Travel Trunks 1

A Once in a Lifetime Trip: 
Early Travel to Chesterfield

One day in, my early 20s, I entered part of our farm that I rarely encountered—the dusty attic, of the brick garage, on our farm. The steep and precarious staircase to the attic rendered it an area off limits to me as a child.  Like most farm kids I know, my parents disciplined through fear. “Fall in the river and the undertow will sweep you away.”  “Wander into a corn field and you may be lost forever.”  “Slip on those stairs and you’ll break your neck.”  So, when I entered this dusty deathtrap (with my Dad’s supervision, of course, despite the years that had passed since my childhood), I tried to take in an attic full of items I had never seen before.

Some things immediately caught my eye. Two old steamer trunks, each with faded canvas and hardened leather on the outside and original peeling paper lining inside.  As I painstakingly restored the trunks, it unleashed an avalanche of questions.  To whom did they belong?  What possessions were carried in them?  How did the trunks’ owners feel leaving family behind they knew they would most likely never see again?  What hopes for the future did they hold for a land they had never traveled to before?

Of course, this is not the type of travel many of us enjoy or dream about today. Travel for pleasure was a luxury reserved for a select, wealthy few. Real travel was usually a once in a lifetime experience for the purpose of moving to a New World destination.  Reasons for leaving native lands varied, but were remarkably similar to reasons people leave today—crowded cities, war-torn regions or the hope of turning economic hardships into opportunity.

The trunks, it turns out, came from Germany with my great-great-great-grandmother in 1850. These trunks had crossed an ocean before arriving in New Orleans, a major port of entry for many immigrants; most didn’t stop at their point of arrival in the United States.  These trunks continued with my family up the Missouri River to the growing community of Chesterfield, one of many like it emerging throughout the country.

A great number of immigrants as well as citizens living in the East ventured even further west.  In the “Wild West” or along one of the many westward migration paths, such as the Oregon Trail, travel could be even more dangerous and isolated. Similar to vacationers today, many travelers overstuffed their trunks and wagons, although probably more from a fear of being caught in a truly desolate land with no nearby stores for hundreds of miles rather than a trivial fear of being caught without the right shoes, ten extra shirts or an umbrella in case of a few drops of rain. So, it stands to reason that folks would bring anything with them they thought they may need and of course, they  weren’t planning on returning anytime in the future either.  However, if you were depending on horses, mules or oxen to pull all of your worldly belongings, as well as the weight of your family, some items might prove impractical. In fact, the Oregon Trail is famously known for being strewn with furniture, hardware and other personal goods that homesteaders had packed for the journey, but discarded when the items became too big a burden.

So, what objects did these voyagers choose to pack?  They usually brought items important to their lives or vital to their existence.  In my family’s case, the contents at one time included eye glasses, a precious commodity in the days before 24-hour eyeglass stores and laser surgery; wood and leather work shoes that were really more like clogs, although it is difficult to imagine working in a field in such footwear; and a bible and hymnal written in German, although my family leaned more toward a “heaven is outside” philosophy. These are the possessions that still remain, but long ago these trunks, like thousands of others, invariably carried clothing, kitchen supplies or tools, family china—although that would make for risky cargo to carry so far—or possibly even wedding gifts or a musical instrument. And, if they were lucky, sketches or photos of family members left behind.

Dreading lines at the airport? Late flights?  Crowded airports?  It’s that time of year when many of us are gathering to celebrate holidays with family and friends.  Imagine packing up the contents of your life into a small trunk or two and leaving loved ones behind with the certain knowledge you would not see them again.  What would you take with you?