Humanities Nebraska speaker Cherrie Beam-Callaway tells the story of an Irish immigrant who homesteaded in Nebraska (Johnson Publications photo).
Nebraska storyteller speaks to audience of 100 plus at museum
Cherrie Beam-Callaway is a Humanities Nebraska speaker and native Nebraskan. She presented a program at the Chase County Museum last Sunday called the “Promise in a New Land” in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Nebraska.
After a brief introduction, Callaway began weaving an interesting account of an Irish immigrant girl and her family traveling by ship across the ocean to the New York harbor. She presented her story in traditional clothing of the period between 1847 to 1876. She spoke with an Irish brogue in first person character as “Moriah Monahan.”
As “Monahan,” she described the trip over on the ship where there was only enough room for everyone to lay on the floor side by side and roll over at the same time because of lack of space. She said there wasn’t enough clean water much of the time, danger from illness and storms was always a threat, and many died and were thrown overboard.
Once they reached the New York harbor, the immigrants were forced to sleep in the streets many times. Callaway/”Monahan” described how they had to keep all their belongings and family safely together until they could get passage to the west.
The immigrant families eventually gained passage on a locomotive train that took them as far as Davenport, Iowa which was referred to as the “jumping off spot,” she said.
At this point they signed up to continue their trek by wagon train, “Monahan” explained. She said they were told to expect to lose about half of their family to sickness. She went on to describe in detail what the trip by wagon was like.
As the trip became harder and the oxen were becoming more weary, she said the families were told they had to lighten their wagons. “Monahan” said this was very heartbreaking for them to leave furniture, china, books and other personal belongings on the prairie.
“It was called the ‘traveling library’ because there were so many books left on the prairie,” she said. “You could pick up books and read them, then leave them on the prairie for someone else to read.”
“Monahan” said it was a very difficult trip, but they kept their dream before them of homesteading in Nebraska. This dream was made possible by the signing of the Homestead Act by President Lincoln, promising 160 acres of public land for a filing fee of $14. The only requirement was that each family must live on the land for five continuous years and the land would become theirs, she said.
Eventually, they arrived at a fort outside of Council Bluffs, Iowa. She said they were told that across the river and down a ways was a new town starting up called Omaha. They could file for their parcels of land there. It was called “owning it up,” she said.
Callaway, speaking as “Monahan” continued to tell her story and describe her ocean trip to the moment they reached Nebraska. During this time frame, she had married and had six children, she said.
“Monahan” described their 160 acres of land with a hill and very tall grass, but no trees, so their first home was a dugout in the hill. Much later, they built a sod house, she said. She said it was important to have a root cellar under the house not only for storage, but for protection against tornados and prairie fires. Homesteaders who did not dig a root cellar with their house frequently died from natural disasters, she said.
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