Behind the story.

The Black Alabaster Box is historical fantasyI try very hard to stay true to the historical period in which it is set, based on current information as well as my family history. But there are magical elements that become very important as the story progresses. Those, I leave to your imagination. But some of the real places and events are worth exploring if you are interested. In this section of the blog you can look for more on the things I have listed:





THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX begins as Grace Willis and her family arrive in Kansas City, Missouri. They’ve left their home in St. Louis in order to go to California.  Dr. Willis wants to start a medical school. The Willis family leaves in about 1856, after the gold rush and before railroads replaced wagon travel West.

220px-Samuel_Cooper_b1780.jpgBy the way, the first medical school in California was started in 1858 by a doctor named Elias Samuel Cooper of San Francisco. It was the first medical school in the Western United States. Later it became the medical school for Stanford University. (The portrait at the left was made in 1840 by Andrew Morton.)

I’ve tried very hard to make the story as close to history as I can–except for the magic. But that comes later.  I thought you might like to know a little bit more about the Santa Fe Trail. Here are a few notes and some links you can follow if you get really interested in the Trail.

Santa Fe Trail.jpg

The Santa Fe Trail was one of the routes traveled by pioneers and traders in the 19th century. You can read more about its history by clicking the link or you can look at interesting bits about wagon trains. The wagon trains link has a cartoon at the top of the page that gives three key facts that are worth knowing and might surprise you.

European explorers and pioneers thought they were opening up the West when they began to travel across the vast land that now makes up the Midwest United States. It was already open, though. First Nation people had already established their own system of trading at least four hundred years before the Spanish came to the Southwest in the late 1500s. The plains tribes traded buffalo meat for agricultural products such as beans and squash that were grown by Pueblo people who lived in the Rio Grande valley.

The Spanish set up an empire. It included Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, western Colorado and California as well as the country of Mexico as we know it today. It was all known as Mexico then. You can see a time-line of Mexico  and watch a video by clicking the link. Warning: the video has some bloody images, so don’t watch it if you’re likely to have nightmares. Or have your parents preview the website so you can skip over the scary bits.

Many Spanish people who came to Mexico settled in the Rio Grande valley area. But trade became a problem. The Spanish government thought that any trade taking place had to benefit Spain. Trading with First Nation people was illegal. Once Mexico became free from Spain, trading between the US and Mexico flourished. The Santa Fe Trail connected Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico Province (still a part of Mexico) with the new state of Missouri. Most of the traffic along the Santa Fe Trail was for trade.

National Park Service Photograph

The US Army had forts in Western areas to protect trade routes, to keep settlers from illegally claiming tribal lands, to protect travelers from bandits, and to keep tribes from warring with each other. Many of these forts were more like outposts with a few buildings than the massive stockades made famous in the movies. Supplies were usually sent up the Missouri River to Fort Leavenworth, about thirty-five miles north of Kansas City. There supplies were loaded onto wagons for the trip west. Native American attacks on wagon trains weren’t nearly as frequent as you might think if you depend on old movies for information. It wasn’t until traffic along the Trail and illegal settling of land made First Nations people concerned about protecting their lands that military posts served to protect pioneers from attack.

There were other traders, who weren’t working for the army. They took products such as cloth, needles and thread, knives, and axes to trade for silver coins, gold, wool and mules. Traders usually sold their wagons and oxen in Santa Fe and used the mules to pack their goods back to Missouri.


By the time Grace Willis’s family set out on the Santa Fe Trail in the late 1850s, the US had taken the land from Mexico. (Even though the US paid $15 million for the land they took, it was a deal that left Mexico half the size it was before.) People such as Dr. and Mrs. Willis, who wanted to settle in California, followed the Santa Fe Trail with small companies of pioneers all the way to Santa Fe. After that they followed the California Trail or one of the southern routes to California. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, more people followed the Trail, but by this time The California Roadthrough Oklahoma was open. Most pioneers took that route. By the late 1800s the Santa Fe Trail was replaced by railroads.

The Santa Fe Trail crosses five states: Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. You can make a virtual trip along the trail as it looks today at the National Parks website.

Another website, gives information about the Oregon/California trail. It includes a section on “Trail Basics” with interesting information such as “The Wagon.” You can click on the link and read about wagons the pioneers used and see a diagramof parts of the wagon. Another section you can click is “A Day on the Trail.” It gives a typical schedule, starting with the 4:00 AM wake call by a bugler or somebody firing a rifle into the air.

In many places you can still see the ruts left by wagons more than a hundred years ago. Once I visited the Trail in the Oklahoma Panhandle near Boise City and in


Eastern Kansas near the city of Lawrence. Once when I was in Kansas, I picked some flowers growing along the trail. The prairie around them had never been plowed. I thought about what it would have   been like to pick the same kind of flowers as a pioneer. Maybe that’s why I have Grace picking flowers along the Trail in the book. The flowers to the right appear in Chapter Five.


If you believed the old Western movies, you’d think that First Nation people were the greatest danger to pioneers setting out for the West. “Circle the wagons!” somebody yells in the movie. The pioneers rush to get the wagons in a circle so they can shoot the hoard of screaming Indians hurling toward them on horseback. It is a scene enacted in games of cowboys and Indians all around the world. But the truth is, wagon trains were much more threatened by disease than by attack. Pioneers had very few encounters with tribes who lived in the lands they passed through.

Diseases such as cholera and smallpox were deadly and could wipe out an entire wagon train. Unfortunately, wagon trains carried diseases with them to a native population that had not been exposed to them. Smallpox killed hundreds of First Nation people. Wagons, like the Willis wagon, pulled out of the train when someone became too sick to travel. If another wagon train came upon a wagon where owners had all died from the pox or cholera, they set fire to it, hoping to prevent spread of the disease. In other cases, the train waited for the sick person to die and buried them in the middle of the trail so that wagons passing over them could pack the earth down and protect the grave from animals. Some people estimate that are were ten graves per mile along the Oregon/California trail. Click the link to see other dangers going west.

Cholera is still a danger in some parts of the world. It is a severe stomach condition caused by a bacteria—usually in drinking water contaminated by the bacteria. Extreme diarrhea and vomiting leads to dehydration. Death can occur in a matter of hours.

Smallpox can be deadly, too. It had been around for thousands of years before Grace’s family started West. It is a disease that is highly contagious. There is no cure for it, even today. It begins with a rash in the mouth and spreads to face and hands. The flat red spots become blisters that later dry up and scab over, leaving people with disfiguring marks all over their body. It often leads to death.

Fortunately for us, smallpox has been completely eradicated all over the world by 1980. When Grace’s family set out for California, researchers were already experimenting with how to improve smallpox vaccine. Her father probably knew a great deal about vaccinating people using live smallpox virus and how to prevent its spread. But vaccination was controversial and still is.

In the book, Mr. Swathmore and Dr. Willis have both survived smallpox as children. The result was immunity. Mr. Swathmore was left with terrible marks on his face. Dr. Willis had a much more mild case, but it left him with immunity. By studying people who had mild cases of the disease or showed natural immunity, researchers were able to learn more about how to prevent the disease.

Being around somebody with smallpox didn’t mean a person would catch it. Precautions such as washing hands and keeping hands away from nose and mouth went a long way to curb its spread. But the disease was also spread by coughing and sneezing. It was sometimes spread by handling clothing or bed linens of the sick person, but this was more rare.

If there were ever an outbreak of smallpox, people who have been exposed to it could get a vaccination within four days. The vaccination prevents the disease or makes it much less dangerous.

The vaccine is kept ready in case we ever need it. Samples of smallpox virus are used for research purposes. Some people fear that smallpox could be used as a biological warfare agent. The World Health Organization and other health organizations have emergency plans for how to react were that to happen. In the US, the Center for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health are some of the facilities where research on treatment and prevention of smallpox occurs. They have emergency plans for protection of citizens in cooperation with all of the state health organizations.



The Alabaster Caverns are a real place that you can visit today. The Caverns are part of a 200 acre State Park near Freedom, Oklahoma in the northwest part of the state.

You wouldn’t know there is an entrance if it weren’t for the park, the signs and, when you get up close, the fence. The overhanging cliff, grass, and trees hide it, even

The main cavern is about a mile long. A stream runs the entire length. Long ago, in prehistoric times, it was a fast moving river that left gypsum formations over the years. Throughout the cavern you can see bits of selenite crystal in the rock walls and formations in many colors. It is like looking at twinkling stars.

Since ancient times, some people have thought that crystals have healing powers. They are also associated with physical energy, peace of mind, and seeing the future. But crystals are also very important in electronics, in fact, without crystals we would not have the many electronic devices we have today. You can read more about crystals by following the link.

This shows where part of the  Alabaster Caverns collapsed to form a canyon, seen from above. Except for the buildings in the distance it may have looked very much like this when Grace Willis first saw it. Photograph by Joy Franklin, Expedition Oklahoma ( See more pictures by following the link.

I visited the Alabaster Caverns with my family when I was a girl. I shall never forget the feelings of mystery and wonder I felt then. Click the link to take a virtual tour of the Caverns.

What About Alabaster?

You can see the white gypsum in the foreground and below.

Alabaster is a rare form of gypsum (or calcium sulfate). In many parts of the world you can see “gyp rock” sticking up out of the grass and dirt around it. Gypsum rock is ordinary looking. White gypsum is almost chalky in texture. Alabaster is like the rich cousin of plain old gyp rock. It is much more fine-grained.

Sometimes alabaster is confused with marble and onyx. Alabaster is the softest of the three. Marble is the hardest. Marble and onyx will both scratch alabaster.

The ancient Egyptians prized alabaster, using it for beautiful sculptures and containers. It has been quarried for many centuries in Italy, Egypt, and China. Black alabaster, like the carin and the box in The Alabaster Box, is extremely rare and is found only in Italy, China and The Alabaster Caverns.

A cup with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Notice how translucent it is. That is one of the characteristics of alabaster.
An ancient alabaster sculpture from Egypt in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

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