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Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women

Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women

by Marianne Monson

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These are the stories of twelve women who "heard the call" to settle the west and who came from all points of the globe to begin their journey: the East Coast, Europe, and as far away as New Zealand. They endured unimaginable hardships just to get to their destination and then the next phase of the story begins. These are gripping miniature dramas of good-hearted women, selfless providers, courageous immigrants and migrants, and women with skills too innumerable to list. All the women in this book did extraordinary things. One became a stagecoach driver, disguised as a man. One became a frontier doctor. One was a Gold Rush hotel and restaurant entrepreneur. Many were crusaders for social justice and women's rights. All endured hardships, overcame obstacles, broke barriers, and changed the world, for which there are inspiring lessons to be learned for the modern woman.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629734682
Publisher: Deseret Book Company
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 694,909
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Marianne Monson is a writer and professor of English with a strong interest in the relationship between literature and history. She teaches Creative Writing at Portland Community College and regularly speaks at writing conferences.

Read an Excerpt


What is a frontier? If I was going to write a book about female pioneers, I needed to define what I meant by the term, and any attempt at defining "pioneer" brought me back to that illusive word. Was the frontier simply an imaginary boundary, a constantly moving line between supposed "civilization" and the "unknown" West?

To me, it is simply a place where your people have not gone before-it is the place on the map where the collective thinking of your society draws a large and compelling question mark. Of course, this doesn't have to be a geographical boundary-it might be an unexplored theological issue, a topic of conversation no one is comfortable discussing, an unfolding intellectual sphere, a newly-invented technology, or an insight irreconcilable with current social norms.

Just because no one you know has been there doesn't mean that it's never been inhabited by another group of people who have a prior claim to the place. But because no one you know has ever been there before, the space is wide open to possibility-a place where rules are still being worked out and decided. Frontier space is available to anyone, not just big players who ruled in the past. It's a place where the average person can help determine the way things are going to work, because it's still anyone's guess how the future will unfold.

The freedom of such a space is as exhilarating as it is disconcerting, and in a true frontier, the traditional safeguards and protections are as glaringly absent as the stifling rules. People can and will get hurt. That is why rules were made in the first place, at least hypothetically.

I was raised on the stories of strong pioneer women. Within my own family history, I have women who left luxury in England, positions of leadership among the Maori in New Zealand, and those who were drawn by their poverty from Wales. Some of my ancestors set up house in an abandoned chicken coop. I was raised on these stories. The blood of these women runs through my veins and I grew up seeing my life as a continuation of their own.

In many ways, all of our lives are. The frontier as we've defined it could as easily apply to modern technology, with its resulting onslaught of related inventions, as it does to the American West. We live today in a world of upheaval, a world that is changing at a frantic pace, a world where many boundaries of the past have been flung away, and we are now again deciding: what are the new rules? And who gets to say? Now, more than ever, we need to know the stories of the women whose blood runs through our veins, either literally or metaphorically.

While working on this project, I came across a box of books discarded by my university's library. Never one to pass up free book, I sorted through the stack and found an old, leather-bound volume entitled Pioneers of California. Thinking it might be useful, I thumbed through the pages. Chapter after chapter of the book profiled ministers, governors, politicians, settlers, and gold rushers. Without a single exception, they were white. And they were all male.

The book served as a reminder that we are not many generations removed from a time when it was perfectly acceptable to tell the story of California through the eyes of white males alone. But history is made up of so much more than wars and official government documents. It is made up of people-their stories, failures, and triumphs. As one prominent historian has noted, "If history is to be creative, to anticipate new possibilities without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare" (Zinn, 11).

Thousands of women-black, white, Native American, Mexican, Chinese, Polynesian, and other racial variations-experienced the frontier. As the "pioneers of California" can be broadened to include women, so can the term also be redefined to no longer be the special province of U.S. expansionism. The women in this book come from a wide variety of backgrounds and traveled in a number of different directions-these stories represent a mere handful of the women who survived and even thrived on a number of gritty, tumultuous frontiers. Many were crushed by the challenges, their voices silenced and discarded in the passing of time. But some of them triumphed; some of their stories remain. In spite of all odds stacked against them, their voices persist, whether through a journal kept in a leaky wagon, or through a life so remarkable the world was forced to take note.

Fragments of their stained, complicated, gloriously real lives have been passed onto us, giving us tales to fuel our own efforts to build on these "fugitive moments of compassion," and create lives that will become stories worth telling. The further I got into this project, the more I marveled at the contemporary relevance of these women. So many of the questions that still haunt and inspire us, both as individuals and as a nation, can be traced to the events contained in the lives of these women. You will be astonished at how familiar their struggles appear, and I can promise that you will find yourself in these pages. Pioneering of every variety, in every generation, requires a stubbornness of thought, a willingness to disregard public opinion, and a grit to endure. These stories are fit inspiration for modern-day efforts to venture into new and unknown paths, to climb ragged, rocky mountains, and to cling to a vision of how we might rebuild this tumultuous world into something better, truer and stronger for generations yet to come. Enjoy this journey, and find impetus here to forge your own frontier.

Table of Contents

  • Nellie Cashman: Known across the American West as a nurse, restaurateur, businesswoman, Roman Catholic philanthropist, and gold prospector in Alaska.
    • Born: 1845 County Cork, Ireland Died: 1925 Victoria, Canada
  • Aunt Clara Brown: A former slave from Virginia who became a community leader, philanthropist and aided settlement of former slaves during the time of Colorado's Gold Rush.
    • Born: circa 1800, Virginia Died: 1885, Denver, Colorado
  • Abigail Scott Duniway: An American women's rights advocate, newspaper editor and writer, whose efforts were instrumental in gaining voting rights for women.
    • Born: 1834, Illinois Died: 1915, Portland, Oregon
  • María Amparo Ruiz de Burton: The first female Mexican-American author to write in English. In her career she published two books, and one play—based on Cervants' Don Quixote.
    • Born: 1832, Mexico Died: 1895, Chicago, Illinois
  • Luzena Stanley Wilson: A California Gold Rush entrepreneur.
    • Born: 1819, North Carolina Died: 1902 San Francisco, California
  • Mother Jones: An Irish-American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent labor and community organizer.
    • Born: 1837, Cork, Ireland Died: Adelphi, Minnesota
  • Zitkala-Sa: Also known by the missionary-given name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, she was a Sioux writer, editor, musician, teacher and political activist.
    • Born: 1876, South Dakota Died: 1938, Washington, D.C.
  • Mary Hallock Foote: An American author and illustrator. She is best known for her illustrated short stories and novels portraying life in the mining communities of the turn-of-the-century American West. Her extensive personal correspondence was the inspiration for Wallace Stegner's novel Angle of Repose.
    • Born: 1847 Milton, New York Died: 1938 Boston, Massachusetts
  • Martha Hughes Cannon: A Welsh-born immigrant, a physician, Utah women's rights advocate and suffragist, and Utah State Senator. S
    • Born: Wales, 1857 Died: 1932 Los Angeles, California
  • Donaldina Cameron: Born in New Zealand to Presbyterian missionary parents, she immigrated with them to San Francisco's Chinatown, where she rescued thousands of Chinese immigrant girls from indentured servitude. She was known as the "White Devil" to the slave traders.
    • Born: 1869, New Zealand Died: 1968, Palo Alto, California
  • Charley Parkhurst: Born Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. Disguised as a man, she became a renowned stagecoach driver, farmer, and rancher in California. Her gender wasn't discovered until after her death.
    • Born: 1812 Vermont Died: 1879, Watsonville, California
    • Makaopiopio: One of the first Hawaiian immigrants to settle the Hawaiian colony of Iosepa in the salt flats of Utah.
      • Born: 1815 Hawaii Death: 1889, Iosepa Colony, Utah

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