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