Old West: What About the Women? Part Two
My father built a two-room house on the farm. Just a few weeks after my mother got here with the four children, my brother, Louie, drowned in the mill dam stream.
--- Mathilda Doebbler Gruen Wagner
On their journeys west, women dealt with a myriad of difficulties. I assume most clung to hopes that circumstances would be far better once the destination was reached. Too often, those women’s hopes were pounded into dust. Things were just as rough as on the trail and generally worse. Settlers were beset with a phenomenal amount of work and tragedies aplenty. Yet, they persevered.
Here is the story of Matilda Wagner, who lived most of her life on the Texas frontier. In her elderly years, she set down her memoirs.
For starters, her father fled Germany during one of many revolutions, leaving his family behind. He came to Texas and worked, eventually obtaining a homestead near Fredericksburg. Only then did he send for his wife and existing four children.
My sister Laura was born in Fredericksburg in 1855 and I was born in the same house on August 29, 1856.
Another girl, Amelia, was born a year or so later and their mother died, although not from the birth.
She suffered a great deal with an infection of her nose and what would now be called sinus. I do not remember her much. . .
When she died, we were adopted by other people. The truth is the people merely took us to do all the work we could. There were no papers drawn. . .
My father must have married again soon after my mother died. After his marriage, he gathered all of his children together again. . . My step-mother was very mean. . . I had to work hard, even though I was so little. . .
People who have never gone through it can’t realize how these people who started the little Texas towns and made them grow had to starve and do.
At age eight or so, Matilda was sent by stagecoach to work for a family named Longraper in San Antonio.
I cried all the way. . . but I didn’t know where I was going. I helped with the housework and did errands for everybody.
Each summer, the family who “owned” Matilda sent her to their relatives in New Braunfels to pick cotton.
I had to bring every nickel I made home to Mrs. Longraper. . .We got twenty-five cents for one hundred pounds of cotton.
When this poor girl was fourteen, her father sent for her to return home. There, she met Frederick Gruen, who was thirteen years her senior, and they married in 1872. By then, Matilda was all of fifteen.
Frederick stuttered a little, and he wasn’t very pretty; it wasn’t love with me at first, but I will tell you the honest truth. I thought I’d have a home.
To earn a living, Frederick hauled freight from the coast, but finally had enough money saved to purchase 320 acres for a homestead.
This was a little of my day. When you first get up in the morning, before daybreak, you start your fire in the wood stove or the chimney and put your coffee on. Then you go after the calves. . . you milk the cows. . . Leaving them for a while, you fix breakfast, which is a big meal. After breakfast, you skim the milk and make the butter, feed the dogs, cats and the hogs, the clabber and turn the calves into their pasture and the cows into theirs. When the butter is made and the dishes washed, the house spic and span, you go to help in the fields. The woman leaves the little baby at the edge of the field with a quilt put above it so the sun won’t harm it. . . When the sun is in the middle of the sky it is time for dinner. The woman leaves for the house and prepares the food. After eating, the men might lay down for a little while to rest, but there is no rest for the woman. In the afternoon there may be more work in the fields, or baking, candle-making, soap-making, sewing, mending. . . and then the calves must again be rounded up and brought home as the shadows fall, the cows milked, the chickens fed, always something, early and late.
What a load of work, and to think this went on, every day of every year. It’s no wonder photos of frontier women show them to be old and worn out, long before their time.
A few, short years into this marriage, Frederick accidentally killed himself when his gun went off after a Fourth of July celebration, more trouble for Matilda. She gave up on the farm, took herself and children to San Antonio, where she opened a boardinghouse. Some years later, she married John Wagner and added his two sons to raise, along with her own children.
Matilda’s memoirs, written in the 1930’s, end with these words:
Unto all my children I want to say that I love each and every one the same. Each one’s happiness has been my happiness. Each one’s sorrow and burden I have felt, ever the same. Not one is dearer than the others, and I say with all my heart, stay close together always and love each other, for after all, in looking back over a long, long lifetime, I know that is the greatest thing in life.
For me, the stories of women who braved the Old West are large sources of inspiration and wisdom gained through adversity. I believe, from them, we can learn much.
Matilda’s story was edited by her granddaughter Winifred Cade and published as I Think Back. What I’ve written here is a much abbreviated excerpt from Texas Tears and Texas Sunshine, Voices of Frontier Women, edited by Jo Ella Powell Exley.