Susan Lee Ward

Susan Lee Ward – Author’s Journey to Lifelines

Hello, this is Susan Lee Ward, author of Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters.

Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters is a love story between two young idealists who overcome ingrained New England prejudices on their life’s journey. Set against the backdrop of our country’s westward expansion and inevitable conflicts that arose, Lifelines is about real people, places, and events as detailed in several hundred letters between Catherine “Katie” Cary Bowen and Captain Isaac Bowen between 1846 and 1858, just prior to the Civil War.  

This is the story of my great-great-grandparents, part of my matriarchal lineage. This journey began after my sister, Diane Kathleen Haug, sent me a copy of “My Dear Mother,” some family photos, and a genealogical chart. In the late 1990s, when Diane was helping one of our aunts relocate, she found a copy of an article about Gwladys Bowen (a distant cousin) related to family letters that were being used as part of an educational program at the Fort Union National Monument in northeastern New Mexico. Diane had just spent seven years living in a very remote part of New Mexico – very close to Fort Union – and was excited to find that we had ancestors who had traveled down the Old Santa Fe Trail and lived in the area. As part of the U.S Army, our great-great-grandparents had been stationed at the newly established Fort Union for several years, where their first son was born. The copies of their letters displayed at Fort Union were between 1851 and 1853. Katie had always been a prolific correspondent and dutifully documented the details of their lives, particularly for her mother back home in Houlton, Maine. The compilation of letters written to family members back east was entitled “My Dear Mother” by the National Park Service staff. In about 2006, I read the Fort Union-era letters over a period of weeks while my two youngest daughters were at soccer practice.

My interest was piqued and during the next couple of years, I began to read books listed in the bibliography of “My Dear Mother.” I learned more about southwestern forts and supplies, Spanish land grants, the conquest of the American West, travel on the Santa Fe Trail, and what military life was like for an officer and his wife living on the frontier. Eventually I found a reference to Dr. Leo E. Oliva, historian, who had written an article entitled, “A Faithful Account of Everything, Letters from Katie Bowen on the Santa Fe Trail 1851” about Katie and Isaac Bowen which was published in the Winter 1996 issue of Kansas History. After purchasing a copy of the issue, I was able to locate Dr. Oliva’s contact information and we began an email conversation. Dr. Oliva was happy to find descendants of the Bowens and provided me with back copies of Wagon Tracks, the quarterly magazine of the Santa Fe Trail Association (SFTA), in which he had serialized some of Katie and Isaac’s letters from the time they were at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, staging their journey on the Santa Fe Trail in 1851, through their three-month trip across the prairie and plains, and then their two-year tour of duty at Fort Union, New Mexico Territory.

After my four children all graduated from college, I had more time. Around 2010, I wrote the outline for a fictionalized version of Katie and Isaac Bowen‘s story entitled, The Land of Enchantment, but with different characters. It’s a romance novel – sort of fan fiction! Eventually I may return to that story line, but I kept thinking about how to best memorialize the true story of my great-great-grandparents, which I found quite compelling and historically significant.

I kept Dr. Oliva updated by email and was invited to make a presentation at a conference in Las Vegas, New Mexico sponsored by the Las Vegas Citizen’s Committee for Historic Preservation (LVCCHP) and Fort Union National Monument (June 2016), about Santa Fe travelers and their descendants, and also to the Santa Fe Trail Association’s rendezvous meeting in Larned, Kansas (September 2016). After creating a presentation, I was ready to share what I knew about Katie and Isaac Bowen’s story. It was after these presentations that Dr. Oliva kindly mailed copies of the original letters written between 1846-1858, and also copies of the letters typed by Gwladys Bowen during her lifetime. For later, there’s also an interesting story about why, where and how Dr. Oliva and his wife, Bonita Oliva, accessed the original Bowen letters….

I finished transcribing the letters where Gwladys Bowen left off, and I still have so much admiration for her efforts. Katie and Isaac have different handwriting, of course. Isaac’s is loopier and easier to read. Katie’s letters are tightly written, spidery, and in some cases she crossed back over above the lines so that her letters look like chicken scratches. Cross-writing or cross-hatching is two separate sets of writing, one written over the other at right angles. This was due to lack of writing paper.

By 2018, I had researched and verified every bit of information in the letters that I could (such as the proper spelling of names and places, public events, methods of transportation, types of material used for sewing, ingredients used in cooking, medicinal recipes, etc.) and retyped all of the letters on a computer, created a PDF version, and copyrighted the compilation as The Bowens. While still trying decide what to do with such a large amount of material, I was approached by Dorrance Publishing to use their services. I decided to lightly edit the letters (and in some cases delete letters because they were undated, partial, or too personal) and created Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters.

I wrote a brief bio for the back cover of my book, which does not include my professional life. But as an author, I wanted to convey that I’m an Army brat and come by my interest in military life quite organically. My father, Clarence Harry Haug, served in the U.S. Army for thirty-two years, including in the Pacific Theater during WWII. My mother, Gertrude Ruth Munsell Haug, was named after her mother, Ruth Bowen Munsell (daughter of Millard Fillmore Bowen). She later used her middle name, Ruth, when she obtained an MA in Public Administration in 1938, was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the State Social Security Commission in Jefferson City, MO, and then joined the war effort in 1942. Ruth worked with the American Red Cross in New Caledonia and New Zealand during WWII (important Allied bases), and married my father while he was on leave in Auckland, New Zealand on July 4, 1944. Mother later worked as a librarian at our various military posts in Texas and Germany.

I spent my formative years at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where I became familiar with the sight of parades and military vehicles, the sound of 21-gun salutes, the distinctive smell of canvas tents in the hot sun, and the acrid smell of Brasso. I currently live in Austin, Texas, with my husband, William Seaton Ward, who is a storyteller, songwriter, screenwriter, and novelist.

Lifelines – The Bowen Love Letters can also be purchased here: