Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pioneer Women

Pioneer Women

We are the granddaughters and even great-granddaughters of pioneer women who found themselves suddenly obliged to drive an unruly team of oxen across a sun-baked prairie or to plow new ground or herd cattle or do any of the thousand other chores that would under other circumstances, have fallen to their husbands, fathers, and brothers.

Authors along with American moviemakers tend to glamorize the life of the pioneer woman. In reality the lives of these women was anything but glamorous. By the year 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad was finished, over 350,000 pioneers had taken the Oregon Trail to start a new life. Many of these were women and most were accompanied by children. From the very first wagon train on, women would see and experience hardship like none they had ever imagined. They would also find out how strong a woman could truly be. Husbands often made the decision to start life over in the west without ever asking whether the wives thought this was a good decision or how it might affect them.

Before a family could head west, first the wagon was packed. This task fell normally to the woman of the house. A list would be prepared, household items that was no longer need or deemed unable to be carried along, would be sold off first, to help pay for the trip. This would be the first of many heartbreaking hardships. Many women gave up their most prized possessions for the more basic necessities such as clothing, and food staples like beans, coffee, flour, salt, dried meat, and a cow to be milked. Often a favorite rocker, bed or chiffonier would be discarded along the way. The extra weight could not be risked when fording rivers or traversing steep inclines.

More than furniture was left behind along the trail. Many women would bury not only one child, but several. A child could fall out of a wagon and quickly be run over before anyone could react. Typhoid and cholera spread quickly from wagon to wagon, killing at random. Indian skirmishes did occur, but not as many as one might think. Most Indian attacks came after the settlers had reached their destinations. Babies were born in the roughest conditions. Many died and the women would not only have the heartbreak of the infants’ deaths, but also of having to leave behind the body in a place that they knew they would never again see.

Pioneer women were not always ‘women.’ Girls learned to grow up fast, and if not, were force to. Marriage as young as 14 and 15 was very common. Once a family had reached their destination, hired hands that had accompanied these families west often married into the family. The idea of a familiar face for a neighbor in a strange land was often enough for a father to give permission for his daughters to wed, even at such a young age. Mothers also would welcome their daughters as neighbors over some stranger.

Those women who survived the perils of the prairie that found once they reached their destination, the work was far from over.

A house needed to be built, and as settlers arrived in the late summer or fall, this meant the work often would be done in hip-deep snow and freezing weather. Besides the general chores of cooking, cleaning and washing, there were fields to be planted. Many women plowed behind a mule or ox, while husbands felled trees to clear land. Pioneer women also had to deal with rodents, snakes, marauding animals, including bear, coyote and mountain lions. And some did die at the hands of Indians.

Women who headed west learned quickly there was much more to life than tea parties, church picnics and visiting lady friends. Through journals that many left behind, we know that most who survived the rigors of life across the prairie would do it again. This was their life.

Posted by Loretta C. Rogers


Tanya Hanson said...

This was a wonderful, informative post, Loretta. As a kid, I read Caddie Woodlawn stories and so wanted to ride a wagon train. One of my favorite books is Elinore Pruitt Stewart's "Letters of a Woman Homesteader."

What a hard life. I don't know if I'd be strong enough. Although I guess we don't now our measure of strength until we have to. And I wish those pioneer ladies had been able to wear trousers. Long skirts seem so in the way LOL.

Again, thanks.


Paty Jager said...

The pioneer women proved to men that they were strong, and they could make decisions as well as men. I believe the women who traveled across the continent not only survived but thrived. Giving us the freedom and sense of worth we have today.

Great post!

Heidi Ashworth said...

Hi, this is Heidi from the Avaloners group. I think it is great that you are writing about this. I agree that the Pioneer women are often taken for granted. I am descended from many pioneer women who crossed the plains with a team of oxen so thanks for sharing.

Cheryl said...

Hi Loretta,
Great topic! Both of my great-grandmothers were pioneer women who came to Indian Territory in covered wagons. One of them was married at 13! Like Tanya said, I'm not sure I would be strong enough, but I guess they just did what they had to do. I loved those Caddie Woodlawn books, too! Yes, Hollywood does tend to glamorize that life, because I'm sure there was nothing much romantic about the hardships they had to face. Very interesting blog!

Anne Carrole said...

Great topic. The women who traveled west were often "unsung" heroines and I love doing research about them. Reminds me too of an old movie from the 40's about a "women only" wagon train.

Celia Yeary said...

Fabulous,Loretta, you know your pioneer women. I'm a Daughter of the Texas Republic, and I love to learn about my ancestors--especially the women. Those photos you have are wonderful.My husband's step-great-grandmother lived in a cave while her husband was off making a living. She had twin boys there. Some women tagged after their husbands. One Texas lady refused to be left home when her husband joined the Texas Rangers--she went with him, and wrote a diary about living in a Texas Ranger's camp--only woman. In some places, such as Kansas, I believe, there were "teapot" wives--they had the money and kept it in a teapot--or so the story goes--and she chose the man, and if she didn't like the situation, she left him and found another one. I need to do more research on this.Good post--Celia

Maureen Sevilla said...

Loretta, this is such an intersting subject. I often speculate how hard the times were on the pioneer women. What a courageous bunch they were!
--Maureen @TARA

Lauri said...

I love reading about these woman and so appreciate all they did in their time that makes our lives better in our time. The impact they had on America still holds strong today. God bless each and every one of those pioneer women! (And thank God one of them decided pain medication during child birth is okay! You know it wasn't a man who came up with that one!)

Linda LaRoque said...

Great post, Loretta. Yes, it seems so romantic in the movies but those poor women were old by the time they were thirty. They are to be admired and remembered. Thank you for reminding us.


Phyllis J. Towzey said...

Great post, Loretta -- we do tend to think of the romance of it all more than the hard work and heartache. What brave souls they were!

C.L. Wilson said...

Excellent post, Loretta. Thanks for sharing.

Houston A.W. Knight said...


What an awesome post - it makes me wonder if women/girls today could do it.


Celia Yeary said...

LORETTA-in my reply earlier, I called the wives with money "teapot brides." That's wrong--I think it's "Sugar Bowl Brides." (Great title for a novel, don't you think? And I dibs on it.) It might be taken though--this info came to me from a friend from Kansas--it's the only place she'd ever heard the term, and she read about it from Kansas authors. Celia