Pioneer women: examples of fortitude on the West’s early trails
Casper – This month the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper features the life of pioneer women on the trail as an exhibit titled “The Fortitude of Women on the Trails.”
Trails Center employee Stacey Moore did the main research on a typical day on the trail for pioneer women and the hardships they faced. “We kept the display’s focus on a typical day in the life of a pioneer woman on the trail,” she says.
Crystal Wraggley, who participates in reenactments along with her mother, provided the display’s hand-stitched period clothing, which was hand-stitched by them, and helped research the display. Student Amanda Jones also helped with the project.
A local graphic artist put together a women’s clothing page, which shows all the layers that women wore every day.
“One of the most surprising things to me in my research was the women’s adherence to the dress code as a form of femininity,” says Moore. “The women wanted to wear their dresses to show they were still women.”
Even before migration began women did all the men’s chores when fathers and husbands were away. After the journey began Moore says they picked up the pace even more and did so in long skirts, two or three petticoats and bonnets.
“At home they cooked for their family, but on the wagon trains sometimes there was only one woman traveling with 20 men, and she’d have to cook for them, too, over an open fire three times a day, all the while taking care of her children, searching for buffalo chips and helping with the wagon,” says Moore.
She says women on the trail were very lucky if they had the “good husband” who would help out, milking the cow and taking care of them and the children when they fell sick. “But that was seen as an oddity,” she notes. “The other women were supposed to take care of you when you were sick.”
“If the women were traveling by themselves they encouraged their husbands to join up with other groups that had women, because they needed other women for basic tasks – even things like going off to the bush, where’d they’d use their skirts to hide each other in the absence of trees,” says Moore.
She mentions many journal entries were written by women who were really down, but then they were so happy when another woman would join the group, to both split the chores and to talk to. “It wasn’t appropriate for a married woman to speak to other men who weren’t her husband, so they were very happy to have other women around,” she notes.
“They did laundry whenever they could, and it was quite the task,” says Moore. “Whenever they could find time at the end of the day around the water they’d do it, or many of the wagon trains would spend Sunday as a rest day, especially at the beginning of the journey, so that was also laundry day because they could do the laundry and hang it up to dry.”
On hot days some women would wash their clothes and put them back on to cool off until they dried out.
Young girls began wearing long skirts with petticoats around the age of eight. “The big change for girls was between having their buttons on the back of their dress where somebody had to help dress them to the front, where they dressed themselves,” says Moore.
On the trail young girls began to marry as early as 13 years old. “It was very odd to be 19 or 20 and not married,” says Moore. “As they moved west there were a lot more men than women, so the girls were wooed on the trail.”
Single men were anywhere from 20 years old on up. “It was common, in those days, if there was a 50-year-old man with four or five kids whose wife had died. He would marry as he could and continue on with the family until they had 13 or 14 kids,” she explains.
“The women who came west on the trail were young, mostly in their 20s,” says Moore. “Many of the travelers, especially those going to Oregon or California, were young couples starting out.”
“I’m amazed some of the things the women went through and survived,” says Moore, noting that, although the journals were private, the women still didn’t speak of things that were taboo in society at the time, such as childbirth. “They’d be on the trail and talking about having an upset stomach or being queasy, and one thinks they’ve got dysentery, but three months down the line they have a child.”
She says they didn’t mention anything until the child was born, and often the entry was as simple as, “Bore a baby daughter today,” or it was mentioned in someone else’s journal.
“They didn’t talk about being nine months pregnant and on the trail and walking,” she says. “They didn’t talk about walking across the country five months pregnant with three other kids under the age of five.”
“I was also surprised by the amount of preparation before leaving on the journey that was left to the woman,” she says. “They couldn’t just go buy a wagon cover. In the 1840s the women had to spin the linen to make the wagon cover, and this preparation took years in advance of leaving.” They even had to start from scratch on the sacks used to store flour, in addition to making extra clothing for their family.
As busy as the women were, they still made time for diaries, and evidence points out that others sometimes took over chores to allow them time to write. “In some quotes you see they gave up other things to write in their diaries, like dances or listening to music,” says Moore.
In addition to chronicling the journey, some of the women were botanists and were very interested in the new things they’d find, sketching them in their diaries.
“The women of this era were amazing in what they endured and the emotional and physical strength they showed while enduring it,” says Moore.
The display at the Trails Center runs through the end of March.
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.