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!