Sweet Betsy from Pike
I love adventure. When anyone says “Go” I put my hat on. That’s why I fell in love with Ike. I loved Ike as much as I loved my dog Yellow. They were both pure adventure. In 1880 Ike was ready to leave Indiana and go west. I wanted to go with him. He’d sold his family farm and had money to make the trip and start a new life.
Ike’s sale of his farm displeased my father. ‘Pa’ said I couldn’t marry him because he wasn’t reliable. My Pa and I never did get along. So I ran away with Ike. The only things I took from home were my yellow dog and my gold locket with a picture of my dead ‘Ma’.
From Indiana we went west on riverboats along the Ohio River, and then took a steamboat up the wide Mississippi River, then west again on the Missouri River to Kansas City. The first part of the trip by water was wonderful. The riverboats are floating palaces. Once we even had a private room. It was one long honeymoon trip. Ike was so sweet to me. He took care of me. When we slept on the deck, he’d let me use the blanket and his arm for a pillow. Yellow would keep my feet warm.
Bad luck was with us – Our wagon broke down
1. Have you ever taken a long over-land trip?
2. How can friendships change when people travel?
In the second half of the 19th century, settlers going west crossed the prairie states by wagon. Even after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, most settlers still moved west by wagon because the cost was lower. A young woman tells this story about her trip across the prairies in 1880. It is hard for us to imagine how difficult the trip was.
By the latter half of the 18th century, the eastern part of the states was settled by mostly Euro-Americans. The Indians had died, moved west, or onto reservations.
The frontier was now west of Missouri.
The middle states, the prairie states, were still open. The frontier still gave people opportunity to find adventure and new lives.
In early April we got to Kansas City, which felt like the edge of civilization. Until then we were in settled territory. The rest of the continent going west was still wide open mountains, rivers, prairies, with wild animals and Indians. I was scared but I had Ike to depend on, and Yellow to keep me company. In Kansas City we joined a wagon train ready to leave. We bought a covered wagon and two pair of cattle to pull it. I bought chickens and a fancy rooster I called Shanghai. That’s when Ike and I had our first argument – over money. He started going to bars and gambling. I told him we couldn’t afford to lose any money.
Crossing the prairies was hard, but in a group it was fun. The families were from everywhere. Some had just come from Europe; they couldn’t speak English yet. My best friend was Molly from South Carolina. I loved the way she talked; her Southern accent was soft, like singing.
At night we’d park our wagons in a circle for protection. Molly and I cooked together: beans, salt pork, eggs, corn mush. Then we’d sit around the campfire and look at the stars, tell stories, sing songs. Molly’s brother Jake would play the fiddle. If we didn’t know the songs, we’d make ’em up. Ike was jealous of Jake. He even was jealous of Molly. He said I liked her better than I liked him. He’d pout and go to the wagon. We had many fights about his jealousy.
On the Platte River, Molly saved my life. We were crossing the river. It was high and fast with spring water Our cattle got so frightened, they wouldn’t move. Ike jumped in the river to lead them across. Suddenly a log hit the wagon and pushed me off the seat. I hit my head as I fell into the river. I was unconscious and floating down river, head down. Yellow tried to help, but wasn’t strong enough to pull me. Molly jumped in, grabbed me and pulled me ashore. She swims well. From then on Molly and I were like blood sisters.
We lost one pair of cattle in that river. They got loose and the last time we saw them, they were floating down the Platte. I hope they lived and somebody took care of them.
The prairie was full of surprises. Early one evening, after the wagons were in a circle, we heard shouting. I saw 20 fierce-looking Pawnee Indians on horses coming down from the hill. I was terrified. I couldn’t find Ike. I grabbed his gun and crawled under the front wheel of the wagon. Those Indians raced around our wagons twice and rode off. They wanted to scare us away. They didn’t want us to settle there. I never found out where Ike was during that Indian visit. That night we fried our last piece of bacon.
Somewhere in Kansas, we had started to run out of food. We ate the rooster first because he couldn’t lay eggs. We ate the hens one by one.
In Wyoming, near Fort Laramie, Ike lost half of our money in a card game. I was so angry; I yelled at him. That was our first real fight. Yellow jumped on him to protect me. Traveling is hard on love.
We stopped in Salt Lake City to buy flour, bacon, coffee and sugar. I was nervous about those Mormon polygamists. Someone told me they steal women. I didn’t need to worry. They want only willing wives. That city is impressive, only 30 years old but a population of 140,000 already.
Outside Salt Lake City, Ike joined another big poker game. Before I could get him away, our wagon train left us. I cried. I almost left without him. He didn’t quit playing until he was broke. Luckily I’d hidden some money in the coffee can.
Outside Salt Lake City, Ike found another big card game
That night we headed across that desert alone. Bad luck was with us. Our wagon broke down. We worked on it until dawn. When the sun came up, I started crying. “Ike, I’m worn out” I said, and I lay down in the sand. I was exhausted and dehydrated.
“Get up now, Betsy. You’ll get sand in your eyes.” He showed no sympathy.
That made me angry. “You old lummox, you. Don’t you have any pity for me? Women are more delicate than men. We’ve traveled over mountains and prairies, crossed rivers and now a desert. I’m just too tired. I need a rest.”
“Get up, Betsy. If you’re such an angel, why don’t you have wings?” Ike wasn’t the same. The trip had changed him. He wasn’t my sweet Ike anymore. I looked and I didn’t see any love in his eyes. I changed in that moment too. Something died in me right then.
I got up and shook off the sand. I had to go on. I needed to catch up with Molly. We found them, camped at the first mining town. The next night there was a dance and I got all dressed up. I was so happy to be with people again. To make a long story short, Ike got jealous when I danced with a miner. He came over and said, “Betsy, I don’t want you dancing with strange men.”
Wagon train route from Pike County westward
“Ike, this isn’t a strange man; this is Sweet.”
Then Ike insulted me, “YOU sure aren’t sweet, little lady.”
Sweet said, “Apologize to the lady, or fight me.” Ike lost the fight with that big tall miner and I went home with Molly.
The next morning I started thinking. In Pike County, Indiana, we knew everyone and people didn’t change. Society kept people together. The frontier was different. No one knew anything about anyone else and they didn’t ask personal questions. If Ike and I had stayed in Pike County we would have stayed together for life. This trip changed both of us. We weren’t the same and the frontier made it easy for us to play out new lives.
About noon, he came by the wagon. “Betsy, I want a divorce. You can keep the wagon and everything in it, including old Yellow.”
That sounded fine to me. I was mad, but I gave a shout, “Good-bye you big lummox, I’m glad you backed out.”
settler a person who goes to live permanently in previously unoccupied land
prairie a broad largely flat tract of grassland
adventure exciting or dangerous experience
reliable dependable, consistently good in quality or performance
mush boiled corn meal, soft food
fiddle musical instrument, violin (informal)
pout to push out one’s lips, especially as a sign of annoyance, to act offended
crawl to move on hands and knees
Mormon a religion begun in the 19th century in the United States, centered in Utah
polygamy practice of having more than one wife, Mormons practiced this in the 19th century
broke (slang) having spent all one’s money, bankrupt
exhausted total loss of strength
dehydrated dried, having moisture removed
lummox a clumsy or stupid person (informal)
delicate fine in texture, easily injured, liable to illness, requiring special handling
insulted to speak or act in a way that hurts the feelings or pride of a person
apologize a statement of regret for an action, saying one is sorry
backed out to withdraw from an agreement
1. UNDERSTANDING THE MAIN IDEA
Circle the letter of the best answer.
1. The story of Ike and Betsy shows that...
a. to go across the country in a covered wagon was easy.
b. people can change under stress and travel.
c. people who went west drank and gambled and were not good people.
2. The story wants us to know...
a. that going west was a mistake for most people.
b. that crossing the continent was very difficult in the 19th century.
с. that the continent was settled from east to west by 1880.
2. RECOGNIZING TRUE AND FALSE STATEMENTS
Decide if the statement is true or false. Write the sentence from the story that supports your answer.
Betsy didn’t love Ike. False
That’s why I fell in love with Ike.
1. Traveling on a riverboat was very difficult.
2. Betsy and Ike bought supplies for the wagon train trip in Kansas City.
3. Molly was not very helpful to Betsy.
4. Betsy was afraid of the Mormons because she thought they would steal her money.
5. Ike was not sympathetic to Betsy when she was exhausted that night the wagon broke down.
6. Betsy decided her marriage would have been successful if they had stayed in Indiana.
Fill in the space with the best word from the list below.
1. Betsy wanted to go with Ike because he loved ______ and new places.
2. Traveling in a covered wagon across a wide _________ was difficult in 1880.
3. Ike would sometimes __________ and go by himself into the wagon when he got angry.
4. When the Indians attacked, Betsy __________ under the wagon wheels.
5. The Mormons are a religious group that used to practice ___________.
6. In a desert, one must drink a lot of water to avoid ____________.
7. Betsy said that the trip had been so hard that she was _____________.
8. Ike would not ______ to Betsy after insulting her.
9. Betsy was glad that Ike wanted to ______________ of the marriage.
10. This story shows how life on the ______________ allows people to change.
4. DISCUSSION AND WRITING TOPICS
A. Describe a day on a wagon train going west.
B. Describe a family preparing a meal at night on the prairie.
C. Which state would you have decided to live in on the trip and why?
D. What do you think happened to Ike? to Betsy? after the story.
5. ROLE PLAY
Students take parts. Plan the dialogue or improvise.
A. Betsy and Ike: talking about getting a divorce.
B. Betsy and Pa: Arguing about Ike, and Betsy wanting to marry him and go west.
C. Betsy and Ike: In Kansas City, deciding about what to buy to take on the trip.
D. Betsy, Molly, Ike, Jake: Ike getting jealous and starting to fight with the other three.
E. Betsy and Ike: After Indian attack, Betsy asking Ike where he was during attack.
F. Betsy and a Mormon: He tries to talk her into being one of his wives.
G. Betsy and Ike: In the desert, she blames him for losing money; he says it’s her fault.
H. Betsy, Ike, and Sweet: They argue when Ike insults Betsy at dance.
1. l. b; 2. b
1. False. The riverboats are floating palaces.
2. True. We bought a covered wagon and two pair of cattle.
3. False. Molly saved my life.
4. False. Betsy was afraid they steal women.
5. True. He showed no sympathy.
6. True. In Pike County we would have stayed together for life.
3. 1. adventure; 2. continent; 3. pout; 4. crawled; 5. polygamy; 6. dehydration; 7. exhausted; 8. apologize; 9. back out; 10. frontier
As humorous as this ever-popular song is, it tells of the pioneers hardships and dangers they met while traveling by covered wagon to settle the West.
Sweet Betsy from Pike
They swam the wide rivers and crossed the tall peaks,
And camped on the prairie for weeks upon weeks,
The Shanghai’d been eaten, the cattle just died,
The last piece of bacon that morning was fried.
They soon reached the desert where Betsy gave out,
And down in the sand she lay rolling about,
While Ike half distracted looked on with surprise,
Saying: Betsy get up, you’ll get sand in your eyes.
Long Ike and sweet Betsy attended a dance,
Where Ike wore a pair of his Pike County pants.
Sweet Betsy was covered with ribbons and rings,
Said Ike: You’re an angel, but where are your wings?
A miner said: Betsy, will you dance with me?
I will you, old hoss, if you don’t make too free
But don’t dance me hard. Do you want to know why?
I was sick in the desert and almost did die.
Long Ike and sweet Betsy got married of course
But Ike, being jealous, obtained a divorce.
And Betsy, well satisfied, said with a shout:
Good-bye, you big lummox, I’m glad you backed out.
By Myrtis Mixon
From Americana Historical Spotlights in Story and Song