Family's Immigration West Includes Tales of Wanderlust

Family history recounts a girl's captivity and generations of travelers on an immigration west.

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Our family's immigration west begins in 1755, so the story handed down in our family goes (and history books and a monument erected in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to honor her confirm it), when my maternal grandmother seven generations back was carried off by the Indians after they had killed her father and brothers and burned her home.

Her name was Regina Hartman; the home the Indians ravaged was near the eastern boundary of Pennsylvania. Regina and her sister were hurried off and made to travel fast day and night through woods and over rocks, up and down hills. A third and smaller girl the Indians had taken captive clung to Regina as to a mother. Although Regina was only 9, she had to carry the weary child a good part of the way. When they finally came to a halt the sister was taken on, never to be heard from again. Regina worked hard for the Indians during the nine years she was held captive and became as one of them.

After the battle of Bushy Run, her mother sought the girl when the released prisoners were taken back to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She found a swarthy maiden who could talk only in the Indian tongue. Efforts at recognition failed. Then the mother thought to sing a song she had taught Regina as a tiny tot. The girl, with memories of her childhood revived, took up the refrain, sang it through, then repeated Luther's Catechism as she had learned it in her home, and rushed into her mother's arms.

Thirty years later, Regina's daughter Maria and her husband, John Adam Baker, loaded their three children and a few choice possessions into a covered wagon. Leaving their Northampton County home, in eastern Pennsylvania, they started on the long and weary journey westward across the state, wending their way over mountains where bears and other wild animals were often their only company. The trail they took doubtless followed the one of the forced march the Indians had taken Regina over years before, so they were ever on the alert for treacherous natives. This was about 1795, when travel for many between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was on foot, which was the means of delivering messages. The State road had been built at a cost of $20 a mile, so it is likely they did not do much more than cut down the trees. Isn't it interesting to compare that price with the present rate per mile of road building?

Despite the hazards of travel, the little family made the trip safely, coming at last to Westmoreland County, where they bought land south of Greensburg, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh. There they built a log cabin, settled down to grow up with the country, propagated and prospered for at least 80 or 90 years before the wanderlust again set in.

In the mid-70s, "Kansas Fever" struck western Pennsylvania like the plague. Inoculation was unknown those days, so the westward trek was on! Many came by covered wagon. Not so my father, Edgar Clark Fowler.

As a young man of 20, in the fall of 1877, he packed his traveling bag. Grandmother Fowler filled another suitcase full of food for him, and he bought a one-way railroad ticket, via St. Louis and Kansas City, for Ottawa, Kansas. There were a few Indians in Dad's story too, but they were mostly in the minds of fond relatives and friends who gathered at the little railroad station to see him off. With tears in their eyes they bade him a last farewell, so sure they were that he'd be tomahawked way out there in Indian-ridden Kansas.

Trains were slow those days, but there was still food in the big valise when the engine finally chugged into Ottawa. There, young Ed Fowler built himself a wagon, bought a team of horses, and drove the Kaw River road through Lecompton to Topeka. He put up temporarily at the old Gordon House, the town's deluxe hostelry when Kansas Avenue was a mud road. He listened to talk around the hotel lobby for "grassroot opinion" on likely locations, and for sport and recreation went hunting and shot prairie chicken in the "wide open spaces" where the beautiful Topeka High School building now stands in downtown Topeka. (My own home is a mere block away.) A few weeks later, his mind made up, he climbed into his wagon, headed the horses north and drove to Jackson County. There he bought a farm east of Holton; sent back to Pennsylvania for his father, mother, five younger sisters and two baby brothers.

The following spring of 1878, the Henry B. Bair family (my mother's maiden name), also Pennsylvanians, came to Kansas – by steamboat. The long trip down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to Leavenworth, Kansas, which is as far as the river was navigable, took three and a half weeks. The big Pennsylvania farm wagon and the horses came out of the ship's hold at Leavenworth, and the Bairs were soon on their way overland to a Jackson County farm five miles west of Holton.

The first person pretty 18-year-old Tillie Bair saw as the family drove into town was someone she knew, young Ed Fowler, who by fate or happy happenstance, had come to town that day to replenish supplies. The two young people had met at the old Sewickley Academy, now famous in fiction, where they had gone to school back in Pennsylvania, a few years before.

Ed paid his respects to Mr. and Mrs. Bair who sat in the front seat, then walked around the wagon to where Tillie sat holding her year-old baby brother. "Is this yours?" he asked, pointing to the squirming youngster. Blushing to her hair roots, Tillie, for all her embarrassment, somehow managed a denial. Her explanation must have been satisfactory, for the acquaintance was resumed, and they started going steady. But young folks were not too hasty in those days, and it was almost three years later that they were married on Christmas Day 1881. It was exactly 17 years later, the "coldest Christmas ever recorded in Kansas," that I was born their sixth baby. I've been grateful ever since that they named me Louise instead of "Merry Christmas."

There have been three more generations added to the family since that eventful day. Being so steeped in the Christmas tradition, it seemed only natural that I should choose Christmas for my wedding day. On December 25, 1927, I was married to Paul M. Roote, who didn't object to the day, and has never had any trouble remembering anniversaries.

Incidentally, Paul's maternal grandparents came to Kansas, not in a covered wagon, but rode in "in style," on the first Union Pacific train to come into the state. The conductor is reported to have stopped the train so that Granddad Fisk could get off to milk a cow so that their frail 6-month-old baby boy might have fresh milk.

These are mere fragments of stories, so sketchy of detail, that I've heard my parents and grandparents tell. How I wish … oh, how I wish … I had listened more intently! Yet each time my car takes with ease the steep hills of the Kansas River road, my mind goes back to that 20-year-old young man, who was to become my father, as he drove its muddy ruts in his homemade wagon, and each time I salute anew his undaunted courage. Or aboard a Super Constellation as it skims through the skies, I think of the slow, pokey steamboat that took weeks to bring my mother to Kansas, while I cover the same miles in a few hours. With her rare sense of humor and her enthusiasm for living, how Mother would have loved to fly! And my mind races back over the two centuries since little Regina Hartman was captured by the Indians. Supposing she, like her sister, had never been heard from again? Just where and who would I be, or wouldn I be at all? In that case, there wouldn't have been even these few fragments of stories to set down on paper.

Louise Fowler Roote
Topeka, Kansas

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER's Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.