On August 15, we’ll be hosting an open house at the home Nels and Emma built in 1887. It made the National Register of Historic Places last year. More details on that are available here.
In honor of Sesquicentennial Plus One, I’m devoting the Speaking of Idaho blog to my family’s history during August.
Blackfoot River, Idaho Territory
September 14, 1877
Tell me, Father, is it a mark of insanity for one to wish to take his own life? My husband says it is, but I insist that it is perfectly sensible, so we shall expect you to cast the deciding vote. I have been on the point of killing my children and myself that we might be spared a more terrible fate, and before you agree with Nels that my mind is becoming unbalanced, I want you to know how logical it all appears to me. I think I must have mentioned our fear of an Indian uprising when I wrote last. Well, with the coming of spring our worst fears were confirmed and the summer has been a season of terror. I often wonder if some of the newspaper reports reach even to where you are and if you picture us, your very own, being burned to death in the little cabin as you read of a lonely habitation being destroyed.
The Nez Perce tribes to the north of us with Chief Joseph as leader have been doing depredations of all descriptions, and each time we hear, coming nearer and nearer to us. Albert Lyon, whom you remember from Soda Springs days, was captured by them out in the Birch Creek country, which is only a hundred miles from here, and he barely escaped with his life. He was freighting with Green's outfit and when the Indians came upon them they took possession of the wagons and drivers but assured them they meant no harm, just wanted to detain them so that they could not give the alarm. After being held several days, Lyon managed to give them the slip by dropping into the wash then following down the bed of the stream, and finally reached a cabin in time to save himself from a death of starvation. His fellow travelers were all killed and the wagons burned before the savages moved camp. Some, who wish to promote a Christian attitude toward the red man, insist that it was because Lyon betrayed the trust, but it seems to me he simply saved his own scalp. (Editor's Note: A recent Facebook post included copies of a letter Green wrote about the incident)
But to return to my own story. Nels has been putting up hay at Fort Hall the greater part of the summer, often staying away overnight. Brooding as I did, I could not sleep when alone and I dared not make a light for it would only serve as a target for some stealthy redskin, so all night my imagination ran riot. I would see through the windows bushes and stumps that were familiar to me by daylight, but by night they took the form of a crouching savage, of which there were a million more just behind the shadows, surrounding the cabin. Night after night I spent in that way, and day after day I milked the cows and made the butter with my head hidden away in an old slat sunbonnet, lest the children might discover my changing expressions.
When Nels came home he brought papers with vivid descriptions of the path of terror the Indians were leaving in their wake and I felt positive that it was only a matter of time until they would join our own tribes here and complete the destruction of the white race in southern Idaho.
The fall days began to come on when a heavy haze hung over everything, sometimes poetically called "Indian Summer," but that one word has taken the poetry out of everything for me this summer. Nels had not been home for several days and the desperation of continued loneliness was upon me, when toward evening the children came rushing in from their play to say there was a fire on the hill south of us. I tried to assure them that it was just something that looked like a fire, but I knew too well that it was a fire, a signal fire, that one band makes to let the others be in readiness for a celebration. That night I was almost frantic and while the children slept I made up my mind what I must do to save them. I resolved never to let them be mutilated by savage fingers before my very eyes. No, no! I had read of such cases and mine should never suffer so, while I was held captive perhaps to bear other children by the savage brute that had murdered mine.
I had given existence to mine, now at such a crisis it was my right to take it from them. I would drown the older ones, one by one, then take the baby in my arms and go in beside them. To try to hide would be useless. The baby would cry and we would be found and tortured more for trying to deceive them, so with the first intimation of their approach we would find our only safety in the river so near at hand. I felt perfectly sure that the end was near, the signal fire had been the culminating event in the tragedy, but after the children had eaten the breakfast which I was unable to taste, I went on with the milking, through force of habit, I suppose. I'd milk a cow, then go up the hill to strain my eyes for the coming of the enemy. At last I saw what I expected to see, a dust, or was it a smoke? In either case it meant the same. It was just at the point where the Shoemakers live and if it were dust, the Indians were reaching there; if smoke, they had been there and were leaving. There was no time to lose.
I called my poor terror-stricken babies around me and told them we must all drown together. If the older ones held any differences of opinion, they knew their mother too well to express them, so with a board in my hand, on which was to be scribbled an explanation to Nels, we started to the river.
Like Lot's wife I turned once to look back, and the cause of the dust I had seen was in plain view-my husband. I have heard of the interventions of Providence and this must be an illustration, for in ten minutes more he would have been a man without a family. He called me crazy and said he would never trust me alone again and I am not sure that I blame him. The solitude must be getting on my nerves. I need a neighbor. I need companionship. I never seem to feel lonesome for I am always busy, but I have had too much of my own society.
If you’re familiar with the circumstances of the Nez Perce War you know there was another side to the story, and that Joseph (see photo) was actually a peace thirsty chief. But where Emma was sitting, he scared her nearly to death.