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The overland journey was a dangerous one. Many
became sick as cholera epidemics swept over the
trail. Then there was the very real possibility
of severe accidents. Mothers had to deal with
the chance that they would lose a child or husband
to disease or accident. This became more apparent
as they passed numerous grave sites along the
trail. Overland diaries are filled with instances
of grave crossings. "Often several graves together
stood as silent proof of smallpox or cholera epidemic."(14)
"Had another very warm day. The warm weather seems
to increase the sickness. A good many sick and
a number of deaths." In addition to the fear
of losing a loved one to disease, there was also
the possibility that someone would be involved
in an accident. It wasn't uncommon for people
to fall off wagons or get caught in a stampede.
One woman described her son's narrow escape from
accident in her journal,
|Here Chat had a very
narrow escape from being run over. Just as
we were all getting ready to start, Chatfield
the rascal, came around the forward wheel
to get into the wagon and at that moment the
cattle started and he fell under the wagon.
Somehow he kept from under the wheels…a bad
scare. I was never so much frightened in my
the only ones susceptible to accidents; "A
lady on our train was thrown from her horse and
injured quite severely. They sent on ahead a mile
for a doctor, who was in the next train."
One of the most serious events women endured on
the journey was childbirth. Many women were pregnant
and gave birth along the trail. This in itself
posed danger due to the unclean circumstances
and the lack of doctors and midwives. In their
diaries, many women reported their childbirth
in a very nonchalant and stoic manner. One woman
kept a diary of her trip but never once mentioned
that she was pregnant until the entry where she
told of the birth. It is hard to imagine traveling
that distance being pregnant and carrying the
fear of childbirth the entire way. After the birth,
the wagon train continued over the Columbia River,
as if it was just any other day. "A few days
later my eighth child was born. After this we
picked up and ferried across the Columbia River,
utilizing skiff, canoes, and flatboat to get across,
taking three days to complete." (17)
Others report more devastating incidents of childbirth.
It was not uncommon to lose the mother, the child,
or both during childbirth in the 19th century;
this was especially true along the trail.
|We have just passed
by the train I have just spoken of. They had
just buried the babe of the woman who died
days ago and were just digging a grave for
another woman that was run over by the cattle
and wagons when they stampeded yesterday.
She lived twenty-four hours, she gave birth
to a child a short time before she died. The
child was buried with her. She leaves a little
two year old girl and a husband. They say
he is nearly crazy with sorrow. (18)
depicts the horror that the journey could entail.
These fears sat in the back of every migrant's
mind during the journey.
The Oregon Trail, and other overland trails, subjected
people to many hardships, but those hardships
did not end with the journey. In a way, the journey
was a preparation for the hard work that was inherent
in homesteading. Just as they were on the journey,
women's roles would be tested and expanded on
the homestead. Along with housework and other
traditional "women's work," pioneer women often
had to run the homesteads when the men left on
business or in search of gold. They also had to
help out on the ranch or farm when adequate help
wasn't available. These duties challenged the
cult of domesticity, ultimately giving women additional
Once the families arrived in Oregon, or any place
they were to homestead, they were faced with new
hardships. Finding a place to live was the first
order of business. Often families stayed with
friends or relatives during the first winter.
Others camped in their wagons. It was not uncommon
for some migrants to dwell in public buildings,
such as churches, until they had a place of their
Once the weather
permitted and the family had obtained their land,
they built their cabin. This was no easy task
due to the lack of proper tools and nails. The
cabins were usually one room and had a dirt floor.
One pioneer woman described her cabin as "a
small cabin, 12x14 in dimensions, made of round
logs, with the bark on them, each notched deeply
enough at its end to dovetail into its neighbors
above and below it. The cracks still remaining
after this rude fitting were filled with mixed
mud and grass."(20)
These dimensions and building supplies were very
common for Oregon homesteaders. Often their beds
would be nailed to the walls and all of their
furniture hand crafted. Most furniture was abandoned
along the way.
After the home had been built, the family needed
to plant their gardens and crops. Most homesteaders
were only able to plant on a limited amount of
their acreage their first year. This was due to
the weakness of their animals from the journey,
and the lack of good tools and plows. Families
depended heavily on their gardens to produce fresh
vegetables. Although it was outside work, these
gardens were part of the women's domain. Pioneer
women relied on their gardens for potatoes, cabbage,
peas, turnips, onions, tomatoes, and carrots.(21)
In addition to tending the gardens, women were
also responsible for the same things they had
always been responsible for; cooking, washing,
and child-rearing. Cooking, like on the overland
trail, was no easy task on the frontier. Most
families had to abandon their stoves along the
way because they weighed too much, which left
the women cooking over an open fire. "Our food
was all cooked over a fireplace and at times it
would seem that my face was fairly blistered from
the heat and my eyes blinded by the smoke."
was especially dreaded by many frontier women.
Filling the washtubs, scrubbing the clothing and
linens by hand, rinsing, and drying, was an all-day
affair. It was exhausting and the lye soap used
to wash was very hard on the women's hands. Although
everyday work was exhausting, most women were
prepared. Some women had help, if it was economically
feasible, such as this woman who was married to
an Indian agent; "My help was a Chinese cook,
an Indian laundress, and a young girl to act as
nursemaid for the children and to help with the
sewing- for I made all my clothes and the children's."
Others, who were from a more urban background,
had a much harder time adjusting to frontier life.
Isabella Bird, a British traveler who spent time
visiting the Rocky Mountains, described unprepared
families she came into contact with along the
|The story of my host
is a story of misfortune. It indicates who
should not come to Colorado. He and his wife
are under thirty-five. The son of a London
physician in large practice, with a liberal
education in the largest sense of the word…In
an evil hour he heard of Colorado with its
'unrivalled climate, boundless resources,'
etc., and, fascinated not only by these material
advantages, but by the notion of being able
to found or reform society on advanced social
theories of his own, became an immigrant…Both
are fitted to shine in any society, but neither
had the slightest knowledge of domestic and
farming details. Dr. H. did not know how to
saddle or harness a horse. Mrs. H. did not
know whether you should put an egg into cold
or hot water when you meant to boil it!..It
is the hardest and least ideal struggle that
I have ever seen made by educated people.
This story indicates
how much harder it was for those who were unprepared,
although, most had enough foreknowledge to survive
on the frontier.
Many women viewed their work, especially cooking
and cleaning, as less than rewarding. It had to
be done over and over again, everyday. This could
become frustrating at times. Women took pride
in the things that they made and the money they
earned from selling surplus goods and handmade
items. This woman's explanation provides a clear
example of how many women viewed their tasks;
a hard worker all my life, but most of my
work has been the kind that perishes with
the usin', as the Bible says. That's the discouragin'
thing about a woman's work…if a woman was
to see all the dishes that she had to wash
before she died, piled up before her in one
pile, she'd lie down and die right then and
there. I've always had the name o' bein' a
good housekeeper, but when I'm dead and gone
there ain't anybody goin' to think o' the
floors I've swept, and the tables I've scrubbed,
and the old clothes I've patched, and the
stockin's I've darned…But when one of my grandchildren
sees on 'those quilts, they'll think about
Aunt Jane, and, wherever I am then, I'll know
I ain't forgotten.
It was very
common for frontier women to sell surplus eggs
and vegetables as well as handmade items such
as gloves and blankets. They became small-time
businesswomen earning extra money for the family
to buy goods and sometimes more land. Minnie Webster,
a homesteader in Wyoming, stated that she "didn't
get rich but made enough to buy the present land
that we live on." Another woman reported that
hand-sewn socks and gloves fetched fifty cents
a piece in Olympia, Washington.
In addition to the housework and the marketing
of surplus goods, women became important to the
homestead in many other ways. The crossover into
men's work that began along the trail continued
on the homestead. Women were recruited to help
during harvest time on the farm or for a roundup
on the ranch if extra help was not available.
Sometimes the "outside work" was quite messy.
"For many days Wilma [daughter] and I shoveled
and hauled thirteen wagon loads of manure a day
with a team of horses. Oh boy, we were tired.
Then we went home to cook supper and milk all
of the cows." Although being allowed out of
the house may have indicated growing responsibility
for women, it was often no more than extra work.
Often men would leave the ranch to conduct business,
hunt, or search for gold. During these times the
women were left in charge of the homestead. This
"extra work" became an extension of female responsibility
and, like the sale of surplus items, was an advancement
in their marital and social roles. A Montana homesteader,
Mae McQuigg, was left in charge of their homestead
when her husband went to work for the railroad.
She described the time as "not too lonely,
and we could always expect my husband out on Saturday
with the mail and groceries and ready to listen
to all of the news about the homestead. I must
admit I did have two fears one was a prairie fire
the other was for my children and my mother."
These instances allowed women's role in family
business and responsibility to grow.
It is apparent that frontier women had a very
challenging life. Their contributions to the family
were indispensable, although often unrecognized.
In examining the woman's role in pioneer living
situations as well as along the trails, their
place in 19th century society can be fully appreciated.
It also allows us to make comparisons and track
how their roles changed over time. Victorian 19th
century social constructs held women down to strict
roles pertaining to the home and family. The overland
journey to the west and pioneer living challenged
these structures. Along the trail women's duties
were augmented by the occasional collaboration
with what was traditionally men's work. Hunting
and driving were added to the realm of women's
work, making life more challenging for women,
and opening the door to further ventures into
the men's realm. On the homestead, women ventured
into economic enterprises. From the sale of their
goods to the management of their homesteads, women
gained more social and economical skills, and
gradually gained more acceptance in these areas.
Some women, such as Alice Day Pratt, obtained
and worked their own homesteads. This became more
common in the early 20th century. The demanding
life on the overland trail and on the homesteads
helped to further women's role and importance
in society. What is clear is that pioneer women
rose to the occasion, endured incredible hardships,
and etched out an important role for themselves
in their families and their communities.
14. Haun, 182.
15. Knight, 210.
16. Tortillott, 221.
17. Knight, 216.
18. Tortillot, 223 William A. Bowen, The Willamette
Valley; Migration and Settlement on the Oregon
Frontier, (Seattle: University of Washington Press,
19. (From the diary of Bethenia Angelina Owens-Adair)
20. Jean M. Ward and Elaine A. Maveety, ed., Pacific
Northwest Women, 1815-1925: Lives Memories, and
Writings, (Corvallis: Oregon State University
Press, 1995), 82.
21. Bowen, 74.
22. (From the diary of Mrs. Nat Collins, Colorado
homesteader) Ruth B. Moynihan, Susan Armitage,
and Christine Fischer Dichamp, ed., So Much To
Be Done; Women Settlers in the Mining and Ranching
Frontier, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
23. (From the diary of Mary Ronan) Ruth B. Moynihan,
Susan Armitage, and Christine Fischer Dichamp,
ed., So Much To Be Done; Women Settlers in the
Mining and Ranching Frontier, (Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press, 1990), 191.
24. Isabella Bird, A Lady's Life in the Rocky
Mountains, (Konemann Verlagsgesellschaft, 2000),63-64.
25. Butruille, 37.
26. Dee Garceau, The Important Things of Life,
Women, Work, and Family in Sweetwater County,
Wyoming, 1880-1929, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 1997), 95.
27. (From the Diary of Susana Slover) Jean M.
Ward and Elaine A. Maveety, ed., Pacific Northwest
Women, 1815-1925: Lives Memories, and Writings,
(Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1995),
28. Garceau, 100.
29. John W. Bennett and Seena B. Kohl, Settling
the Canadian American West, 1890-1915, (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 80.
of Historical Reviews
© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini,
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