The Post I’ve Dreaded To Write

For new subscribers, you’ll interested to know the theme of this blog examines CHANGE. Sprinkling our life-adaptations with humor makes them easier to swallow or at least…creates some head-smacking moments of epiphany.

I’ve discovered, looking at the past, puts a high-powered microscope on the changes in the present. About once a month, Before Morning Breaks, travels back to an 1871 Oregon pioneer settlement named Two Pan. Whores, mercantile men,  and miners mix with settlers trying to “prove-up” their free land.

The goings-on of Two Pan are inspired by real-life journals.  If you’d like to catch up on their humor and hardships, click Weekly Gossip on the Two Pan tab above.  I’ve known for a year this post was coming, but when it came time to write it…I kept putting it off.

To my long-kind subscribers, who’ve e’d me with requests, “We haven’t heard from Two Pan lately.”…thanks for the nudge.  There’s not a speck of humor in the following missive Violet Spinrad sends to her sister in Nebraska. Not even a light side…

…it’s the post I’ve dreaded to write.

September 10, 1871
Dearest Sis

I barely have the will to put pen to paper. My heart bleeds and will surely stop beating. A man rode by the homestead, hell bent for leather, telling us the Indians were angry about the broken treaty. What with Bricker dead, he urged us to move to the stockade. I didn’t tell him Bricker would’ve been drunk, and I would’ve gladly given him to the Indians if he were alive. We weren’t leaving our land.  Me and the 6 kids carved dug outs in the hard earth to hide in.  Nothing came of the scare…another enemy attacked instead.

McAllister, our oldest came down with diphtheria.  I gave him nettle tea and that seemed to help, but Maggie started coughing two days later, and Jedidiah had the croup the next day.  We covered our mouths with kerchiefs, but in the following week, the two 10-year-olds, Sophie and Rowen, had skin of a bluish color and they broke out in lesions.

Maggie and Jedidiah were the first to pass. They endured the strangulation disease 5 days. Mag’s thirteen-year-old heart stopped in the morning and Jed, who was a year younger, died that evening.

Oh, sis. I keep staring at my hands. No matter how many elixirs and poultices I made, no healing came through these fingers. Sophie lasted 5 days. McAllister buried her in one of the dug outs, then layed down in the next hole and died. He had lasted 21 days, I suppose because he was the oldest and strongest.

We’d all been happy that our youngest, little Lizzie, had escaped the pestilence, but when I checked her mouth, I saw those black-gray fibers of death growing up her throat. She lasted two days.

Henry Woolsey came over to look in on us. He said the doctor told him to smoke twist tobacco and fumigate his house by burning sulfur. I don’t think it worked. Although he wasn’t sick, the disease had taken his wife, child, and the school teacher that was rooming with them. Most of the children of the valley have died.

In the last three weeks, I have lost all my children but one. Henry asked me, “Where will you go now?”

“I will stay here.” The cost for this journey to a new life and new land has been too high to abandon it now.

I will leave more of a mark on this land than 5 graves. I will remain here.


This popular video game is known as The Oregon Trail. It’s often parodied because most grade schoolers who play the game (as part of class) will tell you almost no one makes it to Oregon alive…or lives long thereafter.

NOTE: Today in the U.S., there are about 5 diphtheria cases per year.  Even with anti-toxin and meds, the death rate is 10% and recovery is slow. Since 1990, diphtheria has made a spectacular comeback in several European countries, with a high proportion of cases in adults. Protective immunity lasts only 10 years from the time of vaccination, so it’s important for adults to get a booster of tetanus-diphtheria (Td) vaccine every 10 years. (PubMed Health)

Change…Someday…we may wipe out this preventable disease.

Photo by taborcarlton
Photo Parody by Smosh

About Barb

I escaped from a hardscrabble farm in Oklahoma. I'm not sure why people think I have an accent. I miss the sunshine, but not the fried foods.
This entry was posted in A Laugh, Change, Pioneer Friday in Two Pan and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to The Post I’ve Dreaded To Write

  1. emjayandthem says:

    When I was a child, me and my cousins loved to explore the open land around our ranches … I remember one sunny Saturday that we came upon an old house, way out on a distant patch of land. It was all boarded up. Being kids, we didn’t think anything about prying off a few pieces of rotting wood and crawling in through a window. We creeped around that old, sad house and looked with wild-eyed wonder at the remnants of a baby doll in a corner, a tea cup on its side in what might have been a kitchen, and a raggedy old curtain blowing in the breeze. We didn’t stay long and, later, when boasting of our adventures to our Grandmother, we saw the color drain from her face. In a whisper she said, “That was Tony’s house. They all died there.” We couldn’t get any information out of her but it was our Dads who told us that their cousins lived .. and died in that house .. diptheria. I am forever changed by stepping foot into that creakingly sad old house.

    Beautiful story you’ve shared; thank you. I’ll be back for more.


  2. JSD says:

    Oh, this is so sad…I just want to cry for her.


  3. souldipper says:

    Conscientious Objectors…the ones who enjoy a life free of disease and believe wholeheartedly that a vaccination is only going to encourage disease. The concept of antibody build-up is lost to them. I don’t think the mistakes made by those hurriedly preparing flu vaccines has helped.

    Your writing truly takes us there, Barb. As one commenter wrote, what’s so hot about the good ol’ days?


  4. Thank you for sharing this incredibly sad post. People who long for the “good ole days” don’t know much history.


  5. ansuyo says:

    How sad. Unfortunately, death was a fact of life back then (more than today). I can’t even imagine.


  6. pegoleg says:

    When I hear stories from history like this, or visit old grave-sites as I did last week in Penn and DC, I am struck forcibly by how vulnerable the children were. I cannot comprehend losing so many children and I wonder if parents ever developed a callousness or protective shell around their hearts because it was so much a part of everyday life?

    Wonderful, terrible story, Barb.


  7. Phil says:

    Barb, this is so powerful, so heart-wrenching, so tragically stunning. It adds a major dose of painful reality and clarity on what otherwise might seem like a sentimental journey into the past with all the rough edges smoothed out. Thank you for reminding all of us of the tremendous sacrifices and hardships the pioneers had to endure, and to do so at a time when medicine was one step removed from medieval tactics of blood-letting mixed in with voodoo.

    Thanks for writing this outstanding piece – I imagine it had to be difficult to do so, but every once in a while, we all need a smack upside the head like that to jolt us back to reality.


  8. Red says:

    I know this one was hard to write. While I have had to bury one, I can hardly wrap my brain around five in three weeks. I hope it is just emotion which leads you to hate to write this one, and it is not the end of the line.

    On the other hand, if it is, I want an autographed copy.


  9. I think the reason so many parents are refusing to vaccinate their children is that stories like this are buried in history. I was in grade school when the first polio vaccine came out and I got marched in to the doctor’s office for it; later I asked my older sister, who had had polio (and died of it 65 years later), what polio was. She cried. So happy for me.


    • Barb says:

      Thanks, Murr. It truly is a miracle if you think of all the children’s graves and parent’s tears who’ve faded away and the present generation looks squint-eyed and asks what polio or diphtheria is. Talk about change.


  10. I felt the pain and loss. Sad but something we all can learn from. Immunization is a gift although I have see several who objects it. May they read this story and learn before its too late. Thanks for sharing this post. It takes courage to make one that stir so much emotions. Have a blessed day.


  11. Silva Gang says:

    Great post. Good to see you back in Two Pan. 🙂 Lovely video game for kids… wow. Also, just FYI- to address your question on immunizations/vaccines, they were very popular a while ago. But, these days, many people are refusing them for themselves and their kids, because of the theories that they contain mercury-based preservatives that lead to things like autism or immune system deficiencies.


    • digipicsphotography says:

      But the drug companies have taken care of this concern and the amount of preservative has been reduced drastically. In all my years in pediatrics, I only saw one child allergic to DPT and it was the tetanus that he was allergic to. The reaction was localized, at the site of the injection. So further immunizations were with DP only. We never encountered any autism or immune system deficiencies related to immunizations.


  12. digipicsphotography says:

    So sad. And there are families today who do not believe in vaccinations for their children. I can only hope they are spared this tragedy.


  13. moma escriva says:

    Such a tragedy. I do hope that Violet will rise from the ashes like Phoenix and be able to carve out a new life. She has true grit to move on…and I do hope she will bring us new stories of a bit of a better life.


  14. Nisha says:

    Oh Barb, this was terribly sad. No wonder you were dreading it. Nothing pains me more than seeing a young defenceless creature- a child (or even an animal) suffering and dying like that. Thanks for this info of awareness on diptheria.

    Ps. I didn’t realise the stories from Two Pan were based on real journals, I find that fascinating! 🙂


  15. Rose L says:

    To lose so much of your heart in such a short time. I doubt I could have continued on as she did.
    And it was not just the pioneers who lost loved ones. The Indians lost so many as well. Hoe the pioneer women managed to go on through so much sorrow amazes me.


  16. Beth says:

    How many similar letters were written in those days? In reading stories from women’s diaries from the Trail, I had a hard time relating at all to the hardships. Now that we’ve begun to know Violet and her family and others from Two Pan, I think I can. In any case I sitting here with tears streaming down my face for all those kids. And more for Violet and Henry. Great post.


  17. winsomebella says:

    My, my, you tell the best stories. Keep those Two Pan ones comin’ please!


  18. Wow. I must confess that my soft life has been so far removed from such adversity that it is nearly impossible for me to imagine it. I’m blessed. Thank you for reminding me.


  19. Sad, hard, tragic times that the early settlers endured. Thanks for bringing this story to light and for the reminder to get shots to avoid the same fate.


  20. Violet’s strength was not uncommon. Not there, not here where people came seeking better lives and endured gut wrenching pain in their search. I love Violet’s determination to remain, and understand that if she had left the deaths of her children would have been for nothing.
    Thank you. A hard post, a necessary post.


  21. Al says:

    Wow. My wife and I took 14 5th graders to Portland, OR in 2007 to visit another school and learn about the Oregon trail. We heard many stories like this. Incredible.


  22. Life and death are closer together than we would admit. Such a sad post. An important closing message though…


  23. Alice Lynn says:

    Heart wrenching but so real. Life is rarely easy and in those days, in those places, it was hard and often tragic. In Wrenn, Egypthouse, Wrenn’s little brother and sister both died of that disease. In my research I learned that Portland households stricken with diphtheria were quarantined and marked with a yellow flag. Now tell me, will we hear more of Violet’s story?


  24. El Guapo says:

    This is a great story, and even though it is definitely not a happy story, it’s part of the history, and important to remember, if only to remind us that some of our modern hardships aren’t really that big a deal.

    Thank you for putting it up, and as always, a pleasure to see you.


  25. dorannrule says:

    This is an awesome story Barb – the first Two Pan segments I have seen. I will definitely go back and find the rest of them. I will also ask my dr. for a booster DPT shot when I see him next month! Thanks so much for making that period of history come alive.


  26. Margie says:

    Very sad, but a strong reminder of how much the settlers sacrificed so that our lives could be this easy.
    My husband belongs to a committee that looks after the cemetery in the area where his family settled. The committee did a survey of the farmers, then compiled a list of the settlers who were buried on those farms, and how they died. Accidents, infant mortality, disease, suicide – the story of what life was like in those days.


  27. Roxie Matthews says:

    LIfe expectancy for women in this time averaged 45 years. I always thought they just died of exhaustion, but now I realize that a shattered heart would do it, too. Our foremothers had to be tougher than an old boot! And I whine when my i-pod malfunctions. Violet’s life certainly puts things in perspective.


  28. Thank you for that it has hit me in the guts the same way as it hits me when I do family history. Amazing.


  29. Boy, that’s playing dirty pool. Paint these people so real, we feel like we know them, and then kill them off. Beautiful job, though. You’ve truly made this period in history come alive.


  30. This is so sad. I did not know we should get a DPT booster. Thank you for the info and I will certainly ask my doctor. My MIL had a photograph of her brother in their living room. He died of DPT when she was 6 and he was 8. She often said “My mother never got over that.” Using her mother’s words, I don’t think my MIL did either. His name was Itus. I have often wondered about the name without the T in front.


  31. Elyse says:

    Poor Violet. What a tragedy. And how important for you to point out that this scourge still exists. Vaccinate! Thanks for the stark reminder.


  32. jmgoyder says:

    This is heart-wrenching.


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