Celebrating the courage and enduring spirit of pioneering women is the new book, “Women of the Frontier: 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers” (Chicago Review Press).
A vivid collection of abridged biographies of 19th-century women who made the 2,000-mile trek west, the book explores how these women spent months on the trail, found beauty in the rugged landscape, adapted to their new lives, farmed, kept shops, and founded libraries and schools — a rich resource for history buffs aged 12 to adult. Demonstrating the integral role women played in settling the untamed West, “Women of the Frontier” illustrates the enduring nature of the human spirit at a key moment in American history.
The following excerpt is taken from the book’s chapter on how the women created a place they could call “home.”
(from “Women of the Frontier: 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers” by Brandon Marie Miller)
“I made a great effort to be comfortable upon very little, and simply had to do it.”
–Frances Grummond, army wife, 1866
Outside Sacramento, California, Luzena Wilson’s wagon party met a man, a man dressed in a clean white shirt. Luzena had not seen a clean white shirt for four months and now noted her own appearance with embarrassment. A ragged bonnet shaded her sunburned face. Her skirt bottom had worn to rags, showing her ankles, while the sleeves at her elbows hung in tatters. Without gloves, her hands had grown brown and hardened. The soles of her leather shoes flapped unattached to the uppers. Thus clad in raggedy splendor the Wilson family arrived at their new California home.
After months on the overland trails many settlers arrived in Oregon and California poor, ragged, thin and sometimes disheartened, with little more than relief they had survived the trip. “People say they would not have staid they would go right back,” wrote Martha Morrison Minto. “I would like to know how we could go back…we had no horses, nor cattle, nor anything to haul us across the plains; we had provisions; we could not start out naked and destitute in every way.”
Lucky travelers found families who had come before willing to rent them space until spring. Others continued housekeeping in wagons and tents, longing for real homes. At the very least they wanted a roof overhead and a solid floor beneath their feet. Some people dug out a hillside and burrowed in, furniture and all, until better shelter could be built. In mining camps, flimsy shacks covered in tar paper sprang up overnight. Other primitive first homes included a hollow tree stump, a cave of hay bales, and an old corncrib.
Rough conditions ruled. Pioneers arrived with few essential items to begin home life. One woman counted her possessions at a kettle, three knives and two sheets. Another woman, who worked at boardinghouse in California, complained of ankle-deep mud and described:
All the kitchen that I have is 4 posts stuck into the ground and covered over the top with factory cloth no floor but the ground. . . . I am scareing the Hogs out of my kitchen and Driving the mules out of my Dining room.
Homesickness permeated the early months of settlement. “i wish I was home I would give all the gold in California,” lamented one woman, “i am so homesick I do not know what to do.” Life appeared so different and harsh. Said another woman, “I have cooked so much out in the hot sun and smoke that I hardly know who I am, and when I look in the little looking glass I ask, ‘Can this be me?’” But despite crude conditions many women remained hopeful. “I did not like it very well,” admitted one, “but after we have taken our claim and became settled once more I began to like it much better and the longer I live here the better I like it.”
In western areas with plentiful trees, a log cabin became the first permanent home of many settlers. Early cabins, usually only one room, lacked glass windows or a wooden floor and stone or sticks stuck together with clay made the fireplace chimney. Mud, clay and sticks served as chinking, packed in the spaces between the logs. A Kansas wife recalled the rain dissolving the chinking in her house and blowing mud over everything she owned. It wasn’t long, however, before the elements dried and shrank the chinking. Hot, dusty air whistled through cracks in the walls during warm weather, followed by icy drafts in winter.
A South Dakota woman complained her log house “needed repair all the time” and solved the insulation problem by surrounding her home with piles of manure in the fall to keep it snug for winter. “When the smell got bad in the spring,” she noted, “we knew it was time to take the insulation away.” After the first year’s crop had sold, or the family business nurtured, lofts, lean-tos, floors and window glass, as well an extra room or two, could be added.
Women living on the Great Plains learned quickly what sort of house they’d now call home. No bricks, no wooden planks or logs. They had undertaken the mighty journey and left real homes behind for a one room house made of dirt. One girl recalled her overwhelmed mother’s reaction.
When our covered wagon drew up beside the door on the one-roomed sod house that father had provided, he helped mother down and I remember how her face looked as she gazed about that barren farm, then threw her arms about his neck and gave way to the only fit weeping I ever remember seeing her indulge in.
Earth was the only real building material available in many parts of the plains. A sharp shovel cut sod bricks into strips about one foot wide, two feet long and four inches thick. Each brick weighed about fifty pounds and were stacked, grassy side down, to form the one room house. Boards layed over door and window openings supported more sod piled on top. Loose dirt and mud filled in between the bricks. Overhead, a frame of poles covered with brush and more sod made a roof, while underfoot, people trod a floor of packed-down earth.
The “soddie” offered protection and insulation against heat and cold. It wouldn’t burn during a deadly prairie fire. But the house couldn’t escape a sense of damp mustiness and was nearly impossible to keep clean. Women tacked up yards of muslin to catch sprinklings of dirt from the walls and ceilings that drifted over furniture, food and people. In rainstorms the soddie dripped and ran with mud. Mice, bugs and snakes felt perfectly at home in a house made of dirt. One girl remembered from her pioneering childhood:
Sometimes the bull snakes would get in the roof and now and then one would lose his hold and fall down on the bed, and then off on the floor. Mother would grab the hoe and there was something doing and after the fight was over Mr. Bull Snake was dragged outside.
From North Dakota down to Texas, the western plains often wore a desolate and lonely face—open, arid, scoured by the wind. But the land early pioneers avoided grew more attractive with passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. The act allowed the head of a household to pay a small filing fee on a 160 acre claim at a government land office. If the family lived on the claim and farmed it for five years, the land was theirs. Usually men, but also some single and widowed women took up the challenge.
- thumb: A picnic beneath a cactus in Arizona, 1886. National Archives
- article: A family with their covered wagon, Nebraska, 1886. National Archives;