Women on the American Frontier

All through the 19th century, women played a very limited and specific role in society. Their main jobs revolved around the house and the raising of children, while the man's job was breadwinning. These Victorian principles were common in all classes of society and spread across the United States as it was being explored and settled through the Great Plains to California along the Oregon Trail. Slowly, as the journey westward continued, women's lives began to change and their duties became more difficult and frustrating. The overland migration and their new lives on the homestead afforded women more responsibility and raised their status in their family.

The life of the pioneer along with its many problems reinforced and challenged the woman's role. Thousands of people began migrating overland in the early 1840s and traveled under very difficult conditions. The terrain they traveled on was very rough and they had to endure extreme weather conditions. The long, hot, humid summers and the ice-cold winters were not easy to bear. Often they succumbed to diseases such as yellow fever and cholera. These pioneers just kept on continuing westward to fulfill their dream of settling the country from coast to coast.

Frontier women were actually ideally suited for the trip on the Oregon Trail, as they were no strangers to difficult situations. They were well trained in household chores which included spinning thread and making clothes on top of cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. Since the westward journey required a lot of preparation, these women began planning well in advance of the travel date. They sewed covers for the wagons, quilts and warm clothing. They even organized quilting parties where all the women of the town helped with the sewing.

When it came time to leave, the women helped with the loading of the wagons. They loaded cooking and eating utensils, along with their clothing, onto the covered wagons. Food was also a very important thing that the women had to take care of for the long trip. A typical load of foodstuffs may have consisted of 150 lbs of bacon, 200 lbs of flour, 20 lbs of sugar, 10 lbs of coffee, salt, beans, rice, dried fruits and pickles. At times when the trail was in a rough condition, things had to be abandoned on the way.

The travelers on the Oregon Trail knew that a very rough time lay ahead. The journey began in Missouri along the Missouri River until the Platte River. They traveled along the rough and muddy river all through Nebraska. When they reached Wyoming, they stopped for a rest. Since by then it was summer, they enjoyed warm days and cool nights. The first major portion of the journey was over when they reached a place called South Pass. They traveled a bit further until they reached Fort Hall. At Fort Hall, those who wanted to reach California headed south and those who wanted to get to Oregon headed north.

All through the journey, women continued doing the same work that they did while at home: gathering food to eat and fuel for the fire, cooking all the meals, washing the clothes and caring for the children. These chores were done in every type of weather: rain, snow, dust and hail. Cooking was the most difficult task for the women to perform. They had to contend with snow in the winter and rain in the spring and fall. Finding and gathering firewood was another very difficult job and sometimes the children would help their mother with that chore. At times food was scarce and if things got really bad the travelers would wind up eating field mice and dogs.

Another very difficult and dreaded chore was washing the clothing. Things got very dirty in the mud and dust and since women wore long dresses it was even more difficult to keep clean. Frontier women were all religious and they tried to keep the Sabbath and refrain from doing any work on that day.

Although men and women had distinct and separate jobs, at times it was necessary for the women to do the men's work. The journey along the Oregon Trail taught them that the job must get done and it made no difference who did it.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Women of the West
Dorothy Gray.
University of Nebraska Press, 1998
Uncommon Common Women: Ordinary Lives of the West
Anne M. Butler; Ona Siporin.
Utah State University Press, 1996
So Much to Be Done: Women Settlers on the Mining and Ranching Frontier
Ruth B. Moynihan; Susan Armitage; Christiane Fischer Dichamp.
University of Nebraska Press, 1990
A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950
Sally Zanjani.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849
Kenneth L. Holmes; Kenneth L. Holmes.
University of Nebraska Press, vol.1, 1995
The Adventures of the Woman Homesteader: The Life and Letters of Elinore Pruitt Stewart
Susanne K. George; Elinore Pruitt Stewart.
University of Nebraska Press, 1992
A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier
Joan E. Cashin.
Oxford University Press, 1991
Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West
Virginia Scharff.
University of California Press, 2003
American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review
Roger L. Nichols.
Greenwood Press, 1986
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Frontier Women"
Settler Women and Frontier Women: The Unsettling Past of Western Women's History
Hurtado, Albert L.
Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, September 2001
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