Thirty-two million year old fossilized rose fragments discovered by Steven Manchester in the John Day Fossil Beds of eastern Oregon were harbingers to the cultivated wild and imported roses traveling westward in the 1800s as priceless treasures linking pioneers to homes and loved ones they were leaving behind. Pioneers began the perilous two thousand mile overland trek under differing circumstances. Many were well equipped but others were ill prepared, lacking enough supplies, equipment or fortitude to endure the unimaginable hardship, deprivation and loss of life that accompanied their hopes and dreams of a better life in the wide open frontier. Multitudes of women eagerly embraced the adventure but others were painfully uprooted from homes, left with no choice but to follow westward bound husbands and migrating family. Diaries and letters attest to tearful partings between loved ones separating for all time.
“The saddest parting of all was when my mother took leave of her aged and sorrowing mother, knowing full well that they would never meet again…”
Martha Gay Masterson, pioneer of 1852*
Handed down from mother to daughter, friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor or dug from one’s own dooryard garden, pioneer women packed roses along with their Bibles, quilts and dishes. Tender slips, cuttings and roots stowed in buckets, rooted in potatoes and even in tea cups needed protection from freezing temperatures and drying heat. When crossing arid lands women shared their own scarce drinking water with their precious cargo to keep it alive. Not all roses crossed the plains successfully. Wagons broke down and overworked animals died, possessions were abandoned and some pioneers took to foot carrying what they could on their backs and the carefully packed roses perished or were planted trailside. Legend has it that one could travel westward following roses marking tragedy on the trail.
Six to eight months later most travelers did arrive, fanning out across the land. New homes were constructed, essential kitchen gardens seeded and carefully planted and tended surviving roses symbolized triumph over adversity, providing a sense of place in a wild unfamiliar landscape. These spreading roots and bountiful canes of fragrant blooms were generously shared; weaving distant former lives with hopeful new beginnings, kindling friendships with strangers while evoking memories of days gone by and those left behind.
*From the excellent book, One Woman’s West, by Martha Gay Masterson, edited by Lois Barton, Spencer Butte Press, 1986.
Stay tuned for a future post about Steven Manchester’s amazing rose fossil discovery.