Diary 1862, part 3: Over the River and Through the Woods and Up to the Quarry and Over to Earlville

See part 1 and part 2 for background on Catharine Siglin’s 1862 diary.

From 1989 to 1994, I went to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. For the first year, I lived in Chicago, about fifteen minutes away from school via el train. After that, I lived in the western, and then the far western ’burbs. Whether by car or by commuter train, the trip was over an hour each way – a longer than average commute for the area at the time, but not wildly out of line.

Later, after we’d moved to Minnesota, I started reading Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski books, which are set in Chicago. I enjoyed them for many reasons, but one thing that made them seem especially authentic – and gave me a perverse feeling of nostalgia for my time in the Chicago area – was the amount of time that V.I. spends in the car, getting from work to home to the various places she needs to go for her investigations.

When I think of the kinds of people who regularly have to spend a lot of time in transit, I think of people with cars or other motorized transportation. Or hunter gatherers who have to move around to get their food. When I think of 19th century farmers, I imagine people who don’t get away from home very much. I remember how momentous it was for Almanzo to make the twenty-four-mile round trip to bring Laura home from school in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years. Or how Beret Hansa felt so isolated and trapped in her prairie farm home that she climbed into her big wooden chest with her baby and didn’t ever want to come back out, in Ole Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth.

So I was surprised to see so many references to travel in Great-Great Grandma Catharine Siglin’s diary, starting with the very first entry.

brout one load of
wood from malugins
in the after noon
went over to
Gobles avisiting


went to the quarry
brout to lodes
went to Fetherlees
to the Dance had
aquarl [a quarrel] with Alf


whent to pawpaw
had a good time


whent to pawpaw
had toth drawn out


How far was she traveling? To get a rough I idea, I sketched out just the trips she listed for the month of January. Hover over a trip to see that day’s diary entry and an estimate of the miles traveled. Hover over a destination to see additional information about the place. I’ve included the modern-day roads as points of reference. Be patient, it may take a little while to load.

Obviously there’s a fair amount of guesswork here. And I’ve mapped the journeys as the crow flies, not on the roads that existed at the time, although since it was winter and Mrs. Siglin was probably traveling in a sleigh, she may not have gone by the roads. That said, of the 27 days she logged in January, she was traveling on 14 of them, in some cases upwards of 20 miles in a day. Assuming her horse could do four miles an hour or so, on some days, she could have been on the road for five hours. She makes me and V.I. Warshawski look like homebodies.

Looking at Mrs. Siglin’s travel record is a healthy reminder that These Happy Golden Years and Giants in the Earth are fiction. And that I need to check my assumptions.

A note about the photo with this post: I haven’t been able to find photos of my mother’s father’s family members (Catharine Siglin’s branch) with their vehicles. So this is a photo from my mother’s mother’s family, showing her father J.D. Peters and her step-grandfather Earl Shinn bringing their cotton in to Lexington, Oklahoma in 1915 or thereabouts.

Next time: how the diary reflects the Civil War, and what I learned from running the text through Inmagic DOS.

For more information:

On nineteenth-century rural road conditions:
Wells, Christopher W. “The Changing Nature of Country Roads: Farmers, Reformers, and the Shifting Uses of Rural Space, 1880-1905.” Agricultural History, vol. 80, no. 2, 2006, pp. 143–166. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3744804.

On the fictional aspects and political ramifications of the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder:
Fellman, Anita Claire. 2008. Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

On using historical GIS data to understand narrative sources:
Lafreniere, Don, and Jason Gilliland. ““All the World’s a Stage”: A GIS Framework for Recreating Personal Time‐Space from Qualitative and Quantitative Sources.” Transactions in GIS 19.2 (2015): 225-246.

On some of the people whom the US government forcibly removed from this land in the 1830s:
Wikipedia: Shabbona
Wikipedia: Billy Caldwell

For the GIS data I used:
Illinois State Geological Survey Public Land Survey System
IPUMS NHGIS: National Historic Geographic Information System

1 Comment

  1. pei-lin yu
    January 11, 2019

    Wow! Catharine did get around!

    As I recall, Ruby Doyle from the Montana Diaries also covered many miles, although the 1920s they were by horseback, sledge/sleigh, and trolley.

    At times reading Catharine’s entries they seem like poems, or short songs, even.

    PS in-joke: I sense a “‘gasm” in the future here…maybe by bicycle?


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