Oh How Can I Keep On Singing?: Voices of Pioneer Women

Oh How Can I Keep On Singing?: Voices of Pioneer Women

by Jana Harris


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When Washington Territory was created, the narrow, isolated Okanogan River Valley was considered a wasteland and an Indian reservation, the Chief Joseph Reserve, was established there. But when silver was discovered near what became Ruby City, the land was re-appropriated, and the Native Americans were moved to a more confined area. The Okanogan was then opened up to white homesteaders, with the hope of making the area more attractive to miners.
The interconnected dramatic monologues in Oh How Can I Keep On Singing? are the stories of the forgotten women who settled the Okanogan in the late nineteenth century, arriving by horse-drawn cart to a place that purported to have such fine weather that a barn was unnecessary for raising livestock. Not all of the newcomers survived the cattle-killing winter of 1893. Of those who did, some would not have survived if the indigenous people had not helped them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504018876
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Pages: 136
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Jana Harris teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and at the Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. She is an editor of  Switched-on Gutenberg: A Global Poetry Journal , and the author of the memoir  Horses Never Lie About Love  and the poetry collection  You Haven’t Asked About My Wedding or What I Wore: Poems of Courtship on the American Frontier.

Read an Excerpt

Oh How Can I Keep on Singing?

Voices of Pioneer Women

By Jana Harris


Copyright © 1993 Jana Harris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1885-2



    We walked, of course.
    Omaha to Walla Walla: 5 months, 3 days.
    My husband, Nathan Sloan (known as Kentucky),
    a fireman on the Missouri-Louisville line,
    worked years tallowing valves
    before the railroads fell on slack times.
    He lost his job and the farm.

    In Walla Walla, rested our oxen before
    the baby — christened Caleb — was born,
    walked another week north to where
    Loop Loop Creek crosses the Okanogan.

    Long days, high clouds, temperatures in the 90s.

    Made a land claim, went to Buzzard Lake
    to wash and water our stock,
    met a miner, Dutch Jake, and his dog,
    who infected my husband with gold fever.
    Came back, found our claim jumped,
    went up creek, made another. The only law
    against selling black powder to an Indian.

    Milled lumber too costly — not even a board
    for a coffin. So cut and hewed logs for a cabin,
    our lead ox hauling through mire.
    Local talk had it winters too mild
    to necessitate a barn.

    Humidity high. Nighttime temperatures falling.

    Mosquitoes so thick, Nathan had to stand
    above me as I cooked, battling them off
    with a towel. Morning coffee required
    constant skimming, while bugs
    in our mash appeared as caraway.

    Deer were so plentiful they staggered
    for lack of forage and could be had by clubbing.
    November 1, ten venison hams hung from our eaves.

    Nights getting longer, though unseasonably warm.

    Just before New Year's, I awoke to ice
    in the washbasin. Snowed nineteen inches.
    Temperatures dropped. Snow crusted hard enough
    to cut the lead ox's tendon.
    John Other Day, Cut Nose, and their squaws
    came daily to our door demanding flour.
    Oats: six cents a pound; potatoes, five;
    hay, a hundred a ton if you could find it.

    Forty below by mid-month. The sun never shone.

    Our oxen froze in the fields,
    the twin calves dead at the milch cow's side,
    the last of our hay in front of her.
    Five feet of snow and blizzarding winds
    for thirteen consecutive days.

    The only drinking water, melted snow;
    the only wood, our furniture.
    Nathan sawed frozen meat from the dead,
    feeding it to what stock remained.
    I soaked rags in the blood of offal, giving
    the baby suck. God Be Praised, he thrived.

    Up on Buzzard Mountain, prospectors
    were trapped in their mines — the artillery
    of avalanche thundered through our valley.
    When he tried to leave, Dutch, his mule and hound,
    were buried — the dog dug its way out.
    Ours was the first cabin he came to.

    Brought the two living cows and one horse
    into our lean-to kitchen, supped with us
    on flour mash and seed potato.
    If we went anywhere, it was hand-over-hand
    over ice. No mail for weeks,
    river frozen, the railroad snowbound.
    A stranger who went through on snowshoes,
    said a neighbor's wife died of laudanum
    taken with suicidal intent.
    Flour and sugar gone, rumor our daily bread.

    When the ice melted, the creeks swelled
    bringing typhoid which weakened my husband.
    After pneumonia, he looked worse
    than any at Andersonville and was unable
    to help with chores.

    First day of March. Days longer. Heavy fog.

    The stock were enfeebled by hunger.
    Balding from rain scald, hair fell in sheets
    from their hides. When the spring grass
    came on, they were too weak to graze,
    collapsing like long-legged insects.
    Ill myself, I crawled out to help, Caleb on my back:
    right hoof forward, left knee bent, sometimes
    it took a rail under the rump to raise them.

    Most ranchers went under.
    Some took twenty years to repay loans
    on herds that perished, and then
    only when they sold off their farms.
    But the two cows left to us begat others
    who begat the thousand head
    Caleb and his sons graze in this valley.

    I was born Effie Rebecca, named for my mother,
    but forever after that cattle-killing winter,
    my husband called me by another.
    Years ago he went to the stone orchard,
    my place beside him ready: "SLOAN, Nathan
    known as Kentucky, and Wife, Born Again '89
    as God's handmaiden, Faith."

    Long Days. High clouds. Temperatures in the 90s.


    Mary Brisky, Rattlesnake Canyon, February 1888

    I remember it this way:
    That morning we sat down to breakfast,
    me, mama, and the traveling Reverend.
    My baby sister was on the floor
    next to the sewing machine.
    On the table, three blue bowls
    filled with oatmeal.
    It had a smoky taste that I'll never forget.
    Sepin was outside shoveling snow
    off the roof. My father was up on the bluff
    cutting trees, snaking them down the mountain.
    When a tree fell, there was the noise
    of lightning lash and as it hit the ground,
    thunder shook our cabin — those trees
    were twenty feet around, some of them.
    When baby crawled under the table,
    I was afraid she'd burn herself
    on the hot stones mama had
    put there to warm our feet,
    so I stooped to pick her up.

    "What is your only comfort in life and death?"
    Reverend Beggs's voice was far away.

    I was lying on top of baby
    who was screaming. I didn't
    realize what was smothering me,
    until her breath melted the snow.
    Mama was nearby. I could hear,
    but couldn't see or touch her.
    She spoke calmly to us:
    "Lie quietly and breathe as lightly as possible."
    The baby kept screaming 'til I thought
    my head would split.
    "Are you hurt?" mama asked,
    "Can you wiggle your arms and legs?"
    I could. The baby was thrashing beneath me,
    beating with her fists.

    The Reverend's voice was shallow.
    "From whence do you know your sin and misery?"
    No one answered. Mama said to me:
    "Mary, the first thing to know about a baby
    is to keep her warm and dry."
    The baby howled louder. Everything around us
    was wet and cold.
    "Don't let her little butt get red," mama said.
    "For croup, rub her chest
    in rendered mutton and turpentine."

    The Reverend asked, "How are you delivered?"
    Mama said, "Mary, you can get sixty loaves
    of bread from a sack of flour,
    if you're frugal. I always could."
    I said, yes, and then she said, "Remember
    to seal your crock of sourdough
    with a layer of water, seal your buttermilk
    the same way." I reminded her
    it was my job to milk the cow and hers to churn.
    She said now I would have to both milk
    and churn. "Roasted barley is the best
    substitute for coffee," she said.
    "Use the juice of boiled corn cobs
    for sweetener, and don't drink it up
    faster than you make it."

    "Jesus did not die for everyone
    as some believe," Reverend Beggs droned.
    "If God chooses to elect you,
    you cannot fight it."
    "I want father," I said. Mama said I'd see him,
    but she wasn't sure when.
    "And your brother, too," she added.

    Though I shivered, I felt sleepy.
    The baby screamed herself out.
    She was soaking, my body kept her warm.
    "Mary," mother said, startling me awake.
    "If Pokamiakin comes to the door with a knife,
    hide the baby in the bread box." By now
    Reverend's voice was barely a whisper.
    This time when he asked, What is your only
    comfort in life and death? Mama answered,
    "That I am not my own.
    That I belong to Jesus Christ."

    "And from whence do you know your sin
    and misery?" "From the word of God,"
    mother and I said, our voices one.

    "And how are you delivered?"
    I waited for mama to answer, but she did not.

    We sat down to oatmeal at 8:30 that morning.
    At 5:00, they pulled us out.
    The wall of falling snow knocked
    my brother out of the way.
    It was the baby's screaming that told father
    and Sepin where to dig.
    The Reverend Beggs was dead.
    Mama was dead.
    The cow could not be saved.
    High up on the opposite canyon wall
    were splintered logs, bits of furniture,
    the wheel of the sewing machine, and one
    blue bowl amid shards of all the others.

    The smoky taste of oatmeal
    was still inside my mouth.

    CHECK-A-MA-POO (Steelshot Woman)

    Colville Reservation, 1897

    First the clothmen came
    to the Valley at the Top of the World.
    They wore hard shoes,
    their legs like tree limbs,
    their feet leaving strange prints in the snow.
    They came downriver from
    where the sun never goes, they came
    thick as grasshoppers.

    Eena, eena, eena they sang.
    We pointed the way to the beaverwood.
    Fox, muskrat, even the stink tail
    they re-named "money fur."

    A starving clothman once came
    to my father's house
    more than 50 snows ago.
    We gave him dried groundhog.
    The blanket across his back
    was peeling away in strips.

    We gave him a cape,
    the silky inner bark of cedar.
    He gave my father water
    the color of peat, cold to the finger,
    hot to the tongue.
    When the clothman died
    we buried him without his steelshot.

    The next snow
    the first blackrobes appeared, singing,
    "Whiskey, whiskey, throw it away."
    They howled, "If you do wrong,
    the devil will get you," in the manner of
    a talapus talking to the moon.
    It was a bad winter: hard rain,
    deep snow; the blackrobes grew
    bolder than coyotes.
    A blackrobe came to our sweat lodge
    and said, "Jesus died instead of you."
    My father asked, "What is this to me?"
    Chief Joseph who was also there said,
    "My horse is faster than your horse."
    The blackrobe went on and on:
    God, his book; God, his talk; God,
    his Jesus Christ Bostonman.

    We had no ears which angered them.
    They called us root-diggers.
    We called them hard shoes.
    When Chief Joseph rode against them,
    I carried the clothman's gun and rode
    my father's fastest horse.

    Now I carry greasewood and an ax
    made of hard steel.
    If you are in need of kindling, sing this song:
    "Cut some stovewood,
    cut it the length of your forearm."
    My song is, "Give me a quarter."
    You sing, "Make a fire, boil the water,
    cook the meat, wash the dishes.
    I will give you a quarter if you
    come again tomorrow."

    Once I was bringing wood to a clothman,
    it was late, a terrible noise
    came from the sage beside the door.
    Quick, he said, a cougar is eating my sheep.
    I did nothing.
    A wise being does not annoy the hyas puss
    after dark while he is eating.
    The clothman knocked me to the ground.
    That was the first time I sang
    a blackrobe song:

    "By my deeds, you shall know me."


    March — Began keeping diary.

    With mule and dog, forded the Okanogan
    looking for agricultural pursuits.
    Met Sar-sept-a-kin and several Nespelem
    who offered nine horses for a bottle of whiskey
    before concluding their entreaties were in vain.
    Eyed my father's gold watch brought
    from Frankfurt-on-Main.

    Near Broken Spoke Ranch met a Tacoma man,
    claimed to have sold a share in the Tough Nut Mine
    at Ruby City for $11,000!

    Today bothered by boils: face, neck, and elsewhere.

    May 30 — Made camp. Mosquitoes so thick
    they could be taken from the air by handfuls.
    Broke camp about midnight to escape.
    Climbed the hills toward Salmon City,
    spread my blankets only to find
    an army of rattlers. Evacuated
    after killing fifty reptiles. Moved on
    a few miles to Soda Creek,
    slept peacefully in rye grass as tall
    as the mule's shoulder. Dreamt of cutting
    fifteen tons with a scythe.

    In the morning grouse so thick
    they could be killed with a stone.
    Deer plentiful and did not stir
    at the sound of my gun. Crickets
    kept me awake the following night.
    An abundance of yellow jackets.
    Boils more painful, but draining.

    June 6 — Pitched a tent, tilled two acres
    for truck. Difficulty in getting seeds.
    Trading post proprietor's wife
    at Wild Goose Condon's Ferry
    suggested hot compresses.
    Bought onion sets and horseradish root.

    Aug. 9 — An army of crickets came
    from the north, devastating my crop.
    Insects so thick they filled the trail ruts,
    their shells oozing out of the mule's feet.

    September — Arrived Salmon City
    en route to silver fields of Ruby.
    Settlers few — legal land claims impossible due
    to questions of statehood.
    Three or four tents. A "sooner" named Moss
    had a log establishment.
    Built a board shack: improvements, $30.
    Sold it for eighty to a Frenchman
    who admired my watch. April
    Packed the mule and headed for Ruby.

    Met Sar-sept-a-kin who recommended
    groundhog oil for various purposes,
    including balding and boils.
    Traded him a bottle of Old Number Seven.

    Going over Mineral Hill, the mule kicked a stone
    which at first I thought was buzzard quartz
    but led to locating the Q.S. Mine.
    Kept a sharp lookout for rattlers,
    particularly the black variety.
    A timber serpent will coil and sound
    an alarm, but black snakes spring without warning.

    May — Returned to newly elected county seat,
    Salmon City, made claim on the Quantum Sufficit.
    Sar-sept-a-kin, who was there with a quantity
    of corn, waited for me to supervise
    sale and collection of money.

    Boils improving. Bought my shed back for $25.
    Planted truck in the yard from seeds
    Sar-sept-a-kin gave in exchange for whiskey.
    Buried Father's watch in a baking powder tin,
    north end, second row of beets.

    Weather: sultry. Mid-forenoon, a light earthquake.
    Remarked to the mule and dog at the time:
    "Thundering? The sky's cloudless."
    Windows rattled and shook. Later
    men in the shafts said they neither felt
    nor heard it. Will sell truck to grubstake the Q.S.
    Meanwhile staked another prospect,
    named Deception on account of it
    showing no mineral.

    October — Mercury dropped, so cold the ink froze
    as I made this entry, despite a hot fire.
    Dog shivering. All blankets and extra clothing
    used to cover truck. Boils completely gone.

    January 1 — Today an eclipse of the sun
    occurred from twelve until three.
    Dog howled, mule off his feed.

    A report came into Moss's Saloon:
    Washington soon admitted to the Union.

    July — Left the dog and gold watch
    (with prized chain and horse emblem)
    with the saloonkeep, Mr. Moss — Ruby too wild
    for safety. Sar-sept-a-kin offered
    (for a bottle) to keep an eye on the proprietor.

    Mule packed with squash and red cabbage.
    Followed prospector's trail, tracing
    ore veins and pay ledges. On the outskirts
    soon learned that Ruby people did not
    patronize Salmon Cityites due to
    the county seat question which brought
    white heat from their mouths.
    Gave the vegetables away. To develop Q.S.,
    watch will have to be sold.

    Returned home directly.
    Learned Moss had been killed by
    skull fracture, his saloon set fire over him.
    An Indian was suspect and chased
    as far as Wild Goose Condon's ferry where
    the Frenchman pulled him from his horse
    by the hair and he drowned due to intoxication.
    Moss's body found, but the mystery
    of the gold watch could not be explained
    — though the dog fled unharmed.
    Boils returning: face, neck, and elsewhere.


    Mission at Door Knob Rock, 1883

    You could smell them before
    you saw them.
    When they came to your house
    they never knocked and when they left,
    your rooms would need
    a good airing.

    Husband hung two paintings
    on the wall, Heaven and Hell
    — one on either side of the fireplace.
    He took the bucks outside
    (most wore only a blanket),
    teaching them to plant in rows.
    That way they wouldn't have to wander.

    To the squaws
    I demonstrated bathing, washing dishes,
    pointing to the picture of Heaven.
    I gestured to their bark skirts, to the old woman
    who'd covered herself in mud for warmth,
    then pointed to Hell. I taught them thus.
    One of the younger girls — the chief's daughter —
    was beautiful, she had a number 2 foot
    and a size 5 glove.
    They giggled. They mimicked me.
    They were meek and honest and I
    could not hold the agonizing death
    of Narcissa Whitman against them.

    For a treat I played my melodeon.
    The bucks would come from the garden
    listening respectfully outside my window.
    Mother gave me the little organ
    when I married, but Husband refused
    to lay his hat on it, unsure
    music belongs in a house of the Lord.

    Indian women had a terror of hot water
    and washed in the lake or a puddle.
    I never could break them of this,
    though once they accepted my trust
    they always kept it.
    I never lost anything to a squaw.

    When Husband was away
    some of the bucks galloped their cayuses
    around and around the house,
    whooping threats in Chinook
    and beating on the walls with sticks.
    My husband called it innocent amusement.
    Alone inside, I did not name it such.

    I taught them to keep a Christian house
    — that you cannot bind papooses in cradleboards
    for days on end, at least use wool batting
    instead of packing them in moss. And please,
    shade their eyes from the sun.
    A squaw would dismount her horse,
    leaving babe and board strapped
    to the saddle, no bonnet, no bumbershoot,
    squinting into the day.

    Soon the bark roofs of sweat lodges
    began to disappear.
    The squaws learned to make shoes by sewing
    with a boar's-hair needle.
    It took two days to make each pair
    and I'll say one thing, those shoes wore.
    As we worked I led the catechism, then
    we fell to chatting. I told them
    what my mother always told me:
    "Every woman needs a black silk dress,
    every man, a high silk hat."

    Of course I learned to speak their language,
    though I had to have an Indian tell me
    what I'd said. Most understood English
    if I had something they wanted
    or a child was delirious
    and there was fear of the pox.
    When they asked a question in their jargon,
    I said, "I don't know," prodding them
    to speak His language.
    They often retorted in the most
    emphatic and purest English,
    both men and squaws in
    a harmony never heard in catechism:
    "You lie," sharp-tongued
    as the flames of Hell.
    To deflect their wrath, I pretended
    they had something I wanted,
    pleaded for it in Chinook
    to the cadence of Narcissa's last instructions
    as she pulled the tomahawk
    from her husband's head, packed cinders
    against his wound, then fell:

    Pray God, tell mother we died at our post.


Excerpted from Oh How Can I Keep on Singing? by Jana Harris. Copyright © 1993 Jana Harris. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Cattle-Killing Winter,
Dutch Jake's Hell-Time Calendar,
How Do You Know Your Sin and Misery?,
Traveling School Mistress,
Salmon City Flood,
This New Life,
Mary Malott, Counting Her Blessings,
The Laundress by the Lake,
Snow Bites,
Remembering the Noise Fast Water Makes,
My Brothers Worked the Ranch, I Got the Mail Route,
Letter from the Mines,
The First Law of Heaven,
Haying on the Similkameen,
Lights in the Firmament,
The Needlecraft of Sarah "The Widow" Jones,
Leaving in the Morning,
Ethel & Mary Ellen Playing by the Log Jamb,
In Answer to the Question,
The Laying-Out,
Committing the Landscape to Memory,
Photograph of My Hat Shop and the Horse I Used to Ride,
Mourning Picture,

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