Covered Wagons, Dugouts, and Snakes: An Oklahoma Land Run Narrative

by Atlanta B Crouch, 1890

Long ago during the days, on the lonely westerns plains of covered wagons, dugouts and snakes, we – my husband and I – began house keeping on a farm seven miles west of Ashland, Clark County, Kansas in 1890, April 17, in a dugout; and I soon learned that I had a man who liked good things to eat. So consequently, we often had company.

It was on one of these occasions when the diners were seated at the table that I turned around to refill someone’s glass with water that we discovered there was an extra guest.

I said, “Will you just look who’s come!”

What do you think? A large snake was stretched full length up and down the wall right over the water bucket, just ready to get a drink.  Out of the bucket? Yes! Of course.

Everyone had some “wise crack” to make about it and when the fun subsided, it was generally agreed that this fellow had probably often crawled in to get a drink.  We knew we had often seen deer drinking from our shallow well, but that was the first time we had seen a snake drinking out of our water bucket, or just about to do just that.

One morning after my husband and a man who worked for him had left the house, I began doubling up the quilts, turned around to take the cot outside  (didn’t have room for extra furniture like a cot, because two small dugout rooms don’t afford the extra space), and there lay a vicious rattler, coiled up on the floor.

Where had this snake been all night? Under the cot where the bed clothes hanging over the cot would have made a good hiding place, or he just crawled in after the boys went out?

How can folk get used to such a life with such unwanted visitors as snakes, centipedes, tarantulas, skunks, and timber bed bugs (chinches) – the owls were infested with them, and the Jack oaks were full of owls.  It took some time to get rid of the bugs, for we used the oak poles to cover our dugout.

We had heard that it was very dangerous to be stung by a centipede, but I think that was like a lot of other things, greatly exaggerated, for sometime later we found that they did not seem at all dangerous.

Before we were married, hubby had gone security for all he was worth.  I had told him he probably would have all those notes to pay, for the country seemed to be going to pieces, and he did.  So after the notes were paid, we had nothing left, for a terrible hail storm ruined his wheat crop (no insurance), and his house he had built on his place before we were married was entirely destroyed by this tornado.  So all his hard-earned possessions were gone – cattle, house, wheat and all.

So he decided to get ready to go take a claim in the Cherokee Strip.  This was in 1893.  He bought a new wagon jet, we began to pack, ready to go on an eight-day trip across country.  He had gone early in the morning to bring his two horses out of the pasture.  I saw him in the yard with only one horse and asked him: “Where is the other horse?”

“He is lying over in the creek,” he answered.

At once I knew the gray wolves had scared the other horse over a high bank.  I had heard them howling that night, but hadn’t thought of the horses.

Now, with scarcely no money, he was forced to get out and find another horse.  Well, sometimes things turn out for the best; but hard to see it that way then.  He found a cowboy pony and what luck! This horse had done nothing but gallop over the prairies and seemed to shun the prairie dog holes and other pitfalls.

We finally got started.  We were heavily loaded, but were going to leave some of the stuff at Protection for a man.  We made it as far as Hellroaring Creek.  In the middle of this stream, the cowboy pony didn’t do so well.  He stopped and refused to go farther – lucky this creek was dry; just a wide river of sand.

We got a man to pull us out next morning and the pony did all right.  We had no more trouble until we crossed the Cimarron River and started up the south bank.  Old Charley began to roll his eyes back at hubby.  We, of course, expected him to balk again; don’t know what we could have done if the wagon had rolled back into the river.  We got out of the wagon and with a lot of thrashing the ground around him, being very careful not to touch him, he decided to move on.

“What a life,” you will say.

Anyway, Old Charley, as he was called, gave us no more trouble, and we finally arrived in town were we stayed all winter, till we had to get back on our claim, which hubby had the good fortune to secure in the run.  He rode this old balky horse to make the race.  Hubby took one of our woolsey-linsey quilts, made it into a saddle, and fashioned it with stirrups; this made a fine saddle.  And this cowboy pony carried him over the uncharted prairies into the Cherokee Strip to a claim that proved to be very good land.

We had to be on the claim by the 16th of March.  So when that time came, we got our covered wagon loaded again for another trip across country to this place located about fourteen miles from a town that became a city of tents over night.

This race for claims was trying and dangerous, too, with prairie dog holes and other pitfalls to watch for.  Fine race horses died; horses’ legs were broken; cartwheels went off; and men became foot tired.  But this old pony seemed to know the ropes since, as I have told you before, he was used to this kind of life.  This was a frantic race for claims.

We had to live in the covered wagon until hubby could dig a hole in the bank.  He cut down a tree for a ridge pole; and in so doing he stirred up a den of blowing vipers.  They were a vicious lot of snakes, but none of them struck him. (As snakes were plentiful and we didn’t care for that kind of pet, he just destroyed the whole lot.)

We were glad to get into this improvised dwelling, which was a crude looking dugout, about ten by twelve feet with sod walls, no floor, and roof made of poles, willow, and sod.  Two small windows each contained four little window panes, and a door was shopped from green cottonwood lumber.

Does that sound interesting to you?

Did it leak? Well, what if it did.  We had an umbrella to open up and put over our baby (two and a half years old) when the rain poured in. One time while husband lay very ill, not expected to live, a centipede fell down from the poles on his bed.  We were afraid it had stung him on the ankle, but nothing came of it, so we weren’t so scared of them after that.

Sometime afterwards, just before we had moved into our little new two-roomed house, we had another baby girl.  She was about three weeks old.  I was holding her – and as you may know there was no room to sit except in the center – when I noticed the little child was looking up and kept moving her eyes.  I looked up and just over us lay a large bull snake.  She saw it crawl in through a hole and stretch itself out directly over us.  We were GLAD to be getting out of the dugout.

These early dugout days were very trying.  Some who took claims soon grew tired of it all.  One man came up and wanted to trade a nice pig for our wagon sheet.  Hubby gave him the Jet and $2 for his pig.  One Sunday, a neighbor invited us to eat watermelon in the afternoon.  It was very warm, and when we got back home I soon saw my husband looking down.  I said, “Now what?”

He said, “This ganfounded (and where he got that word I never knew) pig is dead.” It got its rope fastened in the brush and couldn’t get to the branch; got too hot and died.

I went down and began to laugh.  He said, “I don’t see anything funny about it.”  I sat down and kept laughing. He looked like he would like to shake me.  That was enough.  I just fell over on the grass, thought I would choke.  This was so awfully funny.  I said: “Now, we are going to have to stay here. Our wagon jet and the $2 gone, and the pig is dead,” and his horse had committed suicide in Kansas.  I smile now when I think of the whole thing.

One of those men whom hubby had so graciously helped in those hard years in Kansas and who had moved down to this town before we went there and his wife decided to be very nice to us.  So they picked out some hem legged, knocked kneed half-blind old hens (well, you would want to cull out your chickens, too, wouldn’t you?) for us.  The old rooster crowed so loudly that the coyotes wanted him.  Anyway, the hens laid eggs and hatched some little chickens.  That fall something got the matter with them.  They must have had rabies.  The way they acted, I was afraid of them.  Or did they have sunstroke? Anyway, those that were affected died.

Not many people could hire anyone to help them.  Hubby would work hard all day and never received more than sixty cents per day.  He would drive to the Jacks and cut Jack oak logs, chop them into stove wood, haul them to town, 14 miles over terrible roads – and they were just that – and never received over $3 per load.

Those men for whom he had gone security in Kansas never paid him any part of the debt.  And my husband said if they could live with it, he could live without their pay.  One day he went to the town, which had become a substantial city of happy homes and good business buildings, to get the banker to let him have enough money to buy a cow.  And what do you know? The man who held all those notes in Kansas that my husband had paid was sitting in this bank, and heard hubby’s voice, and what he had asked for.  He came in to meet my husband and told the banker to let him have what he needed for, he said, “This man will pay you every dime of it.”

When we finally got our ground plowed, we were soon raising good crops and in a few years built a nice two-roomed house and moved in out of the dugout.  I was never sorry that I had lived in and through those hazardous days of hardship and had to struggle for an existence, for it was a great teacher.  And with all these experiences, my husband never lost his vision on Life.  A big 210-pound man, he enjoyed his friends throughout his life time.

The end.

Atlanta B Crouch and her husband are shown left and right; their daughter Iona is center, and daughter (my great-grandmother) Grandmother Coward is shown top center.
Atlanta B Crouch and her husband are shown left and right; their daughter Iona is center, and daughter (my great-grandmother) Bessie is shown top center. Bessie was born in a Kansas dugout; her sister Iona was born in the Oklahoma dugout and was the three week-old child who saw the bull snake in the story.

Editor’s note – My grandmother passed away this past Spring.  In going through her belongings, my family found a fairly good family historical archive.  My grandmother’s grandmother, Atlanta B Crouch, had evidently penned her memoirs of the Land Run, and a relative later compiled them into more of a story.  I’m glad to share this with you and hope you not only enjoyed it, but learned something about the “Oklahoma Land Run life” so many of our former citizens experienced. ~ RDK



4 thoughts on “Covered Wagons, Dugouts, and Snakes: An Oklahoma Land Run Narrative”

  1. What a great story. Thanks for sharing it. I wish my family had done more writing. I knew my great-grandmother well, and one other until I was five, but I have no writing from them. Even my mother didn’t write much down. So you have a treasure that most people would love to have. 🙂

    1. Dear Marsha: Thank you for your note. It’s so validating to hear comments about the value of family writing(s). I do indeed feel very lucky to have these stories. Her granddaughter (my grandmother), also shared much of her history. A true treasure for us! ~ Kelly

  2. Wow, what a fantastic story! I only have my great great grandmother’s story told through generations to go by. I wish someone would had written it down though.

    1. Rachel, I feel so incredibly lucky to have her words. Thanks for sharing MY great-great-grandmother’s experience by stopping by. I also think, however, the verbal narrative is important. Maybe YOU are the one to write your grandmother’s words??

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