I finished this book during the pandemic of 2020 and during the time of the unrest following the killing of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, by police in Minneapolis. I now understand systemic racism in our country. I now understand white privilege, but it has taken me a long time. The research on this book forced me to confront our horrendous past of slavery. Slavery and its aftermath have taken a terrible toll on our country. Systemic racism, white supremacy and privilege, social injustices, suppression of voting rights for blacks and people of color continue today. Will we ever stop discriminating against people because of the color of their skin, their culture, and their beliefs?
Octoroon society existed in New Orleans in the early 19th century. A small portion of mixed-race people - mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon - formed a select gentry. Some were well-to-do. Some even held slaves. (One drop of negro blood made you negro. Mulattos were half black, quadroons were one quarter, and octoroons were one eighth.) I first learned about octoroon gentry in a film at the Josephine School Community Museum in Berryville, Virginia where I am still a member. Thank you, Dorothy Davis.
Many, many books fiction and non-fiction have been written about the Oregon and California trails overland migration, roughly the years from 1840 to 1860 when the Great Migration took place in the United States. Many reasons are listed for this phenomenon: bank failure, crop failure, disease, wanderlust, crowded conditions, free land, opportunity to start a new life, gold rush of 1849, Manifest Destiny.
When I first started reading the biographies, travel books, diaries, and oral histories, my one thought was: these people were crazy. Crazy to put up with the travails and hardships of a good six months on the open road, traveling for the most part in farms wagons drawn by oxen, mules or horses. The early wagon trains in the 1840s had different hardships than those who followed in the 1850s.
Women’s diaries wrote of daily life and hardships. They never mentioned women’s problems, sanitation, or childbirth, which were taboo topics. Women often didn’t want to leave home. Their husbands did. As in every age, there were extraordinary women in the 19th century who never made it into history books.
Men’s diaries noted where they found feed for animals and what the trail was like, how long it took to get from one place to the next. They also wrote about the disagreements in the trains and frontier justice.
Danger came from accidents and disease. Most people died of disease. Cholera was a big killer. Danger from Native Americans was overstated. Fear fed fears. People repeated hair-raising stories of Indian attack massacres they read in the newspapers, which for the most part were unfounded. Whites did impersonate Indians in raids upon the emigrants. Emigrant men were armed to the teeth, fearing an enemy that for the most part didn’t materialize. More often than not they killed themselves in accidental gun incidents. Wagon accidents and drownings were common.
Native Americans played an important supportive role in the migration with little thanks in return. They shared information with the settlers about the best trails, sources of food and water, and helped them in dangerous river crossings. They traded much needed food and articles of clothing. In return, their food sources were killed and run off, grass eaten and trampled, water contaminated, wood supply used up. When they asked the overlanders for tribute or tax, they were given so grudgingly if at all because the overlanders believed that the indigenous people did not own the land or resources over which they traveled. It was theirs for the taking. They believed in Manifest Destiny, a term originating in 1845, that expressed the belief that it was the mission of Anglo-Saxon Americans to expand their civilization and institutions across North America.
Without the support of the Native Americans, there would probably have been no migration; or the number of emigrants would have been greatly reduced by disease, starvation, and accident. Many fewer would have reached their final destination. When the real effect of the migration made itself felt to the indigenous people, they fought back only to have their way of life and culture destroyed.
The people who availed themselves of the opportunity for migration were mostly white, arrogant in their claims and outlook on life, what was owed to them as a matter of birthright, all lumped in the convenient term of Manifest Destiny. It was God’s will and the right of “Americans” to expand west.
African Americans went west. Accounts exist of who they were, where they came from, and where they went. Some were free; some were taken as slaves. Oregon territory was not well disposed to admitting people of color, free or slave. The infamous lash law was effective at keeping blacks out of the state. California was more open and welcoming, but not without its prejudices. In 1850 California was admitted to the union as a free state.
Some of the characters in Wings of the Dawn are inspired by real life people like Biddy Mason (1818-1891). She was a nurse, midwife, real estate businesswoman, and philanthropist in Los Angeles. She was born a slave in Georgia in 1818. A Mormon family who owned her took her to California in 1851 where they would not free her. She petitioned the California courts and eventually won her freedom. She was one of the first African American women to own land in Los Angeles. She amassed a good fortune and shared it with many. (See Wikipedia, Biddy Mason)
Some of the events come from real life diaries. I have tried to be as historically correct as possible, but any errors are mine alone. Above all, this is a work of fiction. It is one fictional overland migration story based on a character I created in my historical romance, Wings of the Wind. It led me to places I would never have gone as much of my writing often does. It allowed me to take a chance and write about what I don’t know and in so doing I expanded my horizons.
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I'm a serious writer, meaning I have a regular daily writing habit, and I'm interested in sharing my work through publication. My favorite literary form is the novel. I write to entertain myself and my readers.