The Willcox Family: Real House on the Prairie

Posted on March 16, 2018 by Kimberly Roblin in

People often consider history a series of dates and events. 1066 and William the Conqueror. 1607 and Jamestown. 1776 and the Declaration. 1861 and the Civil War. But history is more than a list. At its core, it is about people—not just the famous or infamous, but the everyday and the ordinary. Husbands and fathers, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, families and friends—and when we read about history we are reading about them.


The Dickinson Research Center tells their stories through the photographs, letters, manuscripts, and diaries in its collection. To close Women’s History Month, let’s focus on Eliza Willcox and her family. A schoolteacher from Ohio, Eliza Kellogg married William Henry Willcox, a Civil War veteran who had spent more than a year in a Confederate prison camp. They farmed and ranched in Illinois before venturing to Wakeeney, Kansas in 1879 with their children, Elizabeth, Edward, John, Caddie, and Maurice. Eliza kept a daily record of their new life. The progress on their house. The places. The weather and more. Here are a few highlights from their first year.

Willcox Diary. November 26 thru November 28, 1879. Dickinson Research Center. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

March 8          Reached Wakeeney at 7:00 a.m. Henry and the boys getting on to the passenger cars at Russell. The freight arrived at noon. H. bought lumber and put up a stable our stock was sheltered and we in a rented house.


March 21         Commenced building our house.


March 31         Packed beds, stoves, table and chairs on the wagon and fastened the carriage behind and took Caddie and Maurice with me in it, having sent the three older children in the buggy with Dick, and started out for our home on the Smoky. The wind was dreadful and the wind blinding, being in our backs we were blown home, the mules steadying the load. Put up the stoves and range and beds, found something for supper and were at home. We should have come last week, but the men working were so slow.


April 3             Ate breakfast with overcoats and shawls on, mercury 28 in the house at sunrise, buffalo chips do no heat well, water of the Smokey very hard. Henry put up his stable, we rode across the river, shot at a deer too late to hit it, still a pleasant day. Entertained our first stranger.


April 11            Washed, the first that I have done in Kansas. Pleasant in the morning and windy in the afternoon.


April 21           Oh! This terrible wind! It commended blowing last night and blew a gale all night and all day. H. and Edward looking for the mule. Did not find her, feel quite anxious about her. I had a hard busy day. H. killed first rattlesnake. Yesterday saw two blackbirds with bright golden heads and necks.


April 25           Henry plowed hedge row before the house and planted apple seeds, peachstones, Box Elder and sowed onions, lettuce, radishes. Children commenced on their garden. Unpacked books and mirror. House begins to look a little more well settled. Bright, beautiful day, very warm.


June 9              Strong wind from the north. Henry went to Wakeeney, came home about one with a little antelope which picked up on the prairie. Census taker here, says there are at this time so far 2300 people in Trego County. 1500 sufficient to organize the county.


July 10             Very windy and hot, 101 in the house. We are most of us sick. Mama, Libbie, John, Caddie, and Maurice. A miserable day.


October 3        Still night. Bright still, beautiful day. Thirteen years ago we were married, many changes since then. We have had much of pleasures and some of pain and here we are in the middle of the wilds of Kansas, glad if we can get money enough to buy bread and beans. I doubt if any of our old friends would know us as we are so changed. But while we are starting a new home, we try to remember the city that hath foundations. H. is drawing stone for Billings. John and I went to Bucy’s. On the way I killed a rattlesnake, a big one.


November 27  Quite windy all last night, cloudy and cold today, freezing all day. Henry finished the plastering and we cleaned a little. The house is much more comfortable. We all enjoyed our Thanksgiving dinner. Mashed potatoes, lima beans, dried apples, and dried beef with cream, with peanuts for dessert, peanuts of our own raising, for which, as well as all our mercies, I believe we are truly and devoutly thankful. Wind grew colder towards night and began to snow.


About Kimberly

Kimberly Roblin is Curator of Archival and Photographic Collections at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. For the native Oklahoman, sharing western history through research, exhibitions, and publications is much more than business. It’s personal.