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Nancy "Mary Ann" Davis Wisner's
Recollections of Pioneer Life

At the hearth.

The following is a brief history of Nancy Davis and Zara Judson Wisner written in the year of their fiftieth wedding anniversary. April 27, 1900.

     Inasmuch as our children have desired us to write a sort of history of our married life, we will try to do so; but I am sure we will have nothing to tell them that will be interesting or profitable to them. I do not know whether we are expected to give the whole thing in detail, or whether we are just to give an outline of it. If the latter, I am sure I do not know what to write and what to leave unwritten.

      In the first place, I was born, of course, on August 3, 1831, in Rush County, Indiana, lived there until I married, which was on the 24th of February, 1850. I cannot say as Jacob of old said to Pharaoh, "Few and evil have been the days of my pilgrimage." On the contrary, it seems like a long time, but the changes that have taken place during our lives would seem to warrant a much longer time.

      I was about grown before I ever saw a match for starting fires. If we got out of fire at home, we would have to go to a neighbor and borrow fire. I never saw a cook stove until I was twelve, and never saw any candy, raisins, gingerbread, nor any such goodies until I was about twelve; but we had something I think was far better. It was maple sugar. We always planned to be at home at the "stirring off" time.


      But the greatest difference in those days and now is the way girls were brought up. They did not get much schooling, and when we did go to school, everyone had a different book to recite from. I had the New Testament. We never went to picnics or parties, for there were none. We went to singing schools and spelling schools once in a while, but we never spent much time visiting. We girls, if we had the time to or wanted to do something for ourselves, would go out and break the flax, hatchel it, and spin and weave it into cloth to take to town to sell. We would go horseback with a roll of cloth ahead of us. And there was no end to the amount of woolen goods we spun and wove. We wore home-made dresses and coarse shoes to church in winter, and we never had nervous prostration nor any of those diseases so common among women now.

      Well, as you already know, we were married in the springtime of the year and lived at my father's house until August. Then we went to town and bought our things to go to housekeeping. We bought pots and kettles and frying pans (for nobody but those pretty well-off had stoves to cook on), and a few dishes, two bedsteads, a table and six chairs. We cooked in the fireplace and did not even have the old crane that I had been used to at my father's. Sometimes my pots would upset, sending the ashes into everything. I won't tell you how many times my peas were upset and spilled into the ashes, and each time I would have to wash and wash and put them on again.

      But I did not tell you where we lived when we went to house-keeping. Well, we lived in an old log cabin on my father's farm one mile and a half north of his home place. It was called the weaning place, because as his children married off they lived there until they could do better. We lived there two years, and then in August, 1853, we bought land in Blackford County, Indiana. My father gave me eighty acres, and we bought from him eighty acres of unimproved land. We lived there a few months more than one year, and then sold out for $600 and returned to my father's house where we remained over the winter.

      Then we struck out for the state of Iowa. We wanted to go to Kansas, but were afraid it would be a slave state, so we started to far-off Iowa, which seemed further away than California does now. One of our horses, unfortunately for us, died, and the other one became lame, so we had to trade her off for another one. All this happened while we were not more than one hundred miles from home.

      We crossed the Wabash River near Terre Haute, crossed the Illinois River at Beardstown, then passed through Springfield, Illinois, then crossed the Mississippi at Keokuk, Iowa, and then reached our destination in about three weeks from the time we started. We bought land on the Skunk River, five miles north of Des Moines, in Webster County.

      We then had three young children, the youngest about one year old. There was no house on the land, but there was a crop of sod corn on part of it and plenty of vegetables. We sold $25 worth of sod corn. There was an old stable, in which horses had been kept all summer. We cleaned it out pretty thoroughly and dug it out with a hoe. It was just logs laid up and had a roof on it. We put poles across them, and that was our bedstead. We cooked outdoors.

      Then I had my first introduction to rattlesnakes. I was sitting in the door, and the children were playing just outside when I heard that horrible rattle. I did not have to be told what it was. I grabbed the children into the house and put them up on the bed, and took hold of a board, as it was all I could get hold of. By the time I had done that it was inside the house and running across the floor. I kept striking at it and missing it for quite a while; I felt I must kill it or some of us would be bitten. At last I killed it, although I nearly killed myself. Then I told the children that I would never live in a place where the rattlesnakes came into the house, that we would get to the timber where their father was and tell him so. Well, we had not gone a hundred yards when we saw another one, stretched out sunning itself, so we passed by on the other side, but we had not crossed the field until we say the third one, all of them large. The one we killed had seven rattles; that is as large as they generally are on the prairies. Although that was our first sight of a rattlesnake, it was not our last. For a number of years, they were plentiful. They were round about us, sometimes under our feet, sometimes gathered up in a bundle of something we were handling, sometimes in our houses. The strangest part of it was that none of us were ever bitten.

Allen county, circa 1880.

      Becoming dissatisfied with the cold winters, we moved to Kansas in the spring of 1857. We stopped in Allen County, and settled on a quarter section of prairie land near Choachique1, which was then the county seat. We had a hard trip, and when we got here, there was no grass, for it was a late spring, and we could get but little grain for our horses, but they were good rustlers and managed to live. There was plenty of land here: the whole creation seemed spread out before us. We were the first ones to settle on the prairie, so they called us "those folks on the prairie." There were plenty of Indians. The Osage tribe was nearest us and the most numerous.

A little cabin home.

      When we had been here three years there was a famine. It did not rain the whole winter of 1859 nor all the summer of 1860, only just small showers, about enough to lay the dust, but we lived. I do not want to tell you how we fought droughts, chinch bugs, and grasshoppers until 1861. Then came what was worse than anything else, the dreadful Civil War, which tried men's souls and showed the kind of stuff the women of Kansas were made of. The most of the men went to war, so the women had to do all the homework, both outdoors and in the house.

      After their father enlisted in the army in 1863, the children and I, in the spring of 1864, ploughed and cultivated a crop of corn, but got nothing but fodder, for it was too dry for corn.

      In the spring of 1865, we went to Iowa to our friends to stay until the war closed. Then after it was over, we came back to Kansas and bought the farm that we now live on and which we expect to die on.

      We went in debt $1000 for the farm, which caused us much deprivation and hardship. Especially was it hard on the older children, who were then just the age to want nice clothes and such things worse than they ever do afterwards. But I hope they will forgive us and try to think it was for the best, for when I look back over it all, I cannot see where I could have bettered it, considering what we had to contend with -- droughts, bugs, grasshoppers, and war, but we lived through it all and perhaps enjoyed life as much as the average of humankind; and now we are thankful that it is as well as it is.

      The thing I regret most as I look back on my past life is that I have not always lived up to the requirements of the Gospel as I should have done. I should not have let my mind dwell so much on getting gain, accumulating this world's goods, for I can see plainly now as I am nearing the end of life's journey that we should make it the chief aim of life to gain the Glory World, and I desire nothing else for my children than that they lay up their treasures in Heaven and that they begin now. Life is too short and the work too important to wait or be put off. I could never die happy knowing that any of my children or grandchildren were living ungodly lives, and thereby denying the God that bought them with the precious blood of His Son, our Savior. May God bless and keep them is the prayer of their mother.

                    Nancy Wisner

1(Editor's note: Choachique, also spelled Cofachique and Cofachiqui, was renamed Iola in 1859.)
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