Pastures of Plenty
Lucinda Carr Lynch was considered one of the founding mothers of the state of Oregon. She was an institution, worshiped as a heroine by her family, and by thousands of school children all over the Pacific Northwest. It was well known that she had arrived in the Williamette Valley as a penniless child, and had over the years become a successful wife, mother, businesswomen, and philanthropist. Even now, in her old age, she had donated some of her land to the dust-bowl refugees and poverty-stricken families moving west. She had built them little metal huts with clean, running water and space to plant gardens. She had ordered her sons and grandsons to find work for these migrant workers from Oklahoma and Nebraska and Kansas, to pay them to pick the fruit from her orchards, and cut the grapes from her vines.
Lucinda Carr Lynch now sat as straight as she could in a comfortable wing chair that was facing a small table. She raised one wrinkled and knobby hand to feel her crocheted collar, then rested both hands demurely in the lap of her black satin skirt. Through the open window of this elegant hotel room came the sound of a trolley coach trundling down the street.
On the other side of the table, opposite Lucinda Lynch, sat a young man from New York. He leaned over the pile of papers in front of him and read back what he had written on the top page:
“September, 3, 1936. Personal Narrative.
“Subject: L. C. Lynch.
“Age: 96 years.
“Location: Governor Hotel, Portland, Oregon.
“Name of Worker: Samuel M. Roberts, New York City, New York.
“Time of Interview: 2:30 P.M.
“Subject: Personal account of life on the Oregon Trail, 1850.”
Roberts looked up, smiled at the elderly lady across from him. “I think we’re about done,” he said. “I want to go over a few points, if you feel up to it. But I think we’ve covered nearly everything during the last few days.”
Lucinda nodded once. She stared straight ahead, as if off into the distance, her pale blue eyes enshrouded by folds of delicate skin.
Roberts was an experienced interviewer for the Works Progress Administration, specifically the Federal Writers Project. He had been all over the U.S. of A. collecting personal histories of ordinary Americans. He used shorthand to transcribe the words of his interviewees, then typed up the manuscripts. Samuel Roberts was also a failed playwright and novelist, who thanked God every day for Franklin Roosevelt. At the moment, he only wanted to validate his version of Miss Lucinda’s story, express his gratitude, and say good-bye. This was their last meeting. Although something about the way she was sitting, staring somewhere he couldn’t see, annoyed him. “Miss Lucinda … ” he started.
“You have to understand,” she spoke, continuing the conversation from a few days before as if no time had passed at all, “you have to understand, I was a devil of a child.”
Roberts began flipping through his manuscript pages. “Where are we at the moment, Miss Lucinda?”
“Like I told you, after we left Missouri, there were three wagons, prairie schooners and all of us together. There was Ma and my second oldest brother Robert and we two young sisters in one wagon. Then there was Ma’s sister Mary and her husband in their wagon. Then my oldest brother Thomas and his wife Philippa and their little girl Bridget, and Philippa’s son Charles from a previous marriage in their wagon. But by the time we reached Fort Laramie, Mary’s husband had been killed and they’d lost their wagon and most of their supplies (I told you about that already, about the Platte River and the quicksand). So we were down to two wagons. Mary came with us. Philippa wouldn’t have her.”
“You see, this is really about Philippa. Philippa Carr was harder than a piece of granite.” Lucinda stopped and seemed to stiffen in her chair. “I was the youngest. I was ten years old at this time. My family had been moving westward it seemed my entire life. We youngins were ‘raised on the road’ as they say. The older children had gone to school in Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, and Illinois. But not me. Too much hardship, too much to worry about, it seemed, to pay much attention to me.”
Roberts found the notes from their initial interview when they first discussed this part of Lucinda’s history. He remembered how dispassionate she had been, calmly describing memories from another age. Now she seemed almost ready to cry. He stayed completely still.
Lucinda Lynch noticed. “Are you going to write this down?” It was more of an order than a question.
Roberts fumbled for his pencil, a clean sheet of paper, then quickly dated and notated this conversation as an “addendum.”
“My brother Thomas was a soft man, a spiritual man. He liked to sing and tell stories. He was a good man. How he come to marry Philippa I don’t know. She was a Scotswoman from New England stuck in St. Joseph, Missouri waiting to go West, after her first husband passed on. She was six foot tall, and smart and sharp. She was educated and a school teacher. Well, by the time our party came to the South Pass, my brother was sick and failing. Besides our brother Robert who was sixteen, Thomas was the only adult man. He had to lead the oxen, and fix the wagons and keep them rolling and help Ma with her chores and keep her wagon from breaking down. We had false starts, we got lost, we had run-ins with Indians, axels broke, wagon wheels broke. Through blistering heat during the day and cold at night and terrible storms with hail the size of lemons. Minor injuries never healed. Supplies ran low and we all were hungry. Anyway, it was all too much for my oldest brother, and he died of illness right after we reached Fort Bridger.”
“I think you told me all of this ….”
“Don’t interrupt me, don’t do it again,” Lucinda commanded, her voice a mixture of impatience and anger. She glowered at the young man for several seconds in silence and then continued, “So anyhow, Philippa took over. She tried to do everything that her husband had been doing, and look after her little girl, and she took it upon herself to look after me. She said I was becoming ‘wild’ and she talked me down to my Ma. She said I was not doing any work. That I was not doing my lessons. Well, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t doing anything to help. I didn’t know how to read or write. I didn’t care. I ran off during the day, and sang loudly at night, keeping everyone awake. Philippa decided my time had come.”
“She cut branches from trees as we headed for Fort Hall, and made them into switches of different lengths. She took to whipping me good — often. I swore at her. I hated her. She made me get in her wagon, (Ma just looked the other way) and ride with her and Bridget and that poor little boy Charley. She made me learn my letters, she made me do additions and subtractions. She made me read from these silly books she had brought with her. And when I wasn’t doing that, I had to help tend Bridget, or help get the fires started using only weeds and buffalo chips for fuel. She made me bend over those fires and help cook the food.”
“When I would run off, she would hunt me down, cursing me like you ne’er heard a woman curse, a middle-length switch in her hand, whumping me with it as she herded me back to the camp.”
“She helped nurse my sister Elizabeth when Lizzie got dysentery from some bad water. She found fire-fixings for Ma, and helped Ma wash her dishes, and carry water, and cook, and unpack the wagon for camp at night and pack things up at daybreak. She supervised the care of the oxen, and made sure they were watered and fed. She didn’t use a switch on Robert, but she didn’t spare him her tongue. He was the only man among us, she would tell him. He needed to take responsibility. We were constantly facing death and disaster, and Robert needed to ‘behave in a manly way,’ Philippa would say.”
“Not surprisingly, a couple of weeks after we left Fort Hall, Robert announced that he was taking our only horse, heading back the way we had come until he found the California Trail, and was going to pan for gold with ‘the other men.’ “
“After Fort Hall, we followed the Snake River, to Fort Boise. We moved northwest, until we came to the Blue Mountains — I know you already wrote this part down, but I’m not through yet — once we got to the Blue Mountains, we were stuck. We could wait for another party to arrive, with strong men, who could help us move our wagons over the mountains using ropes and pulleys. But Phillipa told us, we weren’t going to wait. We needed to unload or wagons, take only what was necessary, and load up the oxen. She said we would tie the sickly Elizabeth and the two little children on the oxen and me and the adult women would take turns riding one of the beasts but mostly we would have to go on foot.”
“Which is what we did.”
“And all this time Philippa was still always asking me how to spell this, and what that meant. She wanted me to add and subtract in my head, and showed me how to keep myself occupied in my mind, with puzzles and numbers. By this time I was outwardly obedient, and had learned how to do almost everything that I was asked to do. And do it well. I still hated Phillipa, but I didn’t get as many whippings now.”
“As we moved toward the Columbia River, with the high cliffs on all sides, anger was growing inside me. Philippa told me that I was smart, more quick than anyone else in my family. That I learned fast. She said, I needed discipline, was all. But all I wanted to do was escape, to be free. How I envied my brother Robert, panning for gold on the banks of the Sacramento.”
Lucinda Lynch fell silent, then sighed in a wheezy way. She continued, “Well, we reached the Columbia River, and followed it west a while. But when Elizabeth got very sick, we stopped and camped and tended to her. She died. We buried her; Philippa and I dug the grave; six feet deep, and buried her, and piled racks of branches on top to keep the wolves from digging her up and flinging her bones. Ma cried for a little while, but soon stopped, and didn’t say anything more at all, or show emotion. I was the last of her children left. Philippa told me I needed to take care of Ma and my aunt, because they were losing strength and not feeling well.”
“Soon we came to the Dalles rapids, a narrow stretch of the Columbia River. The river banks of the Dalles were like canyons on either side, and were too high for wagons or oxen or even rational people to cross. The water of the Dalles below us was fierce and furious. There was no way to escape the sound of the enraged water. There didn’t seem to be any way to escape Philippa, either. I couldn’t bear her tirades any longer. I felt sympathy for Bridget and Charley and I was deeply sad about Ma and Aunt Mary and all that they had suffered. But I just wanted to get away from all of them.”
“It was already fall and the sky was ashen, icy, cold, and the wind cut through my clothing. For some reason … I don’t remember exactly why … for some reason I walked to the edge of the river gorge and saw in the distance other immigrants below us, probably trying to find something or someone to ferry them downriver. I knew I had to try and get to that river, and get someone to ferry me into the Oregon Territory and the Williamette Valley. Let Philippa and Ma and the others walk the rest of the way. I was going to flow on the rapids, sweep into the promised land and triumphantly win my freedom! I began to clamber down toward the river, to where I’d seen the others.”
Lucinda grimaced. “Now you write this down. It’s important,” she said sternly to Samuel Roberts. “Philippa came running after me, cursing me a blue-streak. She screamed at me to get my sorry self back up with the rest of them, or she would make me wish I’d never been born. The louder she became, the faster I moved. The water was close, and the air was chill with spray and wind. And then I slipped.”
“Now I was screaming. I screamed and hollered for help as I hung on to a tangle of roots and scrub. Everything was wet and slippery and my body was half in the water, being dragged into the river by the powerful current. My fingers were going numb. I knew I was going to drown.”
“And then I heard Philippa above me, telling me what an evil foolish child I was. I could hear sounds like someone was climbing down — half sliding, half lowering herself — to get me. Someone strong, almost as strong as a man. And there she was. Philippa. She grasped the branch of a tree above me with her right hand, and tried to grab one of my arms with her left. But she couldn’t keep a grip. She cursed me as she lowered herself next to me, clasped the underbrush I was barely clinging to, and braced herself against it. She then shouted, “God …” and let go, and with both sturdy arms hoisted me up and out of the water and threw me above her, where I caught and held on to a tree for dear life.”
“I turned to see her, and I caught sight of her face as the river yanked her skirts and sucked her into the water. She frantically flung her hands towards the tree roots but her fingers couldn’t take hold. She shouted up to me, ‘By God you take care of Bridget and Charley. You take care of them, do you hear me?”
“And then she was gone.” Lucinda let out her breath, her shoulders heaving. She lowered her lids.
Samuel Roberts, who had been paralyzed for the last few minutes, hurriedly wrote down what he had just heard. Then he stopped and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
She breathed deeply, repeatedly, as if practicing what it was going to be like without breath, without air, tossing and turning in an infinite abyss. Then she opened her eyes and said, “Because, I never told anyone about it before. I barely remember climbing back up the slick stone and brush, but somehow I did. I returned to where Ma and Aunt Mary and the little ones waited. I told them that Philippa had been gathering fire wood and had fallen into the river. I told them that I had tried to save her, but it was too late. I never told no one the truth. And now it’s 1936, and I’m 96 years old. I had the luck all them years; I raised Bridget and Charley, and they respected me like I was their own Ma and not their auntie. I told you about my husband, and my children, and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. And Bridget’s and Charley’s children and grandchildren. And to all of them I’m a heroine, one of the original pioneers.”
“But your story is going into the historical archives. If I include what you just said, if what you say is true, your family, your friends….”
Lucinda’s faint eyes deepened in color and little dots and tiny arteries on her face turned red. “Don’t condescend to me. I have lived with this for over 80 years. I have lived a lie. This is my way of making amends. This is my way of preparing my soul for the Divine Judgment that is to come. And don’t doubt that one of the reasons I’ve live so long is that I fear to my core that I’m going to hell!” She abruptly averted her face, as if trying to get herself under control.
“It’s interesting,” Samuel Roberts ventured. “That you were able to get your family to Oregon, and you helped support them by keeping accounts, and then by becoming a teacher. You told me that before, but now that I know how Philippa Carr … how she … I mean, she was a forceful and determined woman, and she was trying to prepare you ….” he opened both hands in front of him, not quite sure what more to say.
Lucinda muttered, “There is nothing that you can say that I haven’t said to myself over and over for 86 years.”
“Well, Mrs. Lynch, Miss Lucinda …” Roberts said as cheerily as he could, banging the edges of his stack of papers together on the table until all pages were neat and even, “Well, I guess that is all for now. I appreciate your time, and I’m sure your narrative will be invaluable to researchers in the future. He stood awkwardly, pulled his jacket from the back of his chair and in one fluid motion slipped it on both arms at once, shrugging it into place.
Lucinda Carr Lynch straightened and leaned forward and said imperiously, “Call my granddaughter back in here, when you get to the lobby. And you keep everything … everything … I have said, do you hear me?”
Samuel Roberts smiled as sincerely as he could. “Of course, Mrs. Lynch. And it was an honor and pleasure meeting you, and working with you. Please take care of yourself. Good-bye.” He bowed slightly, and backed away toward the door as if Lucinda were royalty.
She glared at him but said nothing as he turned and exited the hotel room.
Well, he thought. That was interesting. But I can’t put that in the final record; who knows if that last part is even true? He moved quickly down the hall to the elevator, pushed the button, and waited. He felt somewhat irritated for a moment, but then turned his thoughts to his next interview in Seattle, while the elevator door was rolled open by a perky young blonde-haired girl in a green and black uniform. “Lobby,” he said.