I can hear the moans now – is she not bored of reading about pioneer women yet? Answer – no! I am still learning so much and absolutely loving it! The latest book about pioneer women I read is an exploration of women’s diaries and what they tell us about those who travelled the westward trails across America to Oregon and California in the 1840s and 1850s. Unlike the previous book I read, Pioneer Women, this doesn’t detail life as a pioneer, but merely the journey embarked upon in order to start the pioneer life and the difficulties and hardships these women and their families endured as they spent up to 8 months on the road travelling to the promised fertile lands, open spaces and sparkling coastline of the Pacific Ocean states.
Lillian Schlissel analysed the diaries to find patterns and common experiences among the nearly 100 women’s diaries she had access to, and two facts particularly struck me; the first, that the vast majority of women had no desire whatsoever to leave their homes and families and go West, but their husbands made the decision to go, and they had no choice but to follow; and the second, that one in five women on the Westward trail was either pregnant or gave birth at some point on the journey. So, not only did most women not want to go to California or Oregon at all, but a large minority of them were also having to ride in a constantly jolting wagon, walk for miles, endure the baking hot and freezing cold weather, often mind other small children (it wasn’t unusual for women to travel with families of up to 10 children), help with gathering twigs and food and buffalo chips, wade through swamps, ride across raging rivers in canoes, scramble up mountainsides, and sleep in the open air, all while heavily pregnant. I don’t think I’ll be complaining about having to walk six avenues to get to my subway stop again, that’s for sure.
So many stories were told throughout these diaries, and I was fascinated by how dangerous and difficult the trip across the majority of the United States really was. Some women noted how many roadside graves of fellow travellers they passed during a given day – sometimes it would be as many as 50. Cholera was a particular danger on the Westward trail, killing rapidly and sparing hardly any of its sufferers. On the road, with no medicine, no doctors, and little access to clean water or protection from the elements, death was ever present. Childbirth was another common killer; there was no time to give women a break from the incessant onward march after they had given birth, and infections and exhaustion carried many women off, often along with their newborns. Most would-be pioneers travelled in large groups of wagons, supporting each other and providing safety as they trundled through Indian country, swam their cattle across rivers, and lowered wagons down mountainsides. However, a seemingly healthy and happy band of wagons could be decimated within hours; by drowning as they attempted to cross rivers, by cholera, by other illnesses, by accidents – this especially affected children, who could easily fall out of wagons and get run over, or fall into the path of stampeding buffalo, or, most frighteningly, by sudden Indian attacks. It was rare for a group who had started their journey together to arrive at their destination intact, and many groups separated along the way if people fell behind due to illness or accident. Many women were widowed or lost children during the journey, but there was no time or opportunity to grieve or grow despondent; speed was of primary importance, and the wagon train must press on to their destination, before the winter set in or before they were made vulnerable to marauding Indians.
I was just in awe of the stories I read. Women used to keeping nice houses and being in a close knit community of friends and family suddenly found themselves packing and unpacking wagons, driving cattle, rowing across rivers, climbing up mountains, roaming prairies looking for food and fuel, cooking over an open fire, nursing dying friends and relatives, sleeping in the open air and bargaining with Indians on a daily basis for months on end. Considering that most of the women doing this had no desire to be on the journey whatsoever, and had only the prospect of an empty field when they got to their journey’s end, their bravery and tenacity was absolutely incredible. In order to get through the trials of the road and to replace the communities they had left behind them, women forged close bonds with other women in their wagon trains, and they provided much needed support and friendship for one another. They shared the cooking and childcare amongst themselves, gossiped, exchanged recipes and tips for keeping children occupied, helped to nurse each other’s sick, supported each other in grief, and also provided the much more basic function of ensuring privacy and decency when they needed to relieve themselves or give birth in the open. One woman wrote how sad she was when their wagon had to go on without that of her friend’s, and she was so miserable that in the end her husband agreed to join another company of wagons with women in it, so that his wife could have someone to talk to. A woman alone on the trail with a band of men was a lonely one indeed.
I could go on for ages about how wonderful this book is – the insights and stories and photographs are just incredible. Reading about these pioneer women has made me think of whether we really do understand women’s roles during the 19th century as accurately as we think. While these women did obviously have to submit to the will of their husbands, the respect and support given to them by their husbands while they were on the trail, and the equally necessary practical and labour intensive roles they took both on the journey and when they were settled in their smallholdings, has made me question the common trope of the repressed, housebound woman in the 19th century. These women were middle to lower class, often educated, married, with children – and yet they were entreprenurial, practically skilled, and had plenty of opportunities to work and support their families, which they largely seem to have enjoyed.
As a comparison, though this is slightly later, many people have been discussing Persephone’s Round About A Pound A Week at the moment, and the women in these London slums at the turn of the century were certainly not stuck at home doing needlepoint either, but were very much an economical necessity for their families, working to boost the family income as well as keeping house and caring for children, day in day out. While perhaps the work they undertook was not by choice, neither was that of their husbands – they did what they had to do to support their families, and their husbands treated them, by and large, with respect and equality, as did the communities they lived within. So where were these repressed, housebound women so favoured by feminist scholars as symbols of male subordination in the 19th century? Certainly not on the American Frontier, nor in the London slums. It seems that only the wealthy were in this position, and as only the wealthy had the luxury to write novels, we have perhaps had our points of view of women during this period skewed. The intelligence, capability and mutually supportive marriages I have read about in the lives of pioneer women has made me doubt a lot of what I had previously assumed about women’s lives, historically. Considering the tiny proportion of the wealthy, and the largely disproportionate amount of information we have about their lives compared to that of the working classes, it’s something that bears thinking about. Another PhD topic added to my raidly growing list to pursue…one magical day when I have both money and time to go back to university!