Women of the Frontier: 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousersby Brandon Marie Miller
Using journal entries, letters home, and song lyrics, the women of the West speak for themselves in these tales of courage, enduring spirit, and adventure. Women such as Amelia Stewart Knight traveling on the Oregon Trail, homesteader Miriam Colt, entrepreneur Clara Brown, army wife Frances
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An Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People
Using journal entries, letters home, and song lyrics, the women of the West speak for themselves in these tales of courage, enduring spirit, and adventure. Women such as Amelia Stewart Knight traveling on the Oregon Trail, homesteader Miriam Colt, entrepreneur Clara Brown, army wife Frances Grummond, actress Adah Isaacs Menken, naturalist Martha Maxwell, missionary Narcissa Whitman, and political activist Mary Lease are introduced to readers through their harrowing stories of journeying across the plains and mountains to unknown land. Recounting the impact pioneers had on those who were already living in the region as well as how they adapted to their new lives and the rugged, often dangerous landscape, this exploration also offers resources for further study and reveals how these influential women tamed the Wild West.
“Comprehensive” and “fascinating.”—PublishersWeekly.com
"Gripping...[a] strong, engaging narrative"—Booklist
“A thoughtful and attractive presentation of a complex and intriguing topic.”—Kirkus Reviews
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Women of the Frontier
16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers
By Brandon Marie Miller
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Brandon Marie Miller
All rights reserved.
MANY A WEARY MILE
"I have not told you half we suffered. I am not adequate to the task."
— Elizabeth Smith Geer, the trail's end, 1847
* * *
Not long after sunrise on a May day in 1841, a dozen jam-packed covered wagons rumbled out of a small town along the Missouri River. Ox teams pulled the wagons steadily westward toward the Pacific coast, carting the baggage of 69 men, women, and children. Dawn rose behind their backs, but that night the sun would set ahead of them, a sign of hope beyond the horizon. They were the first trickle in a flood of pioneers, lured by the promise of better lives in the American West.
Americans had always looked west for escape and refuge. The lure of Western lands symbolized health, wealth, and freedom. In 1837, the United States plunged into an economic depression as banks closed their doors and thousands of unemployed workers crowded Eastern cities. Farm prices plummeted, and many people lost their land. Adding to the sense of despair were the yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis that ravaged the country year after year.
Eastern audiences devoured the published journals of fur trappers and explorers, in awe over their glorified western adventures. Letters from Oregon missionaries excited trouble-weary Americans. To many readers, the missionaries' tales of religious zeal paled next to their descriptions of rich farmland and forests, crystal waters abundant with fish, and hordes of animals awaiting fur trappers. News of miraculous cures in the West's pristine air offered great hope. Societies sprang up to encourage settlement of the Oregon country and California, too, praised as an earthly paradise of sunshine and lush fruit. One woman summed up the dreams of many: "We had nothing to lose, and we might gain a fortune."
The temptation of cheap land in paradise proved hard to resist. During the spring of 1842, another 200 people traveled west. A year later, 1,000 optimistic settlers braved the journey. After the 1848 discovery of gold in California, the numbers exploded to 30,000 in 1849 and 55,000 in 1850. The Wilson family abandoned their Missouri farm in 1849 for the California gold fields: "So we came," wrote wife Luzena, "young, strong, healthy, hopeful, but penniless, into the new world." Thousands of European immigrants, mainly from Germany, the British Isles, and Scandinavia, also joined the hopefuls heading west.
Most pioneers, especially those heading to the goldfields of California, were single men. But families and a handful of single women undertook the western journey, too. Of the 50,000 people journeying west in 1852, about 7,000 were women.
To meet the emigrants' needs, publishers churned out manuals like The National Wagon Road Guide and The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California. Unfortunately, too many guidebooks proved dangerously unreliable. One manual even assured readers that notions of toil, hardship, and danger on the trail grew from their "own fruitful imagination." And though women, too, studied the manuals, the books offered hardly a word of advice for female pioneers. Women were left to discover on their own how to cook, clean, dress, camp, and care for children on the long adventure.
Usually, the man of the household decided to pull up stakes and move his family west. While women shared the hope for a better life, many found it painful to leave their homes and sever ties, perhaps forever, with family, friends, and communities. Pushing beyond the established boundaries of the United States, early pioneers were emigrants to a foreign, mostly uncharted, land. California and the Southwest belonged to Mexico. The United States and Great Britain both claimed the Oregon Country, an area so large it included six future states. These faraway lands were already the home of Native Americans and people of Spanish decent. White Americans often viewed both groups with a mixture of fear and scorn.
A woman's journey west carried an added burden, coming at a time of life when she might be pregnant or caring for young children. The prospect of abandoning society to face months of heat, dust, storms, and "savage" Indians filled many women with dread and misgivings. "I have been reading the various guides of the route to California," wrote Lodisa Frizzell. "They have not improved my ideas of the pleasure of the trip." Luzena Wilson recalled her feelings: "My husband grew enthusiastic and wanted to start immediately, but I would not be left behind. I thought where he could go I could, and where I went I could take my two little toddling babies. ... I little realized then the task I had undertaken.'
One bride, days away from departing for a "jumping off" spot in Missouri, sang these hymn lyrics at her ceremony: "Can I bid you farewell? / Can I leave you, Far in heathen lands to dwell?" Another young woman, filled with youthful enthusiasm, viewed the trip as an adventure with "castles of shining gold" waiting at the end. Helen Carpenter, a bride of four months, recorded, "Ho — for California — at last we are on the way and with good luck may someday reach the 'promised land.'"
Faced with the decision to head west, people tackled the journey in several ways. Some booked passage on a ship and sailed around South America to California. Others traveled to Panama, cut across the isthmus, and then sailed up the Pacific coast. By the late 1860s, railroad lines stretched across the continent and provided the quickest, if most expensive, way to travel.
Without much baggage but themselves, many single women opted for dusty, bumpy stagecoaches. Stops along the way featured crowded rooms and meals of questionable quality. Between 1856 and 1860, nearly 3,000 Mormon emigrants walked the brutal journey, pulling two-wheeled handcarts laden with goods, all the way from Iowa to Utah.
By far the most popular means of family transportation was the oxen-drawn covered wagon, built of seasoned hardwood and waterproofed with caulk and tar. An application of oil rain-proofed the wagon's thick canvas covering. Spare parts — axles, wheels, spokes, and wagon tongues — hung beneath the wagon bed. Other necessities, like water barrels, grease buckets, and rope, were lashed to the wagon sides. Finished, the covered wagon measured about 4 feet wide and 10 to 12 feet long, large enough to haul roughly 2,500 pounds of supplies and requiring 8 to 10 oxen to pull.
The journey required months of preparations before the wagon sat stuffed with tools, cookware, clothes, bedding, sewing supplies, guns and ammunition, medicines, a few luxuries, and food. Guidebooks recommended each emigrant carry 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 10 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt as well as staples like dried beans and fruit, rice, tea, pickles, baking soda, cornmeal, and vinegar.
Buying wagons and ox teams and then outfitting the whole project cost between $600 and $1,000. Travelers also needed ready cash to buy supplies along the way, pay ferry costs across rivers, and help establish their new homes. Seeking the promised lands of the West proved too costly for the nation's poor.
Across the Wide Missouri
Families traveled from their homes in Eastern states to perch on the edge of civilization in Missouri River towns, near the head of the Oregon Trail. More than 350,000 pioneers eventually traveled this main artery west between 1843 and the late 1860s. In places like Independence and Saint Joseph, Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, passing emigrants snatched up last minute supplies, repaired wagons, and sought advice. Families and solo travelers banded together into larger groups for protection on the trail.
The first leg of the Oregon Trail followed the meandering Platte River toward the Rocky Mountains. Oxen plodded over the plains, slowing climbing to South Pass in Wyoming Territory and the Continental Divide — the boundary between eastward and westward flowing waters. Beyond the Rockies, the trail forked into two routes, one continuing northward along the Snake River in Oregon Country (Idaho, today), the other offshoot following the Humboldt River heading toward California. Emigrants to Southern California followed the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to a split near Santa Fe in New Mexico Territory. The Old Spanish Trail carried on to Los Angeles and the Gila River Trail to San Diego.
On any route, travel proved slow and monotonous as the wagon trains covered only 10 to 20 miles each day. One woman reported that most people in her party had lost track of the days of the week. "Still pressing onward," she noted. "It is a long and tedious journey." Ahead, clouds of dust marked the trail of other wagon trains, while behind stretched more advancing parties, weaving their way along the routes abandoning civilization.
All along the Oregon Trail, emigrants watched eagerly for landmarks announcing their progress. In Nebraska, diaries noted sightings of Chimney Rock soaring 500 feet overhead and the looming Scotts Bluff. Just into Wyoming lay Fort Laramie, followed by Independence Rock, where many pioneers carved their names, and Devil's Gate. Emigrants dashed off descriptions of pronghorn antelope and prairie dog villages and the excitement of spotting their first herd of great shaggy buffalo.
Most white people had never seen anything like the Great Plains: oceans of tough, undulating grass as far as one could see, a huge bowl of milky-blue sky overhead, and often not a tree in sight. This hardly looked like a paradise to the early emigrants. The land seemed a fit home only for Indians. Later pioneers, hungry for free land, willingly settled the arid plains stretching from North Dakota down to Texas and west to parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.
Guidebooks warned travelers that the journey was "one in which time is everything." Leaving in spring, when there was grass enough to feed the livestock, settlers raced against the onset of winter, facing more than 2,000 miles to the Pacific coast. If they delayed too long, deadly snows would trap them in the mountains that stretched like a wall before Oregon and California.
While the guidebooks promised a three- or four-month journey, six months or even eight months of grueling travel proved nearer to the truth. Camping, cooking, laundry, exhaustion, and illness marked the journey. Days began before sunrise with cooking and eating breakfast, packing up tents and bedding, and yoking animals to wagons. After a noon break, travel continued to the next camp; the best sites provided clean water, grass, and wood. Emigrants turned the animals loose inside a circle of wagons, milked cows, pitched the tents, cooked supper, and cleaned up. After enjoying visits with fellow travelers and sharing a bit of music around the campfire, they tumbled into bed, utterly spent.
Each day followed in a dreary sameness. Throughout the trip, women struggled to keep a semblance of home and family life, but nothing about life on the trail proved ordinary.
Cooking, the most basic daily chore, was now done stooping over an open campfire. It was a far cry from cooking back home on a wood-stoked stove with familiar utensils and a full box of kindling close at hand. "Although there is not much to cook," lamented Helen Carpenter, "the difficulty and inconvenience in doing it, amounts to a great deal."
The first shocking lesson was learning to use the plains' most abundant source of fuel — not wood but dried buffalo dung. Smoke constantly stung the cook's eyes, and flying embers peppered her long skirt with burn holes. Wind and rain made cooking impossible at times, forcing the family into their tent or wagon to munch crackers, dried beef, and dried fruit. Wild berries, fresh meat, and fish became trail treats. "One does like a change," a woman wrote, "and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is to bacon and bread." A sense of humor certainly helped.
Charlotte Pengra's journal entries kept track of her busy trail work:
April 29, 1853 ... made griddle cakes, stewed berries and made tea for supper. After that was over made two loaves of bread stewed pan of apples prepared potatoes and meat for breakfast, and mended a pair of pants for William pretty tired. ... May 8 baked this morning and stewed apples this afternoon commenced washing ... got my white clothes ready to suds. ... I feel very tired and lonely. ... May 14 gathered up the dishes and packed them dirty for the first time since I started. ... May 18 washed a very large washing, unpacked dried and packed clothing — made a pair of calico cases for pillows and cooked two meals — done brave, I think.
Dust coated people, animals, and possessions like a skin. Almost as thick as the dust, and more annoying, came swarms of biting fleas, mosquitoes, and gnats. For travelers with only a tent or wagon cover for protection, the unpredictable weather often proved harsh. "We have had all kinds of weather today," wrote Amelia Stewart Knight, who headed to Oregon in 1853 with her husband and seven children. She continued:
This morning was dry, dusty, and sandy. This afternoon it rained, hailed, and the wind was very high. Have been traveling all the afternoon in mud and water up to our hubs. Broke chains and stuck in the mud several times.
A few weeks later, she noted with a touch of sarcasm, "Take us all together we are a poor looking set, and all this for Oregon. I am thinking while I write, 'Oh, Oregon, you must be a wonderful country.' Came 18 miles today."
Wet weather meant soaked clothes and bedding, and every so often women hauled baggage out to air, cleaned the wagon, and repacked everything. Heavy chores like this — and the most hated chore, laundry — required a special "laying over" day when travel stopped, replaced by work and repairs.
"The Going Was Terribly Rough"
Trail life held dangers as well as discomfort and hard work. As the weeks rolled by, women hardened to shocking sights — seeing the dead lowered into graves without coffins or funerals; watching haunted people tramping home after giving up the struggle, having lost their oxen and abandoned their wagons; witnessing emigrants and animals drown as they tried crossing swollen rivers. Buffalo stampedes cost other lives. Parents worried over children. Young ones wandered off or fell and were crushed beneath wagon wheels.
The greatest threat, disease, became the emigrant's constant companion. The late 1840s and early 1850s saw a worldwide cholera epidemic, and settlers carried the disease west and spread it through feces-contaminated water supplies. Victims often died within hours, or lingered for only a few days, suffering violent diarrhea and vomiting, dehydration, and kidney failure before succumbing to the disease.
Smallpox, measles, and typhoid fever killed others; dysentery and chills and fever struck almost every traveler at some point. In June 1852 a woman observed, "All along the road up the Platte River was a grave yard; most any time of day you could see people burying their dead; some places five or six graves in a row. ... It was a sad sight; no one can realize it unless they had seen it."
Mothers turned to medicine chests filled with castor oil and camphor and drugs like belladonna and laudanum, an opium mixture. As a child in 1846, Lucy Henderson traveled west on the Oregon Trail with her family. She later recalled:
Mother had brought some medicine along. ... My little sister, Salita Jane wanted to taste it ... as soon as we had gone she got the bottle and drank it all. Presently she came to the campfire where Mother was cooking supper and said she felt awfully sleepy. ... When Mother tried to awake her later she couldn't arouse her. Lettie had drunk the whole bottle of laudanum. It was too late to save her life.
Only three days after burying Lettie, Lucy's mother gave birth to a baby girl.
We were so late that the men of the party decided we could not tarry a day, so we had to press on. The going was terribly rough. We were the first party to take the southern cut-off and there was no road. The men walked beside the wagons and tried to ease the wheels down into the rough places, but in spite of this it was a very rough ride for my mother and her new born babe.
Sometime in July, wagon trains on the Oregon Trail crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. It was a broad, flat plain that disappointed many emigrants, who expected something more spectacular. The trip was less than halfway over by this time, and the worst dangers still lay ahead. The California route to Sacramento led through sandy desert, terrible heat, and a climb over the Sierra Nevada range. Luzena Wilson described her family's hellish trek through Death Valley, a 40-mile march of scorched feet and scalding gray dust that burned their eyes red and parched their tongues. Oregon pioneers faced the Blue Mountains, the Cascade Range, and a trip down the mighty Columbia River before they reached the Willamette Valley.
Excerpted from Women of the Frontier by Brandon Marie Miller. Copyright © 2013 Brandon Marie Miller. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
"Gripping...[a] strong, engaging narrative"—Booklist
“A thoughtful and attractive presentation of a complex and intriguing topic.”—Kirkus Reviews
Meet the Author
Brandon Marie Miller is the author of Benjamin Franklin, American Genius; George Washington for Kids; and Thomas Jefferson for Kids. She has received a dozen national awards for her writing. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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