“History is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance about the past. It is the record of what’s left on the record. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance or a map is a journey,” Hilary Mantel, historical novelist.
Rose Bernardi Aiken Cook was the first woman to call Campbell’s Ferry home, as well as the only woman to be buried in its soil.
Rosa (Rose) Bernardi was born in December 1862, the second child in a Catholic family with eight children. Her Italian father, Joseph Bernardi, was a saloonkeeper and liquor dealer and her German mother, Rosa Gephart, ran a boarding house in Salem, Oregon. Rose grew up surrounded not only by her seven siblings but also the live-in guests in a large, lively setting. Undoubtedly all the Bernardi children grew up with necessary assigned chores in the boarding house, learning hard work and responsibility. Yet the atmosphere appears to have been joyful and supportive. Her friends described the petite, energetic Rose as cheerful and kind to all, known to have a happy, positive outlook on life.
At nineteen Rose married Joseph Aiken, a twenty-eight-year old widower with a six-year old-daughter, Bliss, who, during their eighteen-year marriage, Rose raised as her own. Tragically, twenty-four-year-old Bliss drowned in the Snake River in 1899 and the following year Joseph died of pneumonia. Rose moved back into her family home at age thirty-seven. There is no record of Rose and Joseph having any children together and the 1900 Census that lists Rose as living with her family in Salem makes no mention of an Aiken child.
It is not known exactly when or why she moved to Idaho but three years later Rose was working as a schoolteacher in Elk City, where she met and married twenty-seven-year-old Warren Cook from Dixie, Idaho. The discrepancy in their ages is interesting. What attracted Warren to this older widow? Was it the lack of single women in the mining towns or was it some deeper need. Perhaps he saw in Rose someone whose strong love and sense of family compelled her to faithfully raise her stepdaughter as her own and to care tenderly for her ailing husband before he died. Maybe he admired her buoyant spirit that could not be shaken by the tragedies she had endured or that he respected her brave choice to start her life anew out on her own in a small mining town surrounded by wilderness. Possibly he fell in love with the commitment and care he saw her lavish on the children in her classroom. Conceivably, he was attracted to the close, warm, gregarious comfort of her family, a situation so different from his own.
In contrast to Rose’s early life, Warren’s precarious childhood was marked with desertion and upheaval. He was born in Dayton, Washington, February 26, 1876, the first child of John Barrister Cook and his wife Clara, where John worked as a farmer. Some time later the family moved to Grangeville, Idaho. John opened a blacksmith shop; two more children were born. One day Warren’s mother, who had a history of mental illness, simply walked away, never to be seen again, leaving John to raise three children. At first a Nez Perce woman was brought in to help but family life was chaotic. At age ten Warren was sent to live with a Nez Perce family who raised him until he left after 8th grade to work as a laborer at farms in the region. In 1898 twenty-two-year-old Warren joined the First Idaho Regiment of infantry volunteers and shipped out to the Philippines to fight in the Spanish American War. Returning to the U.S. a year and a half later, he went to work in the mines of Dixie, Idaho, thirty miles south of Elk City.
Since no record exists of how Warren and Rose met, we are free to imagine some scenarios. Travel between the two towns was commonplace. Warren might have been shopping for supplies in the larger community of Elk City, attending church or some social gathering, when he met Rose. Disciplined and self-sufficient, he was also strong and handsome. Rose was vivacious, friendly, warm and kind. Clearly they found love and comfort in each other’s company and on June 22, 1903 they married, living in and around the mining camps of the area.
In 1904 they embarked on a new adventure. Warren was hired to run a ferry business at a wilderness homestead on the Salmon River known as Campbell’s Ferry, where the couple moved into the existing cabin in March of 1905. Strangely, at this point in Rose’s story a mysterious five-year-old boy appears. From various accounts, the child was severely disabled but all accounts have him living with the Cooks. Where did he come from? Did Warren see in Rose’s commitment to this child the love and dedication that he did not have from his own mother? Possibly he was Rose’s child by her first husband Joseph, since Joseph died just five years earlier, but no birth records have been found. Furthermore, the child was not listed as living with Rose and the Bernardi family in the 1900 Salem Census nor is the child mentioned in Joseph’s obituary. If this was Joseph’s child, was Rose pregnant with him at the time of Joseph’s death and at the time of the census? In local newspaper stories about Rose after she moved to Idaho, the child is never mentioned. Did Rose become guardian by some unique circumstances? History is silent.
What we do know is that shortly after moving to Campbell’s Ferry Rose and Warren’s cabin burned to the ground. They lived in a tent while Warren, aided by friends and family, hurriedly built a new cabin on a site 100 yards downstream. Fortunately, it was now spring, weather was warming, Rose had a garden started, and new life was emerging everywhere in the canyon…including in Rose now pregnant with Warren’s child. These must have been happy, hopeful months. Wildlife was abundant in this beautiful place. Fields were high with summer grasses. Flowering trees began to bear fruit, and wildflowers created shoals of color under the dark pines. With their cabin completed, the family nestled in to prepare for their new child. Rose told friends that since coming to Idaho she “led an ideal life.”
In early October Rose suffered an episode that was described as apoplexy, likely brought on by premature labor. She was two month’s shy of forty-three. Today her condition would be described as a stroke and preeclampsia. Possibly because her labor was premature, the baby had not turned and was in breech position. Making things more complicated, Rose’s left side was completely paralyzed. A midwife who lived four miles upriver was summoned to her bedside but despite her best efforts the baby could not be turned. A doctor was sent for but it took several days for the ride out and back from Elk City. According to her obituary, the doctor did not arrive “…until after the Angel of Death had claimed its own.” Jim Moore, who lived across the river from the Cooks, had also been present, later writing in his journal that it was “…a six day ordeal. The first three days we prayed that the baby would be born. The last three days we just prayed for it to be over.” Rose Bernardi Aiken Cook and her unborn child died the evening of October 12, 1905.
On a rise overlooking the orchard and the cabin Warren had built for them, he dug the grave that would hold his wife, his unborn child and his own broken heart. Today, if you know where to look, you can find the grave marker mostly hidden in the deep shade of the pines. Many friends from Dixie and Elk City made the journey to be present for the internment on a Saturday. As stated in her obituary, “…her untimely death is sincerely mourned by the entire community. She was a devout Catholic, Christian, and as near as possible, was buried under the rites of that church.”
Survivors mentioned were her husband Warren, her mother, her three brothers and four sisters…nothing about a mysterious disabled five-year old boy.
Devastated by loss of his wife and hoped for first child, Warren decided to forsake the Ferry. One can envision him kneeling by her grave to say goodbye. What did he say? What did it cost him to walk out of the canyon leaving them behind? What would it have cost him to stay? We know he never returned and surviving family members say he never spoke about this part of his life.
Rose Bernardi Cook lived at Campbell’s Ferry for five short months and died in the existing cabin here just over a hundred years before Doug and I began caring for it. In the time we have lived at the homestead I have thought of her every day.
In 1987 Idaho boatman and writer, Cort Conley, placed a grave marker between the pines that mark her resting place. Since the large bedroom windows of our cabin look out on the site, it is one of the first things I see from my bed each morning. The trail from the cabin to our garden runs directly past her grave. Eight years ago I planted two old-fashioned rose bushes next to the site, a pink one for Rose and a white for her baby. It is not a great spot for roses. There is too much shade under the large pines and the soil is not the best, but I baby the roses so that they bloom throughout the summer and into the fall. I like to imagine that the essences that were once their bodies have merged into the ground and are now drawn up into the roots of the roses, creating the blossoms that powder the air with their fragrance.
When Doug and I began living here in 2006, daily life was not substantially different from what it was in 1905. Rose and I both moved into a different life, where the arc of the sun measures time in its travels between the two mountain ridges that embrace the river, where one begins to feel a kinship with the stars overhead during the hushed nights. I allow myself to imagine that she felt the same wonder at the uncountable shades of green emerging in the spring, that she also delighted at the sequential waves of wildflower blooms throughout the summer, and that her heart warmed with the red and gold of fall.
She would be surprised, I think, to know she was a subject in our book, Merciless Eden, about the homestead, that all these years later another woman carries memories of her and struggles to make sense of her story as she goes through her own daily life at the Ferry. I would love to speak with Rose, ask her the questions…especially about the five-year-old boy. I wish there were some way that history could be captured in the light that escaped earth so many years ago, like a film traveling through the far reaches of space carrying the imprint of her life.