The Sweetwater Trail started with a research project into family history and the rediscovery of a great-great-grandmother who walked across the Oregon Trail in 1846 when she was 11 years old. Nancy Ann grew up to be a well-known weaver in the Canby and Aurora area in Oregon and some of the rugs she wove were recovered from an old trunk. Her spinning wheel was donated to the Oregon Historical Society in the 1970’s.
I imagined Nancy sitting at her loom, weaving the strips of cloth cut from clothing too worn out to be of any use, and I wondered what she thought of her new life in the Oregon Territory. Did she miss a boy back home? What did she carry on the trail that when the going got hard, she couldn’t leave behind? Did the constant rain get to her?
When we found the graves of her parents in a forgotten pioneer cemetery on the banks of the Pudding River – graves covered with ferns and nettles, with trees pushing up between headstones – that discovery led to wondering about why a family would make the choice to sell their possessions, kiss their relatives farewell, and set out across the prairie in the company of strangers to a land described in a pamphlet.
I read accounts of the early Donation Claim settlers and looked over maps of their journey. This is a PDF map that was my guide to Rye and Felicity's journey. I went to the Laurel Hill Chute on Mt. Hood, the scene of a lot of heartbreak after crossing the plains. Staring down at the steep hillside and the boulders I tried to imagine what it was like to winch a wagon down the slope … a wagon loaded with all my worldly goods, the rope and tree and my own strength keeping the wagon from crashing.
And so my journey began with the first draft of Sweetwater, with the image of a city bred woman sitting on a crate at the edge of the prairie ….