I had the good fortune to visit Virginia City last summer, the place to which a then-25-year-old Montana pioneer, Sarah Raymond, emigrated with her mother and brother in 1865 during the westward expansion of the United States.
Do you know that feeling of getting close to a character in a novel or a real person in a biography; the feeling that you don’t want to let them go at the end of the book; that you wish you knew them in the flesh?
I experience this frequently. I am very attached to the long-gone people whose books I’ve published and whose biographies have been lost to public view sometimes for more than a century. Researching their lives, adding information to these books that the original authors left out or could not have known when they wrote the books, makes me feel I have a relationship with them.
One of these people is pioneer woman Sarah Raymond Herndon.
Virginia City is not a ghost town. Although the tiny hamlet has been preserved and is a tourist destination, people still live there.
Montana was not the destination that Sarah and her family set out for. In fact, you may be surprised that they didn’t HAVE a destination when they started the months-long wagon trip to the west. In her lively, humorous, and poignant diary of the trip, she describes the day that they decided to go to Montana.
At that time, Virginia City was a boom town in the midst of a gold rush. To walk the streets where she walked on her first day in town, to see the storefront where her future husband had his furniture-making business, to see where they lived, and ultimately see where they are buried, all made her more real to me.
On the trip to Montana, she and the wagon train migrants had many adventures, large and small. Storms, lack of water, the search for good grass for their oxen, and the ever-present worry about attacks by Indians (who were not happy about the torrent of whites moving in)—Sarah documented them all. In 1865, this was very wild country they were traveling through, not easy to cross.
But there was a lot that Sarah found humorous as well, including an unexpected profession of love from a boy. She made deep friendships and her observations of others are keen and interesting.
Sarah and her husband spent the rest of their lives in Virginia City. There is a wonderful small cemetery on a hill above the town where they and their kin rest. Traveling through Montana on Interstate 90, Virginia City is not far off the beaten track. You can easily make the trip from Bozeman and return the same day.
If you go, read Sarah’s wonderful book. You’ll feel you have a friend in town.