Over the Hills to Tomorrow
Cannon fire was cutting a swath of destruction across Georgia in 1864, the third year of the Civil War, when a cry went up from General Sherman for more men to crush the South.
The call drifted back to the desk of President Abraham Lincoln . . . spread quickly through the valleys and hills of the North . . . and reached to the broad plains where it cropped out in bold newspaper headlines: “NORTH TO DRAFT SOLDIERS FOR SHERMAN.” In the flickering glow of a kitchen lantern, farmer Samuel Overholtzer held his newspaper closer to the light and frowned as he squinted at the text. What he saw alarmed him.
“Come here, Maria!” he called. His little wife dried her hands on a towel and hurried to his side. Silently she followed his finger down the column of news. “What does it mean?”
“It means the government will soon be conscripting soldiers – even from among our Brethren community.”
Sam got up and thoughtfully stroked his beard. “It’s a sin, Maria. Brethren can’t go to war and fight,” the twenty-four-year-old farmer exclaimed. He sighed and folded the paper. “We’ve got to move.”
“But Sam, we’re just getting settled! And the children . . .”
“We must move West,” he interrupted, “all the way West!”
They were up before dawn the next morning, carrying buckets to the barn for the milking. Powdery dew glistened in the lantern’s glow as they strode across the yard. Their shoes left twin footprints on the turf. Now and then a rooster crowed in the stillness and the cows moaned and stamped at the meadow rail.
To the young couple, their farm was beautiful. The black loam of Carroll County, in northwest Illinois – much like the alluvial soil of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where both Samuel Ashton Overholtzer and Maria Elizabeth Harnish Overholtzer were born – was beginning to yield under their patient planting and cultivation. Three children, two boys and a girl, had been born into their family. One boy, Ezra, had died at only five weeks of age.
Maria carried the life of a fourth child. Sam had single-handedly delivered both of the children who were sleeping peacefully in the house.
Dawn began to shimmer in the east. From the stables Maria could see the outline of her house. She paused and gazed at it longingly. Would she be able to leave it? Could they make it over the dangerous trail before her baby was born?
Head-wagging neighbors would give her little comfort.
“There’s a civil war on, you know,” they would warn. “The government is hard put to prosecute the Indians. Massacres are nothing unusual.”
“There’s no doctor on the trail,” others would remind them. And still others: “What if there’s drought in California?”
Maria turned to watch her husband. His movements were steady, his firm jaw set. There wasn’t a reckless bone in his lithe, young body. Sam had taken a bold step for God and conscience. Surely God would go with them. Surely their venture would not be in vain!
The farm sold quickly. The Overholtzers bought a covered wagon. Carefully they packed it with flour, corn, cured meats and water. Sam also took along a tin can of sweet crackers. They would play a very important part in the trek west. He arranged to join a wagon train of thirty-five families.
One morning in April, 1864, the teams were hitched, the wagons ready to go. Sam was elected to be the leader.
He gathered all together: the men, their wives and the children. Joining them in the solemn farewell were saddened relatives and friends.
Then a prayer . . . clearing of throats . . . some handkerchiefs appeared . . . goodbyes . . .
They were off.
Hardly fifty miles away, the party crossed the great “continental divide,” the Mississippi River. Now it was West, ever West, into the unknown vastness.