A year ago, when I first started planning this blog, going against what blogging experts say, the first thing I started thinking of was a name. Immediately two words came to my mind and I said out loud “Presumptuous Dreamers,” I don’t know where they came from but it was love at first sound. Then I googled the two words and I got back only one result: a book by di Helen Krebs Smith “The Presumptuous dreamers. A Sociological History of the Life and Times of ABIGAIL SCOTT DUNIWAY” Volume One 1834-1871. Months went by just thinking about the blog, I spent other months developing it and still others looking for an expert that could help me with the setting. My best friend and partner in writing Rebecca Reichel-Koebele from far away Laos, where she was kept by the covid pandemic, teaching English there for many more months than planned, supported and encouraged me with her enthusiasm and her precious knowledge of the English language. When I sent her a Whatsapp message asking her opinion about the name, she answered that after consulting Steve, her husband, they both thought that “presumptuous” had not, altogether, a positive meaning. I tried other names but no way… my mind and my heart refused to give it up, it had to be The Presumptuous Dreamer.
what do we have in common?
I then started asking myself what I could have in common with the only other voice that was caught by Google. It was the end of June and I ordered the book online and started waiting. It arrived from the US the first week of August, the day before I left Rome for my summer holiday. I think nobody more than me believes in the magic of books: in the connections that a book can unleash and the many people a book can make you know. People that otherwise you would never meet. I have spent the last 48 hours reading The Presumptuous Dreamers and getting to know Abigail Scott Duniway and I have fallen in love, as I often do when I meet a very special woman and author.
Abigail is an extraordinary woman that lived from 1834 to 1915 through a swirl of personal and historical events, fighting for women’s rights. How could I have not fallen in love?
At seventeen she is in every respect a pioneer. It is the 2nd April 1852 when Abigail leaves Illinois with her family to go West to Oregon, her father had been struck by the western fever. John Tucker Scott, Abigail’s father commands that all that is not necessary for the journey must be left behind. Abigail hides a little blue book, a speller, under the clothing in her bag saying to herself I’ll have to take this speller. I’ll need it,” and so it will be. Abigail is given the duty to keep a daily record of the journey while her sisters help with the cooking and cleaning. When she says she would rather bake the bread with her sisters, her father insists that she has the talent for telling stories like no one else in the family. So here is her first daily journal:
April 2nd. Leaving home, home friends and home associates in old Tazewll, we are this evening snugly quartered in the open prairie 15 miles from Peoria and 9 miles from Farmington: Have had but little difficulty in our journey so far; crossed the Illinois River ( for perhaps the last time) with but little difficulty and in a word have had no trouble at all except what has been occasioned by bidding farewell forever to those with whom most of us have associated all our lives; and to me it was a great trial to leave the home of my childhood, the place where, when care to me, was a stranger, I was wont to roam oer hill and dale, and to silently muse over the varying vicissitudes of life and loved to wander alone to the sequestered grove, to hold communion unseen by mortal eye with the woks of nature and of God- But here we are, and here I am seated by a blazing fire with heaven’s canopy over my head trying to compose my mind and trying (almost in vain) to see how to form my thoughts into writing by the flickering and uncertain blaze of the large wood fire; all with us is animation (and a little confusion) and all are quite anxious to go ahead.*
Sitting next to her father on the wagon that will take the family to Oregon, Abigail does not miss what is going on around her. Travelling through the Indian territory she asks her father if something can be done about the skinned dead buffalo left in the prairie.
“What do you think should be done? And who should do it?”
“I think when we see things which are wrong we should try and do something”
Her father said, “I do not see anything we can do about buffalo besides being careful ourselves.”
“I have been thinking about things that are wrong. I have been thinking about people who lost their farms. I have been thinking about poor women who…”
Abigail’s mother called from the wagon bed where she and little Willy were riding. “Jenny dear ( Abigail was callled Jenny by the family),
woman’s lot is very hard, but it has been this way since the beginning of time. Don’t worry too much. And don’t be desolate if you find you can do nothing and have to give up with the rest of us.”
“Never mind, Ma. I’ll not be desolate. If I decide to do something, I’ll not be disappointed, and I won’t give up.” (page11)
This is seventeen-year-old Abigail and she will not give up for the rest of her life.
*In Italic throughout the essay are quotes from The Presumptuous Dreamers: A Sociological History of the Life and Times of Abigail Scott Duniway, Volume One (1834-1871) by Helen Krebs Smith – Smith,Smith and Smith Publishing Company Lake Oswego,Oregon, 97034 – FIRST EDITION./ Copyright © 1974 by Helen Krebs Smith.
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