Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

Life On The Trail

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Amusements: Toys


(Extracted from "Pioneer" Magazine, Autumn. 1996)
(Published by The Sons of Utah Pioneers)

"She wasn't much to look at, just a few rags loosely stitched together," Elizabeth Conner wrote of her rag doll, named, appropriately, Lizzie. "But she was real to me. I talked to her, and sometimes it seemed to me that she talked to me. We laughed together. We cried together. We made the trek together. She was my playmate, my best friend, and I was happier because she was there."

William Wright didn't think of his hand-carved wooden flute as his best friend, but playing it was his favorite pastime as he made his way across Iowa with his family in 1849. That's why it was so upsetting when he awakened one morning to find his flute missing. "I searched everywhere for the flute, but I couldn't find it," he wrote in his life history. When my brother, John, suggested that someone might have thrown it on the morning cooking fire, I cried. I pled with my father to make another one for me, but he could never manage to find the time."

It wasn't until years later that it occurred to William that the disappearance of the flute might have had something to do with his total lack of native musical ability. "Maybe someone in the Company was tired of hearing 'Waiting For The Reapers' over and over again," William wondered, adding: "It was the only song I knew, but I played it with spirit and energy."

Most pioneer toys had at least two things in common: they were small, and they were hand-made. The home-made nature of most toys gave each a unique appearance and design. Some toys were strictly utilitarian, and could only be identified by those who made them and those who played with them. Other toys were so intricately designed and created, they were almost works of art. B.H. Roberts confessed of having so much admiration, as a child, for one particularly handsome, hand-carved toy buffalo, "to this day I sometimes wonder about my standing in heaven, so great was my jealousy and covetousness."

On the trail, a toy didn't even have to be a toy to be important to pioneer children. One company leader wrote in his journal about breaking up a bit of commotion between two boys who were fighting over a sturdy stick. One claimed it was his rifle, while the other said it was his hobby horse. "To me, it looked like a stick," said the captain, "so I broke it in half and gave a piece to each boy to use as his own imagination saw fit." Imagination was the key ingredient for almost all pioneer toys.