The excerpt below, from A Place of Her Own: The Legacy of Oregon Pioneer Martha Poindexter Maupin, presents a few lines from the Prologue, as well as the opening of Chapter One. It’s a creative nonfiction story of the author’s great-great-grandmother, who trekked across the Oregon Trail and found even greater challenges at trail’s end.
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, TwoDot Imprint
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Under the oak, May 2010
A gentle breeze whispered through the new leaves of the scattered oaks crowning the ridge by my house. Echoes stirred in me. I moved into the dappled shade of a double oak overlooking the field below, where lush spring grass shimmered across the land like waves of green silk. The old tree leaned toward the long downward slope as if keeping watch over the stepped pasture to the river valley at the bottom. Its second trunk, a late offshoot, smaller, younger, stood in its shadow.
I ran a hand over the rough bark and looked into the intertwined branches. A subtle sweetness of emerging growth scented the air. Again a whisper rustled the leaves, and I wondered what the oak was trying to say to me. It felt like a sentient presence.
Or was it her presence I felt? Martha. My great-great-grandmother.
The breeze riffled the hair on my neck and sent a chill down my back despite the warmth of the late afternoon. Did she stand here on this same spot on the hill, marveling that this land was hers? Not the land of her husband. Not the land of a landlord. Hers. As now it was mine. Her husband died less than two years before she came here. My marriage ended twenty years ago, and my father had been gone three years. I bent forward to glance at the far side of the old tree and imagined her there, sharing this wonder across time. . . .
As a woman I was drawn to Martha’s story, especially now that I owned her farm, but I would need to search for answers through the remnants of recorded memories, and the echoes, left behind. I hoped to do more than write a family narrative. I wanted to know her.
“What brought you here, Martha?” I whispered. “How did it all begin?”
Murmurs stirred in the leaves overhead, and I tilted my head to listen.
The Missouri Edge
Greene County, Illinois, Early Spring 1844 Sweet crisp air wafted into the little cabin through the wide-open door and windows. Birds twittered. A jay screeched. Sap was rising in every branch in the surrounding woods. Martha held the broom upright with both hands and took a twirl in the middle of the floor.
Two long steps brought her to the wall, where she reached up and swept the bristles across the dingy logs, wanting to make the place gleam with welcome. Her brother Doc was coming home, and her brother Stephen and his family were visiting from Macoupin County. How she’d missed them, especially Doc.
She gazed about the small log structure with its sideboard for cooking and its fireplace, all cleaned and ready for a cozy fire. She loved this cabin. Nestled in the woods behind her parents’ big log house, it had been a place of joy for her from her earliest memory. Pa built it for Grandpa and Grandma Wood, Ma’s folks, soon after the family settled this farm on the western Illinois frontier, back in 1830 when Martha was only a year old.
She’d spent many happy hours here with her beloved grandparents. Grandpa always had time to laugh and play with her, and to show her the wonders surrounding them—plants and how they grew, tiny insects and frogs, the delight of a tugging magnet, the mystery of a sundial he built out in the clearing. He taught her the pleasure of reading and writing, and clever tricks with numbers. She remembered him so well, though she was only six when he died.
Grandma died soon after, but Ma would not let Pa turn this cabin into a corn crib or work shack. She kept it for visitors, like Stephen and his family, and maybe for the memory of her parents. Martha and her younger brothers used to play here and make believe all sorts of exciting stories. Smiling, she lifted the broom again to whisk out a dusty corner, feeling feather light as she thought of those free and happy days.
A familiar voice drifted across the wooded yard. “Where’s my little sister?”
“Doc!” She dropped the broom and ran out the door. He strode toward her, a wide smile on his bearded face, and she bounded to him, giving him a fierce hug. “You’re here.”
He lowered his voice in mock seriousness. “Yep, the Doc is back.”
She giggled at his usual greeting. He wasn’t a doctor. Ma and Pa only named him Doctor Harvey after some medical doctor they admired. Now her brother liked calling himself Doc. Martha leaned back to study his face. “When did you grow a beard?”
His grin lifted the trimmed brown mustache as he ran a finger over the close-cropped hair on his jaw. “Does it make me look older?”
“Is that what you want?”
He tugged gently at one of her dark-brown pigtails. “Why not? And you. Did you turn fifteen while I was gone?”
She put on a smug face. “I did.”
Ma called from the other house. “Martha Ann Poindexter! You done with that sweeping? I need your help in here.”
Martha gave Doc a quick smile and ran for the house, pigtails flying. “Coming, Ma!”
Stephen stood in the doorway. She hugged him, and Jane and little Peter.
Bustling from table to sideboard, Ma wiped her hands on her outer apron, voice tense with excitement. “Put bread and milk on the table and set out plates and cups. We can’t all fit around the table but fit what you can, and the rest of us will find places as we’re able.”
Martha picked up a loaf of Ma’s warm bread, relishing the delicious aroma, and set it on the cutting board to slice. Family members poured into the house, talking and laughing. Ambrose, Martha’s oldest brother, gave Martha a wave and smile across the room, as his wife Polly ushered in their two boys. It had been a long time since the whole family was together.
“Where’s Louisa?” Ma asked. “Looks like everybody’s here but Louisa.”
Martha shook her head, breathless with all the rush. She’d be glad for Louisa’s help.
“Missouri?” Pa’s voice, rising above the murmur in the room.
Martha glanced his way. Doc and some of the other boys had gathered near Pa, their hands animated as they spoke. Pa leaned forward, intent on the conversation. The room vibrated with excitement. What was going on?
They all went silent and turned as one to face the door. Martha’s sister, Louisa, stood in the doorway in a fine blue-flowered dress, ruffled apron over full skirts, dark hair topped by a trim bonnet of the same fabric as her dress, the bonnet’s solid blue bow looped like an elegant flower—as only Louisa could tie a bow. Her face glowed. “Hello, everyone. Sorry we’re late.”
Her tall, handsome husband stepped up behind her carrying little Perry. John Bronough looked every bit the gentleman with his tailored suit. Even a vest. He took off his tall hat, hung it on a peg on the log wall, and gave a passing smile to everyone, proceeding to greet each one.
After quick hugs for the long-absent relatives, Louisa grabbed an old apron and went right to work helping Ma. She always seemed to know what to do without Ma having to tell her. Martha would never forget how her own life changed when her sister left. There were only two girls, and since Louisa was older than Martha by seven years, Louisa was usually the one Ma called on to help her. Oh, Martha had her chores, but being so much younger, she always had time to run and play with her brothers. Then Louisa married her handsome John Bronough, and Martha’s freedom ended.
She heaved a sigh, remembering. Eight years old and a drudge already.
Something in the men’s conversation caught her attention, something about new land, and she slipped closer to hear what they were talking about. Doc had become the center. He turned to John, as if to catch him up on the discussion. “Well, according to our cousin William, there’s fine land to be had in Missouri.”
John nodded. “So when are you thinking of leaving?”
Martha snapped her head around to give Doc a straight look.Leaving? Doc? Missouri? He’d just gotten home from Stephen’s place in Macoupin County. But that was right next door to Greene County, here in Illinois. Now he was going to Missouri? She bit her lower lip. Well, Missouri wasn’t so far. . . .
Deep in thought she missed Doc’s answer, but John was quizzing him further. “So where is Carroll County?”
“In western Missouri,” Doc said. “Not the farthest edge, but close.”
Martha’s mouth dropped open. Close to the edge? The western edge? She’d never see Doc again.