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Frontier Women: Hardships & Triumps
A Look at the women behind the settlements

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

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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 whole life.(15)
Children weren't 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." (16)

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)
That excerpt 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 responsibility.

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 own.(19) 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." Washday 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 way;
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;
I've been 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, 1978), 73.

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, 1990), 149.

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), 119.

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.
By Rickie Lazzerini
Kindred Trails Worldwide Genealogy Resources

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University of California, Santa Barbara

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© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
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