Women who settled the West in the years after the Civil War often faced harsh and unremitting toil. Laboring from well before dawn until well after the sun had set, women helped plant and harvest crops, raised large families, and kept house with rudimentary equipment. Long periods of isolation from neighbors and kin were common; social occasions or visits by travelers and kin were rare and cherished events. Mary Ann Hafen immigrated from Switzerland to Utah with her Mormon family in 1860 at age six and her first husband died when she was barely twenty. In this account, she described her move from Utah to Nevada in 1891 with her second husband and their polygamous family, as well as their subsequent life there.
Because Santa Clara had so little land for so many settlers, we decided it would be best for me to take my young family and move to Bunkerville, where a settlement had been started and where there was more and cheaper land. My son Albert was already down there helping John’s other wife, Anna.
My birthday occurred the day before we were to leave. Our relatives and friends gathered to give a combined birthday and farewell party.
On May 6, 1891, with me and our five children tucked into a covered wagon, John clucked at the horses and drove away from our old home town. Another wagon, driven by young Johnnie, conveyed our household effects. As neighbors, relatives, and friends crowded about to see us off, I with others shed a few tears. I knew I was going to something of the same hardships I had known in childhood days; that my children were to grow up in a strange land with scarcely a relative near; and that they too would have to share in the hardships of subduing a new country.
Our drive was not unpleasant, however. The country was all new to me as I had never been beyond Santa Clara westward. Past Conger Farm, up Conger Hill, and on to Camp Springs Flat we traveled and there camped for the night. The next day we drove past the Cliffs, and down the long Slope where great Joshua trees looked like soldiers with their helmets and spears. The second night we spent at the Beaver Dams on a clear little creek where gnawed young cottonwoods gave evidence of beaver being present. The next day we passed the beginnings of Littlefield. Then we followed the Virgin River bed, crossed Mesquite flat, where a few farms and shanties showed settlement, again crossed the river, and arrived at Bunkerville.
The little town was rather inviting. In the early dusk the numerous young cottonwoods along the field canals and along the, town ditches looked like an oasis in a desert. There was only one fence in the whole town and that was around Samuel Wittwer’s lot.
Albert was overjoyed to see us. John’s other wife, Anna, had supper waiting for us when we arrived. Among other things she served alfalfa greens dressed with white sauce. It was quite a tasty dish.
The next morning we went up to the little place that John had purchased from a Danishman, Brother Jorgensen. It was a two-roomed adobe house with dirt floors and dirt roof. That did not look so inviting, but John promised that he would see that it was soon finished off with a good roof and floors, and probably would put a second story on the house to make more bedrooms.
The big lot already had five or six almond trees growing, and a nice vineyard of grapes. But there was a little wash running through the side of the lot which had to be filled in; and there was only a makeshift fence of mesquite brush piled about three feet high. Besides, the lot was covered with rocks, because it was close to the gravel hill. Our twenty-five-acre farm, about a mile and a half above town, was only partly cleared of arrow weeds and mesquite. It was sandy land with some large sand knolls to be leveled.
The cow we had brought down was dry so John turned her in as part payment on the land. Later another was brought down from Santa Clara. Because of his duties as Bishop in Santa Clara my husband had to hurry back and left Albert, our sixteen-year-old son, in charge of the planting.
As soon as we could we planted corn, cane, cotton, squashes and melons in the field; and vegetables in the town lot. The brush fences were but poor protection from the stray animals that went foraging about. However we got a pretty good crop from everything planted that year. Albert dug up three young mulberry trees from Mesquite and planted them around our shadeless house. Now, after forty-seven years of growth, those mulberry trees completely shade the old place.
I remember how in those earliest years we were disturbed by the hot winds that swept over the dry bench lands from the south.
That first fall John came back bringing a load of lumber to finish off the house. During the winter he and Albert put in the floors and ceiling; built up the adobe walls to make a second story; and put on a shingle roof. There was no stairway up so the children used a ladder out of doors.
From the first we found that the river dam was far more unstable here than at Santa Clara. Each flood that came down the river broke our Bunkerville dam. Nothing but a loose brush and rock dam seemed feasible here because of the soft sandy river bottom, which was quite in contrast to the rocky bottom of the Santa Clara Creek. Because of this softness, teams were often stuck in the quicksand and had to be dug out. Range animals occasionally mired fast and starved to death in the sandy bars of the river.
Before we had been in our new location eight months I became homesick to see the folks in Santa Clara. So when John took a load of grain up to the grist mill in Washington, I went along. It was pretty hard pulling for his little span of mules so I walked most of the way up the fifteen-mile Slope above Littlefield, to lighten the load. When at last we neared the town, at sight of the old familiar creek, I broke down and cried. And yet from choice I would not have given up my new home, poor though it was.
After that, about every year I managed to make the trip up to see my relatives. And for a while John came down every month or so to help Albert and to make small improvements around the place. But being Bishop at Santa Clara, and with his other three families, he could not be with us much. So I had to care for my seven children mostly by myself. He had provided us a house, lot, and land and he furnished some supplies. But it was a new country and we had a hard time to make a go of it.
Though we almost always had grain on hand, we sometimes found ourselves without flour. At such times we had to grind the wheat in a coffee mill until we could take a grist to the mill at Washington, sixty-five miles away. We also ground corn in the coffee mill and made mush of it. With molasses and milk on the mush it made our breakfast for years.
We hauled our loads of cotton to the cotton factory at Washington and received cloth in exchange. I think we got about twelve and one-half cents per pound for cotton in the seed, and paid fifty to sixty cents a yard for jeans—a cotton and woolen mixed cloth.
Sugar, or sorghum, cane we took to the town sorghum mill and got our year’s supply of molasses. Sugar and honey were almost unknown in those times, so sorghum served as sweetening. Candy pulls around the shining molasses mill were favorite evening pastimes for the young people. Most every year we made a practice of putting up twenty-gallon barrels of preserves—peaches or green tomatoes. The peaches were washed, dumped whole and unpeeled into the big vats of sorghum. After cooking to a preserves they were put into barrels. Green tomatoes were generally gathered just before frost, soaked overnight in salt water, and then cooked over the furnace fire with sorghum as sweetener.
After we had been in Bunkerville about two years, my last child was born—December 8, 1893. He was a fine husky boy, weighing 12.5 pounds. Aunt Mary Bunker, wife of the Bishop, was the acting mid-wife of the town. She came the customary ten days to bathe the baby while I was in bed. We called him Reuben LeRoy. As soon as his father learned of the birth, he came down to Bunkerville. I have never had a doctor at the birth of any of my children, nor at any other time for that matter, and I have never paid more than five dollars for the services of a mid-wife.
When my baby was just a year old, my brother Christian came down on horseback to tell me that mother had died of la grippe. To make a light conveyance, we took the running-gears of a wagon, laid boards across, and padded them with hay and quilts to soften the jolts. Then with my youngest children and with Albert for a driver, we left home at four o’clock in the morning. We arrived at Beaver Dams at sun-up, took fresh horses that my son-in-law-to-be, Henry Leavitt, had taken ahead, and hurried on to Santa Clara by eight that night. The next morning the funeral was held.
Afterwards we divided Mother’s belongings into four piles, then drew cuts to see which should belong to each of us four children. In the draw I got Mother’s bedstead that she had slept on all these years; and some of her nice dishes. We each got seventy-five dollars from money left her by a relative in Switzerland.
It pained me to see that father was fast losing his eyesight. Ever since he had been caught in a blizzard years before, his eyes had troubled him. Often they were sore and inflamed, and now within a year he was to go totally blind, and to be so the fifteen remaining years of his life. He had always been such a hard worker that the handicap of blindness was very hard on him. He would sometimes cry like a child because he was unable to do much work. But he did a good deal, even though blind. He would feel his way with a stick across the wide ditch and into his lot, where he would cut lucern and carry it to his cows. Once he came down to Bunkerville and stayed with me for a while.
With the $75 received at mother’s death, I bought some store goods, brought them to Bunkerville, and sold them off and on for the next two years, thinking I could make a little money in that way. Finally I gave up that venture because it tied me too close. Besides, I did not make much profit, and goods let out on credit were not always paid for, especially those sold to Indians.
I did not want to be a burden on my husband, but tried with my family to be self-supporting. I picked cotton on shares to add to our income; would take my baby to the fields while the other children were at school, for I never took the children out of school if it could possibly be avoided. That cotton picking was very tiresome, back-breaking work but it helped to clothe my children.
I always kept a garden so we could have green things to eat. Keeping that free from weeds and watering it twice a week took lots of time. With a couple of pigs, a cow, and some chickens, we got along pretty well.
In the spring of the year, when the grass sprang up on the hills, almost everybody turned their cows out to graze for the day. Sometimes they failed to return at night, unless there was a young calf to call them back. Often I have walked almost to the mountains, to hunt for and bring back the straying cows. We had alfalfa, or lucern as we called it, in the lot and the children or I always cut it with a sickle or scythe throughout the summer to feed the cows. In the early spring, before the lucern was high enough to cut, we would go to the field and fill sacks with young sweet clover and bring it home to the cows. This clover or young lucern we would mix with straw so the cows would not bloat on it.
We made good use of the grapes on the lot. The thinskins we dried into raisins on the roof of the kitchen. I always made some batches of jam, usually out of the Californias. The Lady Downings and tough-skins we usually sent fresh with peddlers to the mining camps. Albert frequently took them to Delamar or Pioche.
The year after mother died, my oldest girl married—September 3, 1895. She was only seventeen and I hated to see her go, but she got a good husband and has raised a fine family since.
In the spring of 1896 I took my three youngest children and went up to the March conference. Now that Mother was dead, I always stayed with my sister Rosie whenever I visited Santa Clara. When I walked in with my babies there lay Ella, Rosie’s little girl, all blotched with measles.
A week after I got back home with my family they all broke out with measles. One night when I was weary from caring for the sick children, I fell asleep on top of the bed. My boy Wilford, eight years old, crawled out of bed and took a big drink of cold water. The measles went in on him and do what we would we were unable to help him. Smothering spells came on and he jumped up fighting for breath. Shortly before he died he kept looking up to the corner of the ceiling and saying, “I’m coming.” And then he left us. I felt somewhat reconciled to his going because of the dream I had had when he was a baby. I believed that his time had come; that God wanted him on the other side.
For years I had longed for a cool cellar and for a kitchen built onto the house. Albert went out to Mount Trumbell and worked for lumber. He chopped trees for a while and then returned with a load of lumber to build the kitchen for us. His father helped dig the cellar and lay up the walls with rock. Then they made a trip to the nearby mountain and got some heavy cedar and pine logs to put over the cellar. These served as joists below the kitchen floor. Adobe walls for a nice big room were laid up and a roof topped them. But the rooms could not be finished until we had more lumber. Again Albert drove a hundred miles to the Trumbell saw mill and worked for another load. The room was finally finished and we surely welcomed the new comfort of more space.
By this time I had become a grandmother. Mary had a fine little baby girl. But it lived only to be a year and a half old and then died. Mary took sick over the strain and was bedfast for six weeks, but she pulled through all right.
Source:Mary Ann Hafen, Memories of a Handcart Pioneer, with some account of frontier life in Utah and Nevada (Denver, Colorado: privately printed for her descendants, 1938). Reprinted in Christiane Fischer, ed., Let Them Speak for Themselves: Women in the American West 1849–1900, (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1977), 102–107.