On April 30, 1849, Sarah Bayliss Royce, along with her husband, Josiah, and their daughter, Mary, left her home in Tipton, Iowa, and headed for California in a covered wagon. Along the way, she kept a diary which, nearly thirty years later, served as the basis for a memoir she titled Across the Plains. That book has been freshly transcribed by Jennifer Dawes Adkison from Royce’s original handwritten document, and this new edition is faithful to the original, restoring several passages that were omitted from the previous edition.
In a new introduction Adkison reveals Across the Plains to be far more than a simple narrative of one pioneer woman’s journey west. She explains that Royce wrote the book at the request of her son, Josiah Royce, a well-known professor of philosophy at Harvard University with motives of his own. She crafted the narrative that her son wanted: an argument for spiritual faith and fortitude as foundational to California’s history. Yet the narrative itself, in addition to offering a window into a world that has long lacked close documentation, gives us the opportunity to study the ways in which nineteenth-century western women asserted this primacy of faith and crafted their experience into stories with larger cultural and social resonance.
Scholars have long used Across the Plains to mold and support an iconic image of the resolute pioneer woman. However, until now no one has considered Royce’s own self-conscious creation of this persona. Readers will discover that in many ways, Sarah Royce’s careful construction of this cultural portrait deepens our respect for her and our delight in her travels, travails, and triumphs.