The Diary of Carrie Robinson Sage
By Jill Poulsen

The details of a person’s past are frequently lost and forgotten. Famous individuals life events are often recorded and so are remembered by us all. However, through their literary efforts, journal and diary keepers create their own history for themselves regardless of their historical significance. Through her diary keeping, Carrie Robinson Sage was able to carve out a place for herself next to notable historical figures.
The year of 1859 was a tumultuous one to bring a new baby into the world. The United States was on the cusp of a war that would leave the young nation completely changed. Yet, on October fourth, Charles Robinson and his wife Mary Jane welcomed their daughter, Caroline Knowles Robinson, into their family. She was born in Illinois, the same state her parents were married in, on November 19, 1858.
Although Illinois had recently been considered the frontier, by 1858 politics were big news in Illinois. The relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln had been taking part in debates throughout the state, drawing attention to himself with his concerns about the division amongst the states over the issue of slavery. Only two years later, he was elected President and the country soon erupted in the Civil War.
Little Carrie’s father Charles entered service on September 4, 1861 with the 47th Illinois Infantry. His enlistment papers describe him as having auburn colored hair and blue eyes. In 1862, he was promoted to First Lieutenant.
Charles survived the war, however his wife did not. A form for his pension that he filled out in 1904, in it he stated simply “wife died while I was in service.” There are no records indicating the nature of Mary Jane’s death, but a picture of little Carrie remains with the words printed on the back, “taken in New Hampshire while father home on furlough from Civil War,” suggesting that Carrie may have been left with family there to care for her. In the photograph, she appears to be about four or five years old. With her hair set in ringlets and wearing a dress with flowers appliquéd on the full skirt, she looks like a little lady ready for a ball.
Left a widower after the war with a small child to care for Charles married Mary Lenora Ormsby. It is likely that the marriage took place in 1867, as the 1900 Federal Census report records them as having been married for 33 years. Looking for a fresh start, the newly married couple relocated to California around 1874, where their only child together, Charles Ormsby Robinson, was born in 1875.
Following the first flush of gold fever, California’s attraction shifted to include its agricultural desirability, favorable climate, and outdoor livability. In Americans and the California Dream 1850 - 1915, Kevin Starr writes that “at the core of the dream was the hope for a special relationship to nature.” Like so many other Americans, hope probably drew the Robinson family across the nation. According to Starr, “hope for a good life glowed white-hot in the 1880s when thousands upon thousands of ‘Pullman emigrants’ poured into the State in the most dramatic population growth since the Gold Rush.”
Carrie attended boarding school, from which she wrote letters to her parents. She grew to adulthood in Fresno County where she was issued a teaching certificate in November 1879. Carrie taught at a secondary grade school and schoolhouse in which she taught is still standing and is now used as a church building in Parlier, California.
Carrie’s lifelong romance with her husband John Sage began sometime before 1881. In a letter dated May 13, 1881, Carrie coyly asks, “What shall I call you, you know I can’t say ‘dear little John’ because you are far from being little, so I don’t see any alternative but for me to say ‘Mr. Sage’. She goes on to thank him for the gift of organ music he gave her and comments on the beauty of some verses he sent her. Their admiration for each other led to their marriage on April 6, 1882 which was reported in the local newspaper to be a “pleasant affair.”
The ceremony took place in the Robinson home and the reporter seemed to be quite taken with the couple, calling John a “popular young townsman” and Carrie the “fairest and most accomplished ladies of our county.” Unfortunately the joyous occasion had been preceded by the shocking loss of Carrie’s young half brother, Charles Ormsby, who died of unknown causes only a few months before. Yet the couple still commemorated their marriage with a unique trip that both Carrie, and her stepmother, Lenora, documented in their personal diaries.
Their “long talked of trip to the coast” began on April 11, 1882 when they headed south from Selma. Significantly, their trip was solely for leisure purposes, to relax and enjoy seeing sights they had never seen before. Not only was California becoming a popular place to settle, it was becoming a popular place to travel and enjoy nature. Albert S. Evans, a journalist from the San Francisco area, wrote articles on the joys of outdoor living that were eventually published into a book in 1873, A La California. Historian Kevin Starr notes that there was a feeling that “that life in California was now settled enough to be savored, not just compulsively gotten through.” Carrie’s diary is replete with descriptions of tidy ranches with artesian wells, reports on the spoils of her new husband’s hunting, and the delights of her first view of the ocean.
The trip was a family affair. It included not only the newlyweds, but Carrie’s parents and her Aunt, Uncle, and cousin. Carrie’s relationship with her stepmother appears to have been close and abiding. Their journals spoke of parallel experiences and their enjoyment of each other’s company is evident. Carrie always referred to Lenora as “mother” and, in her old age, Lenora lived with John and Carrie. The group traveled by carriage and wagon as they camped and hunted for food along the way.
Their route led them south through Bakersfield, into the Los Angeles Basin, north up the coast to San Luis Obispo and then back again to their home near Riverbend at Parlier.
The primary aim of their trip was to catch sight of the ocean. On April 28, their goal was realized and Carrie recorded that it was “a grand sight to us who had never seen the ocean before, to see the great waves come rolling in toward the shore, to see them break and throw a great cloud of foam far up on the beach.” The women in the party spent hours collecting shells and moss, while the men hunted and fished. So many treasures were collected, in fact, that Lenora reported that in order to carry them back to camp “we each took off one of our petticoats to tie up our spoils in. They were
so heavy that we made slow progress and our husbands over took us before we had gone far.” Carrie and Lenora’s shell collections were very important to them and they carefully packed them up to take them all the way back to the Central Valley.
As their route led them back inland, away from the ocean, the group sought their last experience with the power and exhilaration of the sea. Carrie reported on May 9:

"After dinner some of us concluded to go in bathing; so John put up our tent for us to dress in, and Uncle, mother, father, John and myself went in. As we had no bathing suits mother and I put on our old dresses, and the men kept on their drawers, and shirts. I own that I am afraid of the water and I would not go out alone where it was very deep; but when John had hold of hands I went out to where it came up to my shoulders. It was fun to have the breakers roll in on to us. Being so near the ocean has made us enjoy every moment of the time today”

Throughout her journal, Carrie was very observant of her surroundings, particularly the quality of the homes and gardens that she saw along the way. She gave detailed descriptions of plant life and liberally commented on the apparent thriftiness of the ranches they passed on their journey. On May 10, she stopped in front of what she thought was perhaps the finest yard they had seen yet. She even asked her Uncle to beg permission for them to examine it. According to Carrie there were

“… about 30 varieties of cactus, besides very great many beautiful flowering shrubs and trees, vines, roses and small flowers. There were scores of plants that more of us had ever seen before. One very handsome thing was an arch covered with a passion vine, having a bright scarlet flower. There was a century plant having a blossom stalk about 15 feet high, it rose from the center of the plant. How we wished that we could see it when it is in bloom.”

Near the close of their trip, on May 17, Lenora recorded a touching incident between Carrie and John in her journal. It was a stormy night and the wind was so strong it was having its way with their tents. The gale pulled the tent pins out of John and Carrie’s tent, so they woke up in the darkness to find the sky over their heads. Lenora reported that “John got up and went out in rather scant and light costume.” According to Lenora, he asked Carrie if she wanted him to “sit on the corner of the tent to keep it down for the rest of the night.” Lenora didn’t hear Carrie’s reply but she wrote, “from the pounding I heard I don’t think he did it.” The newlyweds undoubtedly got to know each other well on their adventure.
Both Carrie and Lenora’s diaries end upon their return, but family documents, and census reports continue their story. Carrie mothered four children, but only two daughters survived to adulthood. Mary was born in August 1885 and Lucille was born in January of 1887. Then in 1892, as a mother of small children, Carrie accompanied her husband with a group that climbed Mount Whitney. Throughout their lives together the couple enjoyed experiencing the joys of the outdoors. John was a capable mountain man. From 1887 to 1915 he owned and operated a sawmill at Poison Meadows. His family continued to accompany him on his explorations.
On April 6, 1932 Carrie and John celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at their home in Selma. Over one hundred relatives and friends came to wish them well and the local newspaper reported on the event calling them a “pioneer couple” and crediting John for his lumber work and sawmills business. In 1940, John explored another one of his talents by publishing a book of verses, entitled Along the Trails on his experiences in the mountains.
Carrie lived her life surrounded by the people she loved and respected. She supported her husband in all his endeavors and even accompanied him, unlike many other women of her time. If not for her diary, her life might have been swallowed up in his. The Fresno Historical Society is fortunate to have Carrie’s diary as a part of their permanent collection. Accompanying the diary are Lenora’s diary, personal letters, family documents, and Robinson family pictures. The collection offers a unique look at
a remarkable women whose life’s work helped to build and shape Fresno County.

Sources:
Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
Albert S. Evans, A La California: Sketches of Life in the Golden State (San Francisco: A.L. Bancroft & Company, 1873).
Civil War Enlistment Records for Charles H Robinson, 47th Illinois Infantry, Eureka County, Illinois
Court Records
Federal Census Reports
Newspaper articles
Diary of Caroline Knowles Robinson Sage
Dairy of Lenora Ormsby Robinson
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