her past and the threat of being re-enslaved. In Independence, Missouri she meets up with her cousin Magdalena. Together they outfit wagons, engage drivers, and start the two-thousand-mile journey to California, admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850. Both cousins try to pass for white. They are helped by a few enterprising gentlemen, fellow members of their wagon train, and Indians. They are hindered by storms, dust, desert, mountains, slave hunters, disease, and Indians. The people and the relationships they form along the way transform their lives, and they are propelled on their journey by the wings of the dawn.
How did you research this novel?
I read a lot of histories and diaries over a wide range of subjects. I researched maps and fliers about the trail. I watched documentaries. I visited the Oregon Trail Museum in Baker City, Oregon. I visited the End of the Trail Museum in Oregon City, Oregon. The book originally was to be about the Oregon Trail. But as the plot developed, the characters, being mixed race and Black wouldn’t have gone to Oregon because of the Lash Laws, which said if you were Negro and lived more than six months in Oregon Territory, you’d be lashed severely. Because this story takes place in 1853, the characters went to California since the state was admitted to the union in 1850 as a free state. Every year of the “Great Migration” from 1840 to 1860 was different and had distinct problems. Imagine going on a 2,000 journey that had few signposts and the so-called guidebooks were not reliable. One depended on a good guide and stories from the people who had been over the trail.
Where did you go to find out about flora, fauna, survival techniques, logistics of wagon travel, the language people used in those days, how to fix things, treat wounds, avoid dysentery, etc.?
The premier book on the over land journey is The Plains Across — The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West 1840–60 by John D. Unruh, Jr. I have an extensive list of references I used in the back of Wings of the Dawn for those interested. Unruh covers public opinion, motivations and beginning, emigrant-Indian interaction, the role of private entrepreneurs, and more. He pointed out that disease and accidents killed more emigrants than Indians. Cholera was the big killer. Names of diseases then were not necessarily specific to the illness. Fever was often used for what ailed someone. William Loren Katz wrote wonderful young adult books on Black history like Black Women of the Old West, which was excellent. I read the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh to get a sense of life in the US in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. I also read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, an excellent history, because she extensively covered life in the US in the 1840s and 1850s, the era leading up to the 1860 election. For language I used English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh to get a sense of what words were used in the 1850s. I avoided using dialect. It does not lend authenticity, and it is difficult to read. I also used Everyday Life in the 1800s — A Guide for Writers, Students and Historians. The local librarian helped me with guns that were used in 1853 on the overland trail, and she also found a book on William Tecumseh Sherman who was a banker in San Francisco in the early 1850s. That book had a lot of early California history. Sherman has a cameo appearance at the end of Wings of the Dawn as a banker. I did a lot of research for this book. I lived in 1853 for 18 months during the COVID pandemic of 2020/21.
How many Black people took the journey west, and what was it like for them?
There are no records for total Black overlanders taking the trip. Good records were not kept in those days. There are estimates by year for total people traveling the Oregon and California trails. As with most African American history, records are scarce, and events were even suppressed. White people weren’t interested in preserving black history. Look at the Tulsa Massacre. Whites suppressed that horrible massacre even happened until recently. Finally, in 2021 the details are coming out because some of the last survivors have testified before Congress. In Wings of the Dawn, I tried to show how Blacks may have travelled the California trail. I wrote historical fiction based on the few accounts of Blacks who travelled the trail.
Was it a chance for freedom, or more dangerous than for white people, or both?
For some Blacks it was a chance for freedom. Whites took their slaves across the trail as I showed in the story. Blacks often stayed enslaved no matter where they ended up. Biddy Mason, the real life character who I used as inspiration for Aunt Biddy in the story, was enslaved by a Mormon family. They took her to California where it turned out she was a free woman because California came into the union as a free state in 1850. But Biddy had to sue in court for her freedom, and she won. It was dangerous for Blacks, free or enslaved, to live anywhere in the United States and territories in that era and even now in some places.
Why did you choose to write about women characters?
All eleven of my novels have women as the heroine/protagonist/main characters. I write about women because that’s what I know. There are too many novels about men and not enough novels about BIPOC groups. I became interested in the lives of women in this era that started when I wrote the prequel book, Wings of the Wind. Imagine you’re a woman in 1853 living in the Ohio Valley. You have a nice wood frame house, modestly furnished. You have five kids, and a group of women friends from other farms in the area. There’s a small town two miles away. You go to church every Sunday and see the same people. You like your life. Your husband comes home one day from the fields and says he’s been talking to a neighbor man who says he’s going west to Oregon territory. That there’s rich farmland for the taking. Some of the neighbors are going to form a wagon train to go. Your husband thinks they should go, too. What would you do? You follow your husband on a trip in a four by ten farm wagon with a piece of canvas stretched over the top that carries all you hope you need to start a new life two thousand miles away. You have few options. Your freedom is determined by your husband. As a woman you get married and have kids. That is your life. That is your only option in those days with a few notable exceptions. The notable exceptions inspired the two main female characters in the book. Would you, a woman of 1853 dependent on your husband for everything, go with him? You bet. You finally leave, sad to part with all you’ve known. You’re probably pregnant or get pregnant on the trail. You got kids and a husband to feed every meal, prepared over a campfire. You may give birth on the trail. If you’re lucky there’s a mid-wife. Sanitation and germ theory are unknown. Water is often scare for simple hand washing or bathing. The diaries of women who went overland barely mention the hardships of being a woman. What do you about going to the bathroom or having your period? No mention of this in any of the diaries. Yes, you would go with your husband because you have no other choice, because you don’t have a means of making a living. You don’t want to become a spinster or be shunned by your relatives and community.
What was the experience of women traveling west alone at that time?
I don’t know. I tried to show in Wings of the Dawn what may have happened to two women “travelling alone”. Most all the overlanders travelled as families. If the husband or father died, the wife had to make the choice to continue or turn back. Records weren’t kept in those days about women. It was all about men. There are few diaries available written by women.
How did Native Americans interact with the pioneers? I’m sure it depended on the time and the tribe and the place.
I tried to show in the book several instances how indigenous and overlanders may have interacted. There are historical accounts in Unruh’s book. I recommend An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
How do you take a time period when blatant injustice (slavery, murders of Native people, etc) was just commonly accepted and write fiction with realistic characters without imposing a modern critique of characters’ behavior?
They didn’t see the world as we see it now. Our injustice was not theirs, which comes out in the story. I tried not to judge their world from my seat in the future but wrote based on real events in 1853. I did a lot of research for this book. We as a nation do not understand our real history. It is horrific how this nation was built on enslaving people for economic gain for the benefit of a few. White rangers and settlers destroyed indigenous farms, villages, people, and their way of life. It was colonial policy from Massachusetts to Georgia starting in the 1600s to put a bounty on the heads of Indigenous men, women, children, old people. The bounty was collected when the settler brought a scalp to the ruling powers. That policy continued for the next three hundred years and was very effective in destroying Indigenous culture. That was the way of life then and it was accepted by Whites as their covenant with God. It is a horrific history and not one to be proud of.
If you’d been in your characters’ place, would you have taken that journey?
No. When I read the history and diaries of the travelers and the difficulties they encountered, I thought, “These people are crazy”. Most people attempting the journey had no idea what they were getting into. There were unspeakable hardships. This story developed as I wrote it into one of transformation. The characters’ lives were transformed by the trip. When I started writing it, I knew I wanted to know more about the main character, Nicole. I don’t plot novels. I just sit down and write every day and the characters take over. The characters’ lives were transformed by the journey. I suspect many overlanders’ lives were transformed by the journey, by the landscape, by the hardships, by their triumphs. And of course, by the people they travelled with.