Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna Stratton

Little did I know when I started reading the Little House on the Prairie series and Willa Cather’s prairie novels that I would find the topic of pioneer life, and especially the role of women within the pioneer family, so absorbingly fascinating. This period in American history, when the huge expanses of what would become the states of Kansas and Nebraska were laid open to white settlers for the first time in the mid 1850s, was never something I had really come across before. I didn’t know anything about how and why people had come to settle on these empty plains, or how they managed to survive and prosper despite the limited resources available to them and Mother Nature’s attempts to see them off. I assumed that it was something that happened gradually, and that towns and settlements had been built before people came to occupy them. In reality, it was the other way around, and rather than men going out to start creating habitable homes and communities before bringing their families over, the majority of families, like the Ingalls’ in Little House on the Prairie, travelled to these new lands together, with nothing to their names but what they could carry in a wagon.

This put women in a unique position for their time; with hardly a neighbour in sight and so much work to do to set up a home and a livelihood, pioneer wives were truly their husband’s equals, playing a vital role in keeping the family fed and clothed as well as contributing to the family’s income through working in the fields and making sellable foodstuffs such as butter. These women could not afford to be idle, and had to use all of their domestic skills and wits to keep their families healthy and their store cupboards full. Joanna Stratton’s book pulls together the hundreds of first hand accounts, written by women, of pioneer life sent to her great grandmother at the turn of the century. She stumbled across this incredible archive while poking about in her grandmother’s attic one day, and her great grandmother’s dream of creating a book to tell these women’s stories was finally achieved when Joanna published this wonderful account that explores every aspect of prairie life, from fighting fires, to church picnics, to rounding up stampeding cattle, to dancing the night away by candlelight. I truly couldn’t put it down.

Life on the prairie was especially difficult for women. While their husbands went out and worked on the fields with other men during the day, the women were alone with their children, often with no neighbours near enough to provide day to day companionship. Used to convenient, modern homes, usually in Eastern states, pioneer wives were suddenly faced with having to keep a house either built from prairie sod (a soddy) or a log house, often with a bare dirt floor, clean and habitable for their families. Most houses in the early days of settlement were the only ones standing for miles around, and it was a lonely life for women unused to such rural living. With the big towns so far away, pioneer families had to provide everything for themselves, with the women being responsible for cooking, cleaning and making clothes, bedlinen and any other necessary items, as well as having to lug water from the nearest stream back and forth every day until a well had been built, look after the children, help with any chores around the homestead and remain cheerful and optimistic throughout. An average day was exhausting, involving backbreaking labour and a constant battle against the dirt and dust of the prairie. Many women in the most remote areas had to make do for weeks and even months alone on their homesteads while their husbands went to the nearest town to trade or find work, and so they had to take care of the animals and land as well as the home, and keep their gun ready in case any marauding Indians or Cowboys or wild coyotes came by. Far from the popular image of the helpless, domesticated Victorian women, these pioneer wives were the equals of their husbands, and were completely necessary for their family’s survival. Needing courage, resourcefulness, intelligence and stamina, these women were remarkable for their strength, faith and tenacity.

Life on the prairie, particularly in Kansas, was filled with danger and frustrations that made life incredibly difficult at times. Tornados, fires, floods and plagues of grasshoppers could destroy a year’s crop in a matter of hours, leaving a family destitute overnight. Battles between Native Americans and white settlers decimated communities, striking terror into pioneers living in isolated homes with nowhere to go for protection, as did the civil strife over whether Kansas would become a free or slave state. Gangs of drunken cowboys roamed the prairies, and as tension raged over ‘Bleeding Kansas’ between antislavery and proslavery campaigners, murders and pillaging became more and more common. Women would wave their husbands off on a trip to town, not knowing if they would return. Isolated and afraid, it would take all their strength to keep the homestead going and their nerves in tact until their husbands returned. The women of Kansas were a hardy, determined and fiery lot, because they had to be. Not content to be submissive and accepting of their position in society, Kansan women were the first to lobby for suffrage, and were the key players in causing Kansas to become the first prohibition state. Kansas was also the first state to have a female mayor, and some towns in Kansas were run by all female councils by the 1890s. Women set up schools and churches, organised fundraising drives and lobbied for political equality, all while doing the backbreaking work necessary to keep their homes warm and comfortable and their families fed and clothed.

It was not all drama and hardship, however; as many women wrote in their testimonies, the reason they stayed in Kansas was because they loved the open prairies, the opportunities available to develop their land and build successful businesses and farms, the communities they were part of, and the freedom they were given. When communities were brought together for church socials or dances, the atmosphere was jubilant, and the women treasured the friendships they had with other pioneer settlers and the opportunities to share gossip and personal troubles. Being neighbourly was a given; generous, welcoming and delighted to meet new settlers, pioneers travelled for miles to call on newcomers and friends, and any excuse was given to have an impromptu gathering at a neighbour’s log cabin or soddy. Everyone helped each other through troubled times, and nothing was too much trouble to help a neighbour in a bind. Pioneer women were each other’s support and strength, and also provided nursing, childcare, food and clothing to those in need. There was always space found even in the tiniest dwelling for those who needed shelter for the night, and a sense of mutual support and understanding tied together the disparate communities that sprung up across the remote and vast prairie lands.

I was just blown away by many of the stories told in this remarkable volume. What incredible, amazing, inspirational women! They worked so hard in such difficult conditions to make new lives for themselves and their families, and they led the march towards additional rights for women and to increased moral standards in their state while they were at it. Women like these, such as the wonderful Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, who lived largely quiet, unrecorded lives, are who so many Americans have to thank for the country they live in today. Their bravery and determination are to be applauded; without thanks and without rest they toiled for years to bring up families, build communities, work the land, and improve the quality of life in rural areas, and what a legacy they have left behind. I am so glad this book gives them the voice they so deserve to have heard; pioneer life was not just about Cowboys and Injuns and without these women working quietly in the background of history, there would be a much different story to tell of America’s ‘Wild West’. This really is a must read for anyone interested in women’s history; it subverts so much of what is commonly assumed about women’s roles and capabilities in the 19th century and it truly opened me eyes to what these often uneducated women were capable of achieving, given the chance. Please read it!

About these ads

41 comments

  1. It does sound like a fascinating read. I am ever grateful to have been born in the 20th century — I would never have lasted on the prairie! :)

    1. It really is, Susan! ME TOO – I would have taken one look at a soddy, cried my eyes out, and climbed on my horse and ridden straight back to where I’d come from!

  2. Are you familiar with the book “Sarah, Plain and Tall”? It is a Newbery Award winner for children that was made into a wonderful television movie starring Glenn Close. If you like stories about the settlement of the American prairies I think you will love it.

  3. I’d love to read this one . I’ve read similar ones. Aren’t they fascinating? When I was little the idea of a soddy was so intriguing to me. Like a real life hobbit hole! Of course, the reality is different.
    I actually never fell for any narrative that overlooked or dismissed the role of these women. I grew up reading things like Little House, and Old Yeller, and watching movies like Shane. While, in the latter two, the women aren’t front and center, it’s very easy to read between the lines and see what their lives were like. Old Yeller takes place in Texas and opens with the man of the house leaving on a cattle drive for months. So that’s it. Mom was to run the ranch and care for the two kids. It was necessary and she stepped right up and did it.
    You keep adding to my TBR pile so now I’m going to do it to you! Old Yeller and Savage Sam are juvenile books that aren’t at all juvenile. They are quick reads. So go get ‘em!

    1. Absolutely fascinating, Nancy…I am just loving all I am learning right now! I’d love to go out to the prairies and visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead to get more of an idea of the materials used to build these homes and the kind of space and light that they provided. It’s hard to visualise.

      It’s interesting what you say about reading between the lines – it’s a shame that the women are never upfront and centre, though, isn’t it?

      Thanks for those recommendations – I will go get ‘em, don’t you worry! ;)

  4. I’m so glad you liked this, Rachel. The settlement of the American West is really fascinating. So tragic in some ways and so life-affirming in others.

    On a different note, you might enjoy the memoirs of Kate Simon, Bronx Primitive, A Wider World, and Etchings in an Hourglass. She emigrated to New York from Poland in 1916 when she was four years old and later became a well regarded travel writer. A really interesting woman.

    Thanks, as always, for the great reviews and thoughtful posts!

    1. Thanks, Heather. I just find this topic endlessly fascinating. I could go on and on reading about it…if only I didn’t have such a huge TBR pile to get through!

      I love the sound of those memoirs – I will be sure to check them out.

      You are welcome – thank you for your recommendations!

  5. I grew up in Oklahoma and my grandma had a box of letters and pictures from my family from the early settlement times when it was still “Indian Territory”. I loved reading the letters knowing how long it took for each one to be sent back and forth during those times and to have a peek into the life and times of my relatives during those days.

    I think to read a book that contains first hand accounts from women who lived during the time in the plains would be absolutely fascinating and something I will have to look for. Your review of it has me dying to go find the book right now.

    1. Dragonfly, how AMAZING that you have those letters telling your family history!! I’d love to see them…I bet they are absolutely fascinating, and even the more so when you can say that they are your ancestors!

      This book truly is a wonderful read, and so rich and well edited. I loved it.

  6. That does sound fascinating! It’s always so amazing to hear people’s first hand experiences of the past. I love the Little House books, so it would be interesting to see different perspectives on the pioneer experience.

    1. It really is, Catie – the Little House books are actually very accurate according to these women’s testimonies, and having the adult rather than a child’s perspective is very interesting and adds something else to the experience of reading the series I think.

  7. Thanks for the fascinating review. I’ve got to add this title to my TBR list, especially since my paternal great- grandparents lived in a small town in Kansas. My great-grandmother’s father was a doctor on a Native American reservation and the family story is that one of the Native Americans offered to trade his best horse for my great-grandmother, who was about 15 at the time. I’d love to read something and learn more about life on the frontier. I also want to say how much I am enjoying your reviews on this theme from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Willa Cather and look forward to your further reading adventures

    1. Oh wow, how wonderful to have such a fascinating family history, Susan! I bet they had some amazing stories to tell – I love that one about your great grandmother! You must get hold of this because I should imagine many of these stories echo your great grandparents’ experiences. Thank you, I am so glad to hear that! I am having the best time with all this learning!

  8. What a wonderful review of what is obviously a wonderful book. The unsung role of women in westward expansion reminds me of a famous quote: “Remember, anything that Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers had to do–backwards and in high-heels;” reprhrased to: “Remember, anything pioneer men had to do, pioneer women had to do–in long skirts, petticoats, and corsets!”

    1. Thank you Deb! Oh my goodness, I LOVE that quote! I’d never heard that before! So true – women often had it harder than men, and the dismissive way in which they have been effectively written out of history makes me furious!

      1. Those women’s fashions were more than just awkward and uncomfortable — they were also dangerous. I was at the Texas state capital a few years ago and a docent was giving a tour in costume. I commented about how hot he must have been (it was wool, and it was already pretty warm in March) and he said that women frequently died because their full skirts caught fire while cooking!

        I am very, very happy to have been born in the 20th century.

  9. I’m definitely going to put this one on my wish list, as it sounds fascinating! You might enjoy a book by Lillian Schlissel called “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey” in which Schlissel takes excerpts from many diaries to tell the story of the great migration west in the US. It is a fascinating book and I found it very interesting. And I would like to second the recommendation for “Sarah, Plain and Tall”. I read it at school and then reread it several more times. It’s written quite simply, but is really good.

    1. I’m so glad to hear it, Kinga! That recommendation is very timely as I have it on my bedside table right now! I got it from the library and I can’t wait to read it, especially the more so now I have read your comments! Sarah, Plain and Tall is a book I will seek out, rest assured!

  10. Isn’t it fascinating; the character, spunk, fortitude of the pioneer women? I’ve long been interested in this time period and how a great part of the country was settled. Your review here, Rachel, makes me want to read this book (do try Letters from a Woman Homesteader, which I, and others, mentioned before).

    I did visit the Little House on the Prairie site in Kansas. The house is recreated on land owned by Bill Kurtis’s family. Kurtis is a famous Chicago newsman, who went on to have a syndicated television series, and who was then one of the first to breed grass-fed beef. His family discovered the original homestead of the Ingall’s family on their property. The cabin had long since been reclaimed by nature, but, they were able to recreate it. I loved the books, but, was no where close to understanding how very small the house was, and how very singular it sat on the prairie.

    I have a friend, Rachel, who has a chest of drawers that belonged to her husband’s great-grandmother. The woman traveled west with her children to meet up with her husband in a covered wagon. There was an accident and the wagon was destroyed, save for the chest of drawers. She arrived at the destination (I think it was Nebraska), to find her husband dead. Somehow, she pulled herself together, made a life, remarried, and the chest has been passed down through the years. I’ve seen the chest. It is small, though well made, and I can only imagine it being all I have left of my previous life.

    Wonderful review and wonderful topic. You will have us all scurrying to find the book and remembering how good we have life now.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the review, Penny, and thank you for your wonderful comment! I tried to get the Letters book from the library but it was out so I’m just waiting for it to come back in – don’t worry, I wasn’t ignoring your recommendation! :)

      How wonderful that you got to visit the house site, and visualise what it was like. I would so love to visit, but I don’t think I’m going to get the chance this year. One day!

      What an incredible, but sad story. Those women went through so much and had a strength I only hope I would have faced with the same situation. They are a true inspiration!

      Thank you! I hope you do manage to read this as I know you’d love it.

  11. What a treat to someone talking about my home state of Kansas:-) I’m fascinated by the life of pioneer women too, and I remember studying about it in Kansas history as a child. I’ve really enjoyed some of Sandra Dallas’s novels about the time too (The Diary of Mattie Spencer comes to mind.) I remember Pioneer Women being on my parents’ bookshelves most of my life, but I’ve never actually read it. I hope I can track down a copy;-)!

    1. You’re from Kansas? How wonderful! I so want to get over there and see the prairies for myself. You should definitely read this – it will make you very proud of your state and your ancestors!

  12. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book. This book is a real service in the history of our country and to the critical role women played. There is another book you might be interested in, Frontier Children by Linda S. Peavy. It also gives a good idea of life on the frontier and how difficult it was. Child death rates were the same for the American frontier then as they are today for very poor African countries today. Thanks for this great review. I hope more people read this book.

    1. Thanks Linda! I really did and it truly opened my eyes to the way these women lived and how they worked so hard and were such pioneers in every sense of the word for the rights and recognition of women. I am so intrigued by the book you recommend – I’ll be sure to look it up – I hope the library has it!

  13. I grew up learning about the settlers who traveled west in their covered wagons, imagining what it would be like to survive in such conditions. We even had an early computer game at school called Oregon Trail, where we’d all be characters trying to get west and some of us would be dying off of cholera or childbirth or drowning in the river! I read christian historical books about it too, especially by Janette Oke, she’s a Canadian and often writes about the pioneers (her most famous series, Loves Comes Softly, has also been made into a movie). All that plus growing up on a farm watching my aunts and grandma grow huge gardens, cook and sew for a large family, plus help with the harvests (my aunts would drive trucks too), definitely gave me a good example of strong women, I’ve never felt I was or had to be weak just because I was a girl. The funny thing is, I learned so much in school about pioneers and early settlers in the Canada, the fur trade, etc that by the time I started learning about European history in high school, I was thrilled to learn something new, whereas with you it’s the other way around! I read British books so often now because Canadian literature and history just doesn’t seem that interesting anymore, but your point about pioneer women having to be much stronger than typical angel-in-the-house Victorian women is something I hadn’t considered before.

    1. That sounds so much fun Carolyn! And I’m glad that showed you how women can be strong – I am so pleased girls are learning these lessons at school through the history of pioneers! I wish I’d learned about them at school. Just Kings and Queens for me!!

  14. Oh I was going to add, at one of my schools when we were learning about the pioneers, we even had a pioneer day where everyone dressed up in old clothes, had a Box Social for lunch (a community get together and mating ritual, the women would all bring a box or basket of food and the men would bid on who got which one. Husbands would bid for their wives’s boxes, but unmarried men would try to bid for the box of the girl they liked — that day in school the guy I had a crush on bought my box, but couldn’t think of a single word to say to him while we ate together! I don’t know how common they were across the prairies though), the teachers lined us up to see if we’d washed properly and gave us cod liver oil, etc. We also had to write diaries for class and pretend to be pioneers ourselves, so it certainly got my historical imagination going.

    I’ve also worked in a museum one summer where we’d host tours and recreate what going to a one room school would be like and I played the teacher once, in an old dress with a bonnet! We’d play old fashioned games too and do demonstrations to show what the farming would be like and all that. There were a bunch of different little houses on the property at the museum, showing what all the shops and the church and homes would be like. I’d forgotten about some of these things, thinking fancy European castles and old grand churches were better than such simple houses and lives, but as you say, they certainly had strength and determination.

    1. Carolyn, that pioneer day sounds incredible! I love living history! It makes it so much more alive!

      OOoh lucky you getting to play a pioneer teacher! I am jealous! I think simple lives are the most interesting really – they are lived quietly but with passion and dignity and it is amazing to learn just what an influence these quiet women had who had the strength and tenacity to push through some of the most adverse conditions imaginable and make a good life regardless.

  15. It wasn’t pioneer days, but my grandmother lived in a dugout in the Utah desert with several children, following the crash of 1929. She lost a little six-year-old daughter to appendicitis because there was no way to find a doctor in time. Some of the most wonderful family stories come from those years. My dad used to tell us these stories while we were eating supper–I loved hearing them.

    I found your blog because I’m doing some research on Seasonal Affective Disorder for a post I’m doing tomorrow on my own blog. I’m a therapist, and someone has asked me to address this issue. Back in the day, it was called cabin fever. I’m looking for information on how the long, lonely winters affected these incredible women. I didn’t find the information I need here, but I sure enjoyed reading your post. Brought to mind lots of good books–Caddie Woodlawn, the Little House books, Zane Grey, and countless others that colored my childhood and teen years. Thanks for the memories :)

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I loved your story about life in Utah – I wish I had family to tell me such stories! You’re lucky indeed to have such a family history!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s