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Moment of Indiana History

Remembering A Pioneer Girlhood: Sarah Brown Hawks

In the autumn of 1834, ten-year-old Sarah Hawks and her family left New York's Finger Lakes area bound for northern Indiana. In 1905, she wrote her memoir.

Pioneer Settlement

Photo: From the 1914 History of Madison County, Indiana by John Forkner

Pioneer Settlement

In 1905, eighty-one-year-old Sarah Brown Hawks opened up an empty ledger from her son’s drugstore and began to write. At the request of her family, she set down her memories of childhood and her life as a pioneer in northern Indiana.

Sarah’s tale began when she was ten years old. Her father Ebenezer had already moved west to find a new home for his growing family; and in the autumn of 1834, his wife Hannah and their four young daughters left the Finger Lakes area of New York to travel to northern Indiana. They journeyed by wagon to Buffalo and then took a steamboat across the lake to Detroit, where Ebenezer was waiting to meet them. The family headed south through Michigan to their new farm near the town of Goshen, in Elkhart County, Indiana.

Sarah remembered a northern Indiana that was mostly still wilderness: “There was no habitation until we came to Middlebury . . . From there to Goshen the only house was our new home.” Ebenezer had almost finished building a sturdy frame house for his family; after a short stay in town, they moved in.

Looking back at her life, the elderly woman remembered life on the farm as “full of interest. The seasons brought changes. In spring there was plowing and planting, chickens, calves and lambs . . . . I think we enjoyed winters a little more than any other season because the work was not rushing and we had more time for reading and quiet occupations.” As more people settled in the county, there were neighborhood parties to enjoy. And always, there was work—planting potatoes, helping her mother cook, caring for her younger siblings, washing stacks of dishes when other men came to help her father harvest each year’s crops.

When Sarah was twenty years old, she married Joel Hawks, whose family owned several mills, a cooperage, and a general store near Goshen. The couple raised seven children. After Joel died in 1905, Sarah’s family asked her to write an account of her life – she filled one hundred pages of the ledger book and left her story as a legacy to her descendants.

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

Source: Virginia Mayberry, ed., “West to Wilderness,” IMH March 1987

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