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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Old West: What About the Women? Part One

It was such a new world, reaching to the far horizon without break of tree or chimney stack; just sky and grass and grass and sky. . .

--- Lydia Murphy Toothaker

Dan’l had got the Western fever ad I was willing to go any place where I thought we might better our fortunes.”

--- Maria Foster Brown

These words of frontier women echo from a distance of over one hundred fifty years. For much of that time, women of the West were largely forgotten, pushed aside by the highly publicized exploits of men of the frontier. The men came West for varied reasons, but the women came for just as many. Some followed their husbands in the quest for free land and more opportunity. Some came to find husbands. Some were just as interested in adventure as their male counterparts and had zero interest in finding husbands. Some were rebels and sought freedom from the restrictions placed on women in the East. Some came for religious ideals, the Mormon women who pushed handcarts to their “promised land” in Utah, and nuns who came to establish schools and minister to the Indians. Some sought noble goals of founding communities, while some became entangled with desperadoes and rode on the wrong side of the law.

Gradually, their stories have come to light, through letters and diaries found in attics, while are some are told as autobiographies. Here I sit, in my comfortable home with central heat and air-conditioning, so many chores completed by a touch of a button. I have no fears of rampant diseases, Indian raids, or attacks by wild animals. Yet I read the words of those long-ago women and find much value in a knowledge of their difficult lives and the wisdom they gained along the way.

Just getting to the West was huge.

It was a considerable undertaking, in those days, to move one’s family from Ohio to Iowa . . . We were twenty days on the journey . . . And then I never thought about its being hard. I was used to things being hard. --- Maria Foster Brown

For every family who stopped to homestead in Iowa, Kansas, or Nebraska, many more traveled even farther to California or Oregon. Those treks could take upwards of 120 days.

In 1864, Pamelia Fergus received a letter from her goldminer husband, telling her to pack and join him at his place in Montana Territory. With three children, she’d already been on her own for four years and took no joy in moving again. But move she did. Her husband’s instructions were: pack one wagon to overflowing, drive several hundred miles to meet the husband’s partner, who would furnish two more wagons, twelve more oxen to pull them, and a cow. In Iowa, she was to buy provisions: 600 pounds of flour, 50 of beans, 100 of rice, 50 of cheese, 50 of butter, 400 of sugar, 2 barrels of crackers, 20 gallons of syrup, plus black tea, coffee, salt, bacon, ham, dried beef, codfish, dried fruits and vegetables.

Other necessities to bring would be a camp stove, kettles, frying pans, a washtub, soap, and sewing supplies. She had to pack their feather mattresses as tightly as possible. Then, each night she would be required to pitch a tent, place “Indian Rubber Spreads” inside the tent and position the feather mattresses on top. Pamelia’s husband also wanted her to bring 2 reams of paper, 6 memorandum books, 5 dollars worth of stamped envelopes, 2 pens, 2 bottles of ink, and 24 pencils.

(This isn’t even close to the husband’s entire list of things to be brought to Montana. I left much off in the interest of space and time.)

And he advised Pamelia, “Don’t fret yourself about anything. Do your best and let the rest go.”

I think I would have replied to him, "Easy for you to say.”

During the trek, she and her children braved severe thunderstorms on the prairie, a serious lack of water, Indian encounters, managed three wagons and all those oxen. Did they arrive in Montana safely? You bet, they did. Pamelia and others like her were hardy souls!

If you’re so inclined, I highly recommend these books. I own copies of each for story research.

Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier, Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith

Texas Tears and Texas Sunshine, Voices of Frontier Women, Edited by Jo Ella Powell Exley

Grandmother Brown’s Hundred Years, 1827-1927, Harriet Connor Brown

(My grandmother had this book as part of her very small collection. Its original publication was in 1929. I first read it when I was maybe 14. It was a great story then and still is.)

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