Sweet Betsy from Pike

Words by John A. Stone; tune by John Parry, 1858

The "Pike" that Betsy was from was Pike County, Missouri. What is the distance from Missouri to California? Why did people start the land journey to California from Missouri? Many migrants took riverboats along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Missouri. From there, the journey to California was completed by land.

Using a current physical map, trace a proposed route for Ike and Betsy. Try to find a map from 1849 and see what the major overland routes were. How close was your route? What kind of terrain did they cross between Missouri and California? What were the challenges of each kind of terrain? What terrain does the song mention?

If oxen pull a wagon at about four miles per hour, how long would it take for them to make the crossing? How many hours do you think they could travel a day? How much would the mountains slow them down? What kind of weather would make the crossing easier or more difficult? When would you schedule the trip to make the most of favorable weather? How might that affect the rush for gold? What other challenges did Ike and Betsy face?

What was Ike and Betsy's relationship like? How "equal" was their relationship? Why? What lines from the song support your view?

How might their relationship change once they arrived in California and settled in? What was the "settlement" process for those who came to California in the Gold Rush? How might that process be different if they were going for different reasons, like starting a farm or ranch?

What mood is this song? Why would people making this dangerous journey be attracted to a humorous song rather than a serious one? Why do you think this song stood the test of time?

"Sweet Betsy from Pike" performed by Pete Seeger on America's Favorite Ballads, Smithsonian Folkways, © 2009. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

In this recording we hear a solo male voice accompanied by banjo. This is much as it would have been heard around the mining towns of California, including the refrain: "hoodle dang fol die do, hoodle dang fol di day," sung by everyone present between each verse.

View the music and lyrics for "Sweet Betsy from Pike."

View the original broadside.

Cover of Put's Golden Songster, songbook published ca 1858, written and compiled by John A. Stone.
Cover of Put's Golden Songster, songbook published ca 1858, written and compiled by John A. Stone.

Associated with the California Gold Rush, this song describes the journey west in detail (the "Pike" it refers to is Pike County, Missouri).

John Stone moved west in 1850 to try his luck at gold mining. After three years of digging with no success, he turned to composing and singing, eventually organizing a traveling minstrel company, the Sierra Nevada Rangers. They were quite popular in the gold mining camps throughout California and in 1855 Stone published Put's Original California Songster. It was very successful, with more than 15,000 copies sold in a few years. In 1858 he brought out a second volume, entitled Put's Golden Songster. "Sweet Betsy" appears in the later edition.

As with many songs associated with the California gold rush, this song's text is sung to a pre-existing tune, "Villikins and His Dinah" by John Parry, an English composer. The melody circulated widely in the 1840s and 1850s, though it was not as familiar as Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna," which was often used to set new texts. This is a waltz tune with a refrain consisting of "vocables," therefore making it easily remembered.

Compare this song to other "moving west" songs:

"Rolling Stone" (Unit 2)

"Crossing the Grand Sierras" (Unit 5).

Write a single event in each block in the order it occurs. Add as many blocks as needed to include the whole story. Download the graphic organizer here.




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