Wild Women of the West: Sarah Royce


Sarah Royce Wild Women Cowgirl Magazine

Photo courtesy the Pikes Peak Library District.

The long shadows of a beleaguered wagon train stretched across a parched trail through Nevada known as the Carson River Route.  Pioneers traveling west used this unavoidable path to get to California.  The long, dry crossing was one of the most dreaded ordeals of the entire emigrant experience.  The supply of fresh, drinkable water was forty miles apart from one another.  Thirty-year old Sarah Royce had read about the desolate section of land in the fragments of a guide book she’d found while on the journey to the Gold Country in 1849.  By the time many of the sojourners had reached this part of the trek their wagons and livestock weren’t fit to continue going on.  

Sarah, her husband, and their two-year old daughter, Mary stared in amazement at the abandoned vehicles and carcasses of ox and mule teams laying about. It seemed to the weary couple that they could walk over the remains of the animals for the duration of the trip and never touch the ground.  The grim markers were nothing Sarah envisioned she would see when she embarked on the six month venture.  Having left her home in Iowa to follow the hordes of other pilgrims hoping to find gold, she set her sights on a serene and profitable life in a country depicted as a utopia.  The expedition had proved to be more difficult than she had expected.  

“While making our way over the desert we came upon a scene of a wreck that surpassed anything preceding it,” she recalled in her diary.  “As we neared it, we wondered at the size of the wagons which, in the dim light of the moon, looked tall as houses, against the sky….  We turned to look at what lay round the monster wagons.  It would be impossible to describe the motley collection of things of various sorts, strewed all about….  There was only one thing, (besides the few pounds of bacon) that, in all these varied heaps of things, many of which, in civilized scenes, would have been valuable, I thought worth picking up.  That was a little book, bound in cloth and illustrated with a number of small engravings.  It’s title was ‘Little Ella.’  I thought it would please Mary, so I put it in my pocket. 

It was an easily carried souvenir of the desert; and more than one pair of eyes learned to read its pages in after years.”

As a natural educator Sarah was drawn to items that would teach children.  Her parents encouraged that gift when she was very young and encouraged her to study a variety of subjects from religion to world cultures.  She was born Sarah Eleanor Bayliss in Stratford up on Avon, England in 1819.  Her mother and father moved to America when she was six weeks old and settled in New York.  She excelled in every area of school and was a voracious reader.  She graduated from Phipps Union Female Seminary and became a school teacher in Rochester.  After meeting and marrying Josiah Royce, Sr., the two relocated to the mid-west.  Shortly after the birth of their first child, they traveled to Missouri and began preparing to head west.  

Seated in a wagon filled with all her worldly possessions, Sarah and the other men, women, and children in their party left Independence on April 30, 1849.  The first day of the journey was uneventful.  They stopped to eat a “pleasant lunch on the prairie” and when the trip resumed she watched the afternoon “wear quietly away.”  The mundane beginning would not be sustained.  

The roads were rough, the weather either too cold or too hot, and unexpected problems like the livestock wandering off, continually arose.  “It soon became plain that the hard facts of this pilgrimage would require patience, energy, and courage fully equal to what I had anticipated when I had tried to stretch my imagination to the utmost,” Sarah wrote in her journal.  

At various stops along the way the Royces met with other emigrants making the move.  Families with the same visions of happily-ever-after that Sarah possessed.  When they reached a post well along the Missouri River news that the grasslands between Kansas and Colorado had been eaten up by the stock from other wagon trains, and of an outbreak of cholera, made Sarah reconsider going any further.  Josiah managed to persuade her to continue on.  

On June 11, 1849 Sarah and her family reached Council Bluff, Iowa.  A week after their arrival a ferryboat transported their wagons, belongings, and pack animals across the Missouri river.  She wouldn’t eat a meal or sleep a single night inside a house until she reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming.  She wrote in her journal later that “Outside of our wagons there were not homes or shelter anywhere along the vast wilderness we came.”  

Among the difficulties that presented themselves to Sarah and her fellow travelers were the Plains Indians.  Frustrated with the invasion of white settlers on their ancestral lands, the Natives sought restitution against the hordes of interlopers.  “As we drew nearer, to what was initially thought to be buffalo, they proved to be Indians, by hundreds,” Sarah recounted in her journal.  “And soon they had arranged themselves along each side of the way.  A group of them came forward, and at the Captain’s command our company halted, while he with several others went to meet the Indians and hold a parley.  It turned out they had gathered to demand payment of a certain sum per head for every emigrant passing through this part of the country, which they claimed as their own.  The men of our company after consultation, resolved that the demand was unreasonable!  That the country we were traveling over belonged to the United States, and that the red men had no right to stop us.  The Indians were then plainly informed that the company meant to proceed at once without paying a dollar.  That if unmolested, they would not harm anything; but if the Indians attempted to stop them, they would open fire with all their rifles and revolvers.  At the Captain’s word of command all the men of the company then armed themselves with every weapon to be found in their wagons.  

Revolvers, knives, hatchets, glittered in their belts; rifles and guns bristled on their shoulders…we were at once moving between long, but not very compact rows of half naked redskins….  After a while they evidently made up their minds to let us pass, and we soon lost sight of them.”  

Close friendships were formed between Sarah and the other pioneers on the train.  They helped each other through misgivings they had about the trip, shared food and supplies, nursed one another back to health, and gave proper burials to those that didn’t recover.  Whenever a sojourner was lost along the way Sarah recalled the “heavy gloom that surround the emigrants.”  “We couldn’t help but wonder who would go next,” she wrote.  “What if my husband should be taken and leave us alone in the wilderness?  What if I should be taken and leave my little Mary motherless?  Or, still more distracting a thought – what if we both should be laid low, and she be left a destitute orphan, among strangers, in a land of savages?  Such thoughts would rush into my mind, and for some hours these gloomy forebodings heavily oppressed me; but I poured out my heart to God in prayer, and He gave me comfort and rest.”  

At the end of each day the leader of the train would direct the company of wagons into a large circle. The cattle or oxen were unhitched and the tongue of each vehicle was laid at the end of the wagon in front.  After the animals had a chance to graze and get water, they were led into the center of the circle for their protection and to keep them from running off.  While the men tended to the livestock, Sarah and the other women were busy cooking, mending clothes, and caring for the children.  

By July 4th, Sarah’s wagon train had made it to Chimney Rock in Nebraska.  They stopped to celebrate Independence Day and to give thanks for making it as far as they had.  Sarah used the sights and sounds experienced on the trek as lesson objects for her daughter.  She climbed Independence Rock with her little girl, teaching her about landmarks and distances.  “Of course I had to lift her from one projection to another most of the way,” Sarah later wrote.  “But we went leisurely and her delight on reaching the top, our short rest there, and the view we enjoyed, fully paid for the labor.”

After leaving Independence Rock the teacher and her family pressed along the Mormon Trail to the Great Salt Lake Basin.  On August 30, 1849, Sarah and her husband decided to set off on their own and cross the Salt Desert.  The majority of the party they had traveled with wanted to use a new, virtually untried route into California.  

The Royces did not trust the so-called “experimental guide” who had plans to start the venture in October.  A date so late in the year Josiah believed the way would be impassable by snow.  The Royces and a few other families took the usual trail to their destination.  “Our only guide from Salt Lake City consisted of two small sheets of note paper, sewed together and bearing on the outside in writing the title ‘Best Guide to the Gold Mines, 816 Miles, by Ira J. Wiles, GSL City.’”

Sarah and her family encountered more Indians on their journey.  The would hide along the trail and ambush travelers as they passed.  Josiah maintained a strong, business-like stance against the Natives, refusing to give up any livestock or provisions.  His resistance rattled the Indians and they eventually let the Royce’s wagon train continue on.  

The Salt Lake Desert and the Carson River Route were the most grueling parts of the journey for Sarah.  Violent thunder and wind storms halted travel and threatened to leave them stranded forever in the desolate locations.  The intense heat of the sun forced them to make their way by night.  They were thirsty, exhausted, and disoriented much of the time.  

“It was moonlight, but the gray-white sand, with only here and there sagebrush, looked all so much alike that it required care to keep to the road,” Sarah remembered.  “And now, for the first time in my life, I saw a mirage; or several repetitions of that optical illusion.  Once it was an extended sheet of water lying calmly bright in the moonlight with here and there a tree on its shores; and our road seemed to tend directly towards it; then it was a small lake seen through openings in a row of trees, while the shadowy outlines of a forest appeared beyond it; all lying to our left.  What a pity it seemed to be passing it by, when our poor animals had been so stinted of late.  Again, we were traveling parallel with a placid river on our right; beyond which were trees; and from us to the water’s edge the ground sloped so gently it appeared absurd not to turn aside to its brink and refresh ourselves and our oxen.”   

Sarah, Josiah, and their daughter arrived on the other side of the desert on October 17, 1849 and faced the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Stormy weather had already deposited a heavy layer of snow over the rocky range.  Following after her husband and their pack mules as they made their ascent, Sarah held her child closely with one arm and held tightly to the branches and bushes along the mountain wall with the other.  

At night they had no choice but to make camp near snow covered bluffs.  Their water supply turned to ice and campfires had to be constantly maintained to keep them from dying out and the wagon train from freezing to death.  

On October 19, 1849, Sarah celebrated the progress they’d made climbing the mountains.  She was closer to her new home and wrote in her journal that “hope now sprang exultant.”  “We were to cross the highest ridge, view the promised land and begin our descent into warmth and safety,” she recalled.  “So, without flinching I faced steps still steeper than the day before:  I even laughed in my little one’s upturned face, as she lay back against my arm, while I leaned forward almost to the neck of the mule, tugging up the hardest places.”  

The Royces reached the growing gold mining town of Weaverville in late October, pitched their tent and “began to gather about us little comforts and conveniences, which made us feel as though we once more had a home,” Sarah remembered.  With the exception of her Bible, a book by Milton, and a tiny lap desk, Sarah had lost all her possessions en route to the Gold Country.  

While Josiah searched for gold, Sarah maintained their canvas home.  Lonely miners on their way to and from their claims often stopped to watch Sarah and Mary. It had been such a long time since they’d seen a woman or toddler they couldn’t help themselves from staring.  The men bowed courteously to Sarah and made mention of how Mary reminded them of their children they left behind in the east.  

Josiah eventually abandoned mining and went into business with a pair of investors seeking to open a mercantile in town.  Sarah and Mary accompanied him to Sacramento to purchase supplies.  When they returned a crude store had been constructed.  The Royces lived in the back half of the building and managed the buying and selling of goods in the front half.  During the course of the work day Sarah would overhear prospectors lamenting over their decisions to come to California with the Gold Rush.  Finding riches was not as easy as they dreamed it would be.  “They had to toil for days before finding gold,” Sarah wrote in her journal, “and when they found it, had to work hard in order to wash out their ‘ounce a day’, and then discovered that the necessaries of life were so scarce it took much of their proceeds to pay their way, they murmured; and some of the cursed the country, calling it a “God forsaken land,” while a larger number bitterly condemned their own folly in having left comfortably homes and moderate business chances, for so many hardships and uncertainties.”

After suffering through an attack of cholera-morbus (acute gastro enteritis), Sarah, her husband and child moved to Sacramento to avoid other more serious illnesses that were circulating around Weaverville.  From January 1850 to 1854, the Royces lived in a variety of thriving northern California towns.  Among them were Folsom, San Francisco, and Martinez.  In the spring of 1854, Sarah, Josiah, and their growing family of three, moved to Grass Valley, a popular mining location in the high Sierra Nevadas.   They moved into a small house along the main thoroughfare in town which led to a ravine where prospectors were hunting gold.  Shortly after their arrival Sarah gave birth to the couple’s fourth child, Josiah Royce, Jr..  

Sarah devoted a great deal of time to educating her children.  She taught them how to read using the Bible as a text book.  Astronomical charts, histories, and an encyclopedia of common and scientific knowledge were used as well to train the youngsters.  Periodically, the children of other camp followers were sent to study with Sarah.  The need was so great for a teacher in Grass Valley that she decided to open a school for young ladies and misses.  Despite the school name it was co-educational and the boys she taught included her own son who went on to become a distinguished professor of philosophy at Harvard University.  

Josiah Jr. fondly recalled his mother’s classroom influence in his own memoirs published in the early 1900s.  

“My earliest teacher in philosophy was my mother, Josiah wrote, “whose private school, held for some years in our own house, I attended, and my sisters, who were all older than myself, and one of whom taught me to read.  I very greatly enjoyed my mother’s reading of the Bible stories.”  

In 1857, Josiah Sr. went into business with a church friend and purchased several acres of farm land outside of Grass Valley.  He named the large spread Avon Farm after Sarah’s birthplace.  Sarah continued to teach school while her husband raised a variety of crops and supplied the community with apples, peaches, and dairy products.  More than nine years after they had moved to the mining town, the Royces returned to San Francisco.  

Sarah’s son called his mother an “effective teacher” and her journal entitled the Pilgrimage Diary, (which was published later in a volume entitled A Frontier Lady) has been used for centuries to educate students.  Studying her memoirs educates readers about the sights, terrain, and hardships of traveling over the plains.  

Sarah Royce died in August 1888 in Southern California.  She was 69 years old.   

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