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Frontier Women: Hardships & Triumps
A Look at the women behind the settlements

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

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During the 19th century, women had a very specific and limited role in society. Their domain consisted of the home and children, and they rarely strayed from this role. Historians have created names for this 19th century family construct, such as the Cult of Domesticity and Separate Spheres Ideology. The women's sphere was the home and the men's sphere was the bread-winning job. These Victorian ideals were the norm for upper and middle class families, and were carried west along the trails to the Great Plains, Oregon Territory, and California in a modified way. Women continued to run the household and care for the children on the homestead, but they also took part in work that was traditionally reserved for men. In examining women's roles in everyday life before the journey west, along the trails, and on the homestead, we can see the how their lives changed and how they remained the same. We can also see how difficult and frustrating their duties were at times. The overland trail and homestead life gave women more responsibility and raised their status in the family dynamic, but it also solidified women's role as housekeeper. Pioneer life and its inherent difficulties both challenged and reinforced the gender roles of the time.

Beginning in the 1840s, thousands of people migrated overland to Oregon to take up homesteads. Most of the people who migrated to Oregon during this time were from the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri). These families endured a long journey through extreme weather and terrain to take up homesteads in a place they had only read about in pamphlets or heard about from friends. There were a number of reasons these Midwesterners left for Oregon; the Panic of 1837 and the following depression was a major motivator. The depression hurt many farmers and left them wary of the economy. Working in conjunction with the bad economy was the Midwestern climate. Freezing cold winters and humid summers were difficult to bear. This exhausting climate was also conducive to diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. Many wanted to live in a healthier place. Others thought that the Midwest was getting too crowded. Oregon provided cheap or free land and a mild climate. There was no drought of Americans who wanted to fulfill the country's destiny to exist from coast to coast.

Midwestern women were no strangers to hard work. In most ways they were the ideal women to take along the Oregon Trail. They were used to doing most things by hand, such as spinning thread and making clothes. They did the cleaning, cooking, and child rearing. They were always busy, sometime spinning thread well into the evening. "I remember a neighbor lady who picked up her knitting and knitted a few rounds at her own husband's funeral, she was so used to keeping busy."(1) They were as skillfully prepared as anyone. Their duties for the migration started months before they left. The migration required extensive preparation. One of the first things that needed to be obtained was the wagon cover. Women sewed this, as well as all of the clothes for the journey, by hand. "The first thing is to lay plans and then work up to the program so the first thing is to make a piece of linen for a wagon cover and some sacks; will spin most evenings while my husband reads to me."(2) Women who were planning to leave gathered with their friends during the months before and sewed quilts together. It was a very important social event for the women. They formed close bonds with their neighbors during the quilting parties and other social events. When it came time for a family or a group of families to leave, the farewells were often grandiose and sad. "Some friends spent the night with us and others arrived at daylight. All places of business and the schools were closed during the forenoon, and everybody came to say good-bye to us. From early morning till ten o'clock they came. The house and yard were all crowded with people. Friends and schoolmates were crying all around us." (3)

Families who were departing along the Oregon Trail gathered at small towns on the Missouri River, called "jumping off points." Independence, St. Joseph, and Council Bluffs were among these towns. At this point their wagon trains would have been almost completely outfitted. The wagon, which was made of seasoned wood to withstand extreme temperatures, was hauled by four to six oxen. Tools and spare parts were stored under the wagon. Utensils including forks and knives, plates, cups, a kettle, fry pan, and a coffee pot were packed inside. Their food consisted of about 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt.(4) Chipped beef, rice, dry beans, dry fruits, pickles, and other foods were also packed. In total, the outfitting usually cost between $500 and $1000 ($10,000-$20,000 today).(5) Sometimes it was difficult to know what to bring, and some items had to be abandoned along the way. "Two wagons were filled with merchandise which we hoped to sell at fabulous prices when we should arrive in 'the land of gold' [California]. The theory of this was good but the practice - well, we never got the goods over the first mountain." (6) Wagon trains arrived at a jumping off point in March and left in April when the snow melted enough. Hopefully they would make it to Oregon before winter.

Those traveling to Oregon had a very tough time ahead of them. Starting the 2,400 mile journey in Missouri, the wagons would continue along the Missouri River to the Platte River. They followed this wide and muddy river through Nebraska and halfway through Wyoming. They stopped in Fort Laramie in Wyoming to rest and buy provisions. It was summer by then. The days were very hot and the nights cold. From there they began the slow ascent up an 8,000 foot summit called the South Pass. The first major leg of the journey was over. Once over the South Pass, they traveled to Fort Hall. At Fort Hall, the migrants split; those going to California headed south, and those going to Oregon headed north. The trail still held many hardships for those heading to Oregon. They traveled along the Snake River to Fort Boise. Then they had to cross the Blue Mountains, which required them to haul the wagons up ridges with ropes and pulleys. A woman described the Blue Mountains as "the highest hills that ever I saw a person pass over. Very steep and rocky." (7) They traveled on until they reached the Columbia River, which they had to either ferry the wagon across or leave it and take canoes. Then they traveled the remaining one hundred miles to the Willamette Valley.

During the journey, women did most of the things they did back home; cooking every meal, taking care of the children, gathering food and fuel for the fire. Women had to do these things in dust, rain, hail, in tents or in the open air. They washed clothes when they could, kept an eye on the children, and other tasks as they came along. Cooking was the most frequent task women had to do on the journey, and it was not easy. During the spring they had to deal with frequent rain. Their goods often got wet and sometimes they didn't have time to pitch a tent to cook under. "It was raining this morning when we awoke. Had to get breakfast in the rain, having no tent."(8) Most women took their difficulties in stride, even if they weren't prepared. "In the morning our first domestic annoyance occurred. The woman cook refused point blank to go any further…Here was a dilemma!...Having been reared in a slave state my culinary education had been neglected and I had yet to make my first cup of coffee."(9) Traveling across the Great Plains along the Platte, the conditions were very dusty. The alkali dust burned their eyes, covered everything, and made the water undrinkable. "I have just washed the dust out of my eyes so that I can see to get supper." (10) This was a typical journal entry made by women attempting to combat the dust. In addition to the cooking, women also wandered along the wagon during the day gathering what they could to make the fire to cook on. Sometimes they found wood, but they relied mostly on buffalo chips. Often children would accompany their mothers on this chore. In some locations wild food was available. Women collected berries and wild vegetables and men hunted when they could. The women would jerk buffalo meat to save it for when food was scarce. Fish and freshwater clams were eaten when they neared rivers. If things got too bad, travelers resorted to eating their oxen, field mice, and dogs.(11)

Washing was another large and dreaded chore expected of women along the journey. It was impossible to keep everything clean in the dust, especially when the women's dresses were long, but they took whatever chance they could to clean up. The migrants attempted to rest on the Sabbath, but this would mostly be dictated by weather and location. When they did rest, it gave the women a chance to do the wash, which was very labor-intensive. "When the camp ground was desirable enough to warrant it we did not travel on the Sabbath. Although men were generally busy mending wagons, harnesses, yokes, shoeing the animals, etc., and the women washed clothes, boiled a big mess of beans, to be warmed over for several meals, or perhaps mended clothes or did other household straightening up, all felt somewhat rested on Monday morning."(12) This description demonstrates the separation of men's and women's work on the journey, but sometimes the distinction wasn't so clear. It wasn not unusual for women to do some of the men's work when necessary. "Albert is not well today, so I drive. I was very sleepy while driving, went to sleep a multitude of times, to awaken with a start fancying we were running into gullies."(13) The overland journey made it clear that things had to get done, no matter who did it.

  1. Susan G. Butruille, Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail ,The Tines That Tried Women's Souls and A Guide to Women's History Along the Oregon Trail, (Boise: Tamarack Books, Inc., 1993), 29.

  2. (From the Diary of Kit Belknap) Susan G. Butruille, Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail ,The Tines That Tried Women's Souls and A Guide to Women's History Along the Oregon Trail, (Boise: Tamarack Books, Inc., 1993), 55.

  3. (From the Diary of Martha Gay Masterson) Susan G. Butruille, Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail, The Tines That Tried Women's Souls and A Guide to Women's History Along the Oregon Trail, (Boise: Tamarack Books, Inc., 1993), 63.

  4. Lillian Schlissel, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, (New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1982), 23.

  5. Butruille, 56.

  6. Martha Gay Masterson, 63.

  7. (From the Diary of Lydia Allen Rudd) Susan G. Butruille, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, (New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1982), 194.

  8. (From the Diary of Jane Gould Torillott) Susan G. Butruille, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, (New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1982), 221.

  9. (From the Diary of Catherine Haun) Susan G. Butruille, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, (New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1982), 169.

10. (From the Diary of Amelia Stewart Knight) Susan G. Butruille, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, (New York: Schocken Books, Inc., 1982), 207.

11. Butruille, 74.

12. Haun, 173.

13. Tortillott, 222.
By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
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